What does it mean to be a good wingman?

Fighter jets rarely fly by themselves. Most of the time, if not all of the time, they fly in a section (2 aircraft) or sometimes a division (4 aircraft). This is for multiple reasons but mainly because a single fighter jet is not very effective alone. A wingman can offer additional firepower and top cover on many different missions.

Safety is another reason. Example: When flying over large bodies of water for extended periods of time, fighter jets routinely fly in section. Having a minimum two ship allows for a margin of safety when operating in remote locations. In case one of the aircraft has an emergency, the wingman can help out.

So this begs the question, what does it mean to be a good wingman?

1. Be a good follower

A wingman is there to back up the lead aircraft, not lead the section. This means a wingman cannot try and take over the flight, no matter how much he or she wants to. Wingmen are there to do as much as they can to help the lead aircraft with the mission. Notice the word “help” was used, not take over.

2. Keep your comm (radio communication) chatter to a minimum

“Join up and shut up” is how the saying goes. No one wants to hear a Chatty Cathy on the radio either. Most of the time, the wingman should respond to the lead aircraft’s communication (aka “comm”) on the radio with the tactical callsign or just “Two!”. If you feel the need to say more than that, check #5 below to see if you should say more.

Wingman Debrief, Photo courtesy acc.mil
334th Fighter Squadron instructor pilot debriefs students after a training mission, photo: www.acc.af.mil

Every fighter pilot knows poor communication is probably one of the biggest contributors to a poor hop. Comm is always debriefed after a flight and poor comm is always recognized in the tape debrief. Make sure you don’t add to it!

3. Don’t cause more problems

We had a wingman one time that would not stay in position the entire flight. The lead pilot was constantly reminding the wingman and always looking for him. The lead even had to shackle the flight in order to get the section pointed in the right direction. The unnecessary tactical administrative problems took away from the executing the actual mission. The wingman became a burden and affected the overall performance of the section due to his lack of professionalism.

4. Execute the mission

Exactly as it sounds. Brief the flight, fly the brief. Don’t make things up on your own. If you didn’t talk about it in the brief then it is probably not a good idea to try it out now.

Most importantly, make sure you are a team player and helping the section along. Examples of this include: staying within visual sight of the lead, shooting and/or bombing the appropriate target (sounds obvious, right?), and providing top cover for lead.

A successful wingman allows the lead aircraft to think about the larger tactical picture. This ultimately leads to success in the mission because the lead is not focused on the small things.

5. Be a safety observer

This one is probably the most important for obvious reasons. Safety is paramount and a good wingman can do some real good keeping the lead out of trouble. A safety advisor is there not only for emergencies, but for tactical purposes as well, particularly in the visual arena.

If the wingman sees a bandit first, he or she must use directive over descriptive comm to maneuver the flight advantageously towards the threat.

Viper 2: “Break right, bandit six o’clock!”

Russian Su-24 Shot Down: What Are The Facts?
TuAF F-16C block 50 turning with a sistership. [LMTAS photo by Katsuhiko Tokunaga]
Notice the wingman said “what” to do first prior to describing where the threat was. It’s better to get the flight moving first, then paint the picture.

While being a wingman may not be the most glorious of roles, the position is a critical role for success in the overall mission. Take pride in your ability to do the “blue collar work” well. You’ll see a great outcome and you’ll learn a lot.