The Wingman

Raptor 2-Ship

The crushing power of 9Gs was all but imperceptible as my focus was on the bandit and not on the suffocating force pushing me into the ejection seat of the F-22. With both throttles parked in full afterburner and my jet sustaining over 400 knots in the downhill turn, I didn’t have time to be grateful for the ATAGS (g-suit) helping to keep me conscious. I barely noticed the stinging in my arms – a result from the capillaries in the skin bursting from the blood being pushed to them by the force of the turn. No, my attention was across the turn circle on the bandit who had picked up a lucky tally on me and was now breaking defensively.

I wondered if he knew just how lucky he was. He would have been dead long before our merge if I had any missiles left. After nearly a half hour of intense air-to-air combat as part of a Defensive Counter Air mission, I was now down to a couple hundred rounds of PGU-28. Being anchored in a dogfight against an enemy carrying several high off-boresight missiles was not the optimal situation for a Friday morning…or any morning for that matter. With the offset turn circles we were flying, it would only be a matter of time before I flew threw the bandits missile WEZ (weapons employment zone). Where was my wingman?

“The wingman is absolutely indispensable. I look after the wingman. The wingman looks after me. It’s another set of eyes protecting you. That’s the defensive part. Offensively, it gives you a lot more firepower. We work together. We fight together. The wingman knows what his responsibilities are, and knows what mine are. Wars are not won by individuals. They’re won by teams.”
— Lt. Col. Francis S. “Gabby” Gabreski, USAF

“Sniper 1, Sniper 2 is in from the north, five miles, supporting!”

The radio call from my wingman was music to my ears.  I knew he still had missiles on his jet and would be able to affect the outcome of this fight easier than I could on my own.

“Sniper 1 copies, Sniper 1 is engaged, offensive, low man in the stack,” I replied on our flight discrete frequency.

“Sniper 1, PRESS!” With this single radio call, my wingman indicated he had both me and the bandit in sight, and that he knew which was which.

“2, are you able to shoot?”  This fight, although brief in duration, was starting to put me dangerously close to bingo fuel.  If I continued to drive into gun range, I would be snapping direct to homeplate after my gun track and flying a minimum fuel profile home.

“Sniper 1, affirm.  Come off right.  Sniper 2’s engaged your left seven o’clock slightly high, one mile.”

I eased off my left hand turn and found my wingman right where he said he was.  The bandit had not seen him enter the fight.  I told him, “Sniper 2, PRESS!”

Within seconds, Sniper 2 had taken a “Fox 2” and the fight was over.  It ended just the way it was supposed to end, and much more quickly than if I had pushed into a gun WEZ.

Mutual support is a key part of aerial combat and has been since the beginning of combat aviation.  When two pilots enter a fight with a common goal sharing the same approach, the enemy must work exponentially harder to defeat them.  A wingman provides not only an extra set of eyes in the fight, but acts as a critical chess piece to be moved by the flight lead in executing a tactical game plan.  For this reason, a wingman must be on top of his game whenever he flies.  I will tell you a little more about who our beloved wingmen are and how to be a good one if you’re fortune enough to be one.

So who are these wingmen?  They are the younger, less experienced members of the fighter squadron.  Don’t think for a moment that they’re not important – I dare say they are the very foundation of the squadron.  Every fighter pilot starts out as a wingman because being a wingman can be a relatively easy job – the perfect job for a pilot with a fresh pair of wings.  Wingmen don’t have to worry about getting the formation to or from the battlespace.  They don’t have to manage the fuel and weapons for the flight.  They aren’t making tactical decisions in the heat of the moment.  They don’t execute the brief or debrief, and are encouraged to keep their yappers shut in general. They are the pawn the flight lead uses to help meet the mission objectives.  Their job consists of flying their jet, learning as much as possible, and doing what the flight lead tells them to do.

What must you do to be a good wingman?  Well, a good wingman is proactive.  If you don’t have anything to do, you should be in the books studying something.  If you’re all studied out, you should be asking questions of more experienced pilots.  The day before a sortie you should be knocking down the flight lead’s door to help with the mission planning and preparing the various products involved in executing the mission.  If all else fails, you should be making a run to the commissary to pick up sandwiches for the flight while everyone else is preparing for the brief or debrief.  You get the picture.  If you’re not proactive as a wingman, you will highlight yourself in the fighter squadron (always a bad thing) and will likely not be considered to upgrade to flight lead anytime soon.

A good wingman is a good follower.  Let me reiterate: keep your mouth shut!  There is already a leader in the flight – and  it’s not you.  If you have inputs, think about what you’re going to say, say it to yourself, then don’t say it – unless of course someone will die if you don’t speak up. (It’s extremely rare that you’re the only one who sees a dangerous situation developing, but it can happen.  Use good CRM!)  The only three things a flight lead wants to hear you say are: “Two!” (when he checks you in on the radio), “Lead, there’s smoke trailing your aircraft” (don’t tell the flight lead he’s on fire, that remains for him to determine), and “I’ve got the fat chick”.  I’m not making this up – keep your mouth shut and learn something!  You don’t have as much SA (situational awareness) as you think you do.

Taxi traffic

Somedays I wish I had one hundred wingmen…


The wingman is an indispensable player in the air combat arena.  The wingman concept is such a great idea that it’s been put to use in the civilian world.  Just take a look at the business leadership and management seminars out there talking about providing mutual support to your boss.  Several books have been written with many more to follow on how the concept of mutual support is critical.  I, for one, will never question the importance of a good wingman, and will never fly into combat without one!