How to be a Great Wingman: A fighter pilot's perspective

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Robert Vicars
  • 25th Flying Training Squadron commander
I recently had the privilege of hosting a couple of squadron tours for some of Vance's youngest enlisted Airmen from the 71st Medical Group because of the outstanding initiative of Tech. Sgts. Dave and Jennifer Dibello. 

While briefing these young Airmen, I correlated what it means to be a fighter wingman with the larger Air Force concept of being a good wingman. My desire was to add relevance to the general wingman concept by putting in the context of how to be a good fighter wingman.

A fighter wingman is a mission enabler. As an F-16 wingman, my tasks, in priority order, were to stay in visual contact with my flight lead, fly in the directed formation position, shoot down what he or she told me to shoot down, and put my bombs on target.

If I failed at any of these tasks, the success of the mission was at risk, which could put lives at risk, including my own. I had no decision-making authority beyond how I would execute those tasks. But, by staying visual, flying perfect formation, shooting what needed shot, and "shacking" my target, I enabled my flight lead to make the larger tactical decisions that equaled mission success. To be a great fighter wingman is to be a mission enabler.

Here are some of the key principles that make great wingman.

First, fighter wingmen must know their job, it's what the Air Force hired them to do. This is always a daunting task. There are thousands and thousands of pages of publications, AFIs, intelligence, tactics, weapons configurations, etc. that you must know in order to be a competent fighter wingman. If you don't know your capabilities and vulnerabilities, you cannot execute your task to the best of your potential. Nor can you appropriately manage risk.

Second, being a great fighter wingman involves doing all of the "blue-collar" work with pride. In the fighter community, wingmen do all of the menial and mindless work from the sorting out mission planning details to responding with a hearty "Two!" to acknowledge compliance with a flight lead directive that you may or may not agree with.

However, great wingmen take pride in their humble roll and execute it with an energy that builds their flight lead's confidence and demonstrates an eager willingness to do whatever it takes to enable mission success. I like to call it "Wingman Pride." I am proud of the roll I play in mission success, even if it is not as glamorous as that of my flight lead.

Finally, great wingmen know how to learn from their own mistakes, as well as from the mistakes of others. When I failed at any of the four primary tasks, I had to be humble enough to admit my mistake, allow my performance to be evaluated objectively (i.e. don't take it personally), understand why the mistake was made, then learn and share the lesson.

Also, don't be so vain as to think you are immune from making the same mistakes others have made -- learn their lessons. Viewing our performance objectively and learning from the mistakes of others is a very difficult thing to do, because our pride often gets in the way. But great wingmen know how to check their pride and learn from their mistakes.

These are the principles by which fighter wingmen become great mission enablers, and they have obvious applications to all functions across the Air Force.

While important, being a great Wingman is more than just volunteering to be a designated driver, or being a good friend to someone in need. It is to enable mission success by knowing your job, executing it with pride, and learning from your mistakes.