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Wingmen: critical to mission success and a resilient Air Force

  • Published
  • By Col. Justin Niederer
  • 821st Contingency Response Group

TRAVIS AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. – There are two definitions for the term “wingman” offered by The first is “a pilot whose aircraft is positioned behind and outside the leading aircraft in a formation.” The second is “a (person) who helps or supports another (person); a friend”.


Although the first definition lacks a great amount of detail outlining a wingman’s actual responsibilities, the role of the wingman is critical to operational success in combat and resiliency in our force.


In flying, the lead pilot or crew is the most highly experienced and qualified in the formation. The lead directs the actions of the rest of the formation and is responsible for formation position, timing and survival. Being the lead comes with a lot of responsibility, but so does being an effective wingman.


A wingman has to be where the lead expects them to be in order to prevent unsafe formation maneuvering, cover the lead’s blind spots to prevent them from being surprised by an enemy aircraft or surface-to-air threat, and stay with the lead when the situation gets bad. If a formation is engaged by an enemy, the lead calls out over the radio “lead’s going defensive” and begins maneuvering the aircraft to safely recover from the engagement. The wingman acknowledges with a very brief, yet important “two’s supporting”.


In those situations, maintaining formation integrity offers the best chance of survival for the crews and, ultimately, mission success. This is the contract briefed between crews in planning and practiced during training so that it becomes second nature. 


When I started my career in the U.S. Air Force as a C-130 Hercules navigator, that was what being a good wingman meant to me.


It’s been a long time since I’ve been part of an aircrew, but over the course of my career, I’ve found the role of wingman, as stated in the second definition, is just as important. I’d ask you all to think about the parallels between what defines an effective wingman as part of a formation, whether in an airplane or on the ground tackling this mission we call “life.”


Every day offers uncertainty and there is endless potential for engagement with an enemy. How prepared are you to survive those engagements and ensure success for your mission? Who are your wingmen?  Do you have a contract with them or an understanding of what they are capable of and willing to do for you? Can they see your blind spots and do they know what triggers are in your life which may pull you into a threat ring? Ultimately, can you trust them to tell you when you are flying off course, making poor decisions or entering a situation that you may not recover from?


After 23 years of service and more than 23 years of tackling “life,” I can guarantee you that having dependable wingmen by your side only becomes more important and they must be part of your formation before you engage the enemy.