What Makes for a Good Wingman? Here Are 5 Rules to Follow

 In U.S. Air Force, Air, U.S. Navy

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 (two air­craft) or some­times a divi­sion (four air­craft). This is for mul­ti­ple rea­sons but mainly because a fight­er jet is not very effec­tive on its own. A wing­man can offer addi­tion­al fire­pow­er and top cover on many dif­fer­ent mis­sions.


Safety is anoth­er reason. For exam­ple, when flying over large bodies of water for extend­ed peri­ods of time, fight­er jets rou­tine­ly fly in sec­tion. Having a min­i­mum of two air­craft 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 may want to. Wingmen are there to do as much as they can to help the lead air­craft with the mis­sion. Notice that I used the word “help,” not “take over.”

2. Keep your Comm 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. Most of the time, the wing­man should respond to the lead air­craft’s com­mu­ni­ca­tion on the radio with the tac­ti­cal call­sign or just “Two!” If you feel the need to say more than that, check the fifth rule below to see if you should say more.

Every fight­er pilot knows that poor com­mu­ni­ca­tion is prob­a­bly one of the biggest con­trib­u­tors to a poor hop. Communication 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 for 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 exe­cu­tion of 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 help the sec­tion along. For exam­ple, stay within visual sight of the lead; shoot and/or bomb the appro­pri­ate target (sounds obvi­ous, right?); and pro­vide top cover for the 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.

For exam­ple, con­sid­er the fol­low­ing com­mu­ni­ca­tion:

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

Notice that the wing­man said “what” to do before describ­ing where the threat was. It’s better to get the flight moving first and then paint the pic­ture.

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

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