Dealing With Passengers


Forget the x-ray machines, ticket counter lines, and crowded airport restaurants. There are no middle seats, no lightweights heaving into airsickness bags, and no odiferous restrooms to offend the nostrils. As a single-seat pilot you don’t worry about the drunk passenger in first class or the upset businessman threatening to sue the airline because the flight is on a delay due to weather. No – dealing with passengers is as foreign to fighter pilots as decency is to Miley Cyrus.

While the average fighter pilot need not worry about the airline passenger, there is an individual with whom the fighter pilot must deal on a daily basis.  Dealing with wingmen can often equate to dealing with passengers on both levels of reward and frustration.  Merriam Webster provides one definition of passenger as “a person in a group who does not do as much work as others”. This definition can apply to wingmen; by nature they don’t do as much work as the flight lead. Much like a passenger on the airliner, a good wingman can be a great help or a hindrance.

The Awesome Wingman/Passenger

We’ve all been on the airliner that meets some unforeseen circumstance – be it a weather hold, maintenance delay, or something else. When everyone cooperates, things go more smoothly and the problem is typically solved in the most efficient manner given the situation. A good passenger in that instance can be a great help to the mission. The best wingmen are those who work in harmony with the flight lead to accomplish a common goal. That doesn’t sound too difficult, does it?

A good wingman is flexible and can adapt easily. Each flight lead has a different style of leadership and a different briefing technique. A good wingman easily adapts to the various personalities, techniques, and expectations of the different flight leads he or she flies with. The really good wingman not only adapts, but also quickly learns the intent behind the flight lead’s actions and is able to anticipate what direction they will provide. Anticipating (without assuming) helps the wingman make decisions and take action within their sphere of influence to contribute to the overall success of the flight.

The best wingmen are able to balance following and actively supporting their flight lead. Blindly following a flight lead can result in poor decisions on the part of the flight lead and can compromise mission success. On the flip side, too much support can degrade the situational awareness of the flight lead.

Here is an example of a radio call a good wingman might make:

Raptor 1 (flight lead): “Raptor 2, Banzai single heavy group, bullseye 269/29, stack 30,000,  10,000, eight contacts.”  (translation: Hey wingman, go on a suicide mission to merge with that group of Flankers)

Raptor 2 (wingman): “Raptor 2 is unable, weapons red.” (translation: I’m going to tell you I don’t have the weapons so you don’t send me to my death, but I’m still going to let you lead the fight by providing a key piece of information to complete your SA picture so you can make an informed decision!)

You can read more on what it means to be a good wingman in our article The Wingman.

B-2 and T-38 Wingman

The Limfac Wingman/Passenger

“Limfac” is fighter pilot speak for limiting factor – something that degrades or detracts from efficient mission accomplishment. Passengers can be limfacs when they don’t follow the directions of the flight crew. An example of a limfac passenger is the lady throwing a temper tantrum because the flight attendant asked her to let them put her giant, over-stuffed suitcase that won’t fit in the overhead compartment down below with the rest of the luggage.

Most wingmen will be a limfac on some level – it’s just human nature. The key is to limit your level of distraction and focus on becoming the most lethal airborne assassin you can be. Unfortunately there are wingmen who are incapable of doing this.  The limfac wingman degrades the flight lead’s overall awareness, disrupts the in-flight chain of command, and makes poor decisions outside his or her sphere of influence.

A bad wingman doesn’t know how to follow. We recently posted an article on The Fighter Pilot Personality.  Fighter pilots, by nature, believe strongly in their own abilities and have a healthy distrust in the capabilities of others. The limfac wingman is unable to temper this aspect of his or her personality, often resulting in a power struggle with the flight lead.  When the flight lead must spend time justifying his decisions to the wingman, other aspects of the mission don’t get the necessary attention they require and the overall effectiveness of the flight is decreased.

The limfac wingman’s confidence exceeds his or her competence. This is more of a problem with younger, inexperienced wingmen.  We often see this crop up shortly after a new fighter pilot completes MQT (mission qualification training).  They get a few hours under their belt; maybe even fly in an LFE, and next thing you know they believe they are the world’s greatest fighter pilot.  The limfac wingman is constantly piping up on the radio requiring the flight lead to respond when he should be making other assessments and decisions for his flight.

Perhaps the most difficult wingman to lead is the one who doesn’t know anything. The fighter pilot must be a constant student. Reading the Tactics Techniques and Procedures manual isn’t good enough. Constant study is required to truly become a master of your craft. The wingman that scrapes by in MQT with a lot of direction from the flight lead won’t cut it in the real world. It is incumbent upon every wingman to have a solid baseline knowledge of tactics and a mastery of aircraft systems. Without this working knowledge, even the best flight lead won’t be able to keep their wingman from getting killed – by the enemy or by their own stupid actions.

Whether you’re toting passengers or have a wingman in trail, the fact remains that you have a responsibility.  We may not always like those for whom we are responsible, but the onus is on us to make sure they return to the ground safely. They will never really appreciate the patience, foresight, and thought that go into dealing with them. Most of the time it may seem that the best we can do is break even. Every so often you get that outstanding wingman or gracious passenger who helps you perform your job better and makes you go home at the end of the day with a smile and a love for your job.




This post is part of the Blogging in Formation Series #blogformation, a monthly four-day collaboration between eight aviation bloggers all discussing the same topic from their unique perspectives. Check out the other writers here:

Day 1 (Mar 1): Mark L. Berry @ and Brent Owens @

Day 2 (Mar 2): Rob Burgon @ and Andrew Hartely @

Day 3 (Mar 3): Karlene Petitt @ and Chip Shanle @

Day 4 (Mar 4): Eric Auxier @ and Ron Rapp @