The wingman concept: Strive to "get it"

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. James Wilkerson
  • 80th Fighter Squadron commander
Here is the scenario: you're in the gym and notice two individuals tossing weights around without note of who is around them or care to the damage they may be causing. Finally, someone has had enough and ventures over to speak with them. Not wanting to eavesdrop (but we all like to, right?), you overhear one ask our virtual do-good-er, "What is your problem? Did you buy the weights? If not, step off and let us get on with it."

OK, we've all witnessed this scenario in various forms or examples. We've also all heard derivatives, either first or second-hand, and then offered our own well-intentioned guidance. I'm sure you have; I have too. However, this discussion has nothing to do with stepping in and doing "the right thing." While doing the right thing is certainly important, I'm just not sure we all really "get it," because the scenario I just presented should never have happened. If we really did "get it," the wingman concept alone should prevent circumstances like this from ever happening. In fact, this particular situation did occur -- very recently.

Let me provide some illustration to help meander about my point: one night in Southern Iraq, and just before the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom, my wingman and I were targeted by a surface-to-air missile battery while escorting various assets on a sensitive mission. After we began our defensive maneuvers, it became immediately clear that one missile was tracking on my aircraft. I still recall each moment as if I was still there, and recall my wingman in full afterburner heading straight at the launch site. As I called him off, I began a last-ditch maneuver in order to generate some miss-distance for the missile.

Luckily, it worked and I instantly turned away and began to formulate an attack game plan in my mind. Before I could do that, I distinctly heard my wingman calling out for an immediate personnel recovery and that he believed I was hit. While he clearly did not know I was safe, it was evident to me and everyone else that he "got it." His actions made it crystal clear; he understood the real mantra behind the rationale for the wingman culture. Further, I'm certain he didn't have to be a pilot, or my actual wingman, to "get it" -- or the crux of the wingman philosophy.

A wingman is a leader, a follower, a mentor, and a student -- all wrapped into one. A true wingman would not allow his fellow wingman to make the wrong choice or infer the wrong intent. A true wingman helps his buddy out of a tight spot, and stands by his teammates with unflappable resolve. Most wingmen are bound by the same ideals, namely, dedication to a cause with spirit and mettle. So, if we were to reflect on the first example, clearly, the wingman culture was not in place, nor was it enforced by the team around the hooligan-ish duo. In case you're wondering, I'm using the word "team" as a collective team, and the last time I checked, we're all on the same team.

Our great team has certainly endured our own fair share of testing moments, and through these we've learned several valuable lessons at an often unbearable cost. However, throughout these tests of time, the wingman culture has been alive and well. It's the reason we're as good as we are today -- and as great as we can be tomorrow. So, count on your wingman and always strive to be a good one.