The role of the Wingman

  • Published
  • By Col. Kenneth Stefanek
  • 39th Air Base Wing Vice Commander
Wingman Day, Nov. 9, gives us all an opportunity to review Wingman roles and responsibilities and consider what went wrong with regard to Wingman mutual support during the recent fatalities throughout USAFE. As we review the facts surrounding these mishaps, one thing should become obvious: the people involved in these incidents consistently surrendered their own judgment and willingly placed their very lives in the hands of their Wingmen. 

While some may think this is rational, the notion that anyone would willingly place their life in his or her Wingman's hands shocks me. In order to fully explain my surprise, I need to explain what the term "Wingman" means in the pilot community. When a pilot graduates from initial training and is finally considered mission ready, he is a wingman - the bottom of the pilot hierarchy. A typical wingman is the most inexperienced member of the flight and the wingman's primary duty is to support other members of the flight. When situations arise that are not anticipated, a good wingman is expected to alert the flight to the situation and await instructions on what to do. In other words, call for help. The reason for this is simple: most wingmen do not have the experience/expertise necessary to make complex decisions or to successfully resolve unforeseen problems. 

Just like wingmen in the pilot world, we don't expect our Wingmen to make complex decisions or successfully resolve unforeseen problems. Rather, we hope Wingmen can recognize when something isn't going according to plan and will alert flight members of this - hopefully changing the behavior of flight members as a result. The goal here is to keep something bad from happening at all. 

If situations deteriorate or when unanticipated challenges arise, we expect our Wingmen to call people with more experience/expertise for help. Of course in order to do this the Wingman has to be there providing the support others expect and that is where having a good Wingman is key, as the Wingman is essentially the first "first responder" on scene. With this background, my surprise that anyone would willingly put their life in his or her Wingman's hands is understandable, as I don't know why anyone would place their life in the hands of someone with little to no experience/expertise. My hope is that you never willingly place your life in your Wingman's hands either.