Thoughts on being a good wingman

  • Published
  • By Col. Leonard Isabelle
  • 127th Operations Group Commander
With all of the current emphasis on supporting our fellow Airmen by being good "wingmen", I felt that it would be both interesting and useful to look at how the role of wingman has evolved historically. In addition, I will discuss what we expect wingmen to do both in peacetime and in combat. Finally, I wanted to give you my thoughts on ways in which we can improve our "Flight Discipline" and help our "Formation" become more successful.

In tactical aviation, the word wingman describes a role performed by a pilot in a formation of aircraft and implies specific duties and responsibilities dedicated to making a formation of two or more aircraft more effective than a single aircraft. The origin of this term dates back to World War One and the intrepid pilots who engaged in combat over the skies of Europe.

Although it may have been invented by another fighter pilot, the refinement of the concept is generally attributed to Oswald Boelcke, who was Germany's leading Ace with 40 victories, until his death in an aircraft accident. Boelcke, who was arguably the most legendary aviation tactician of World War One, was an outstanding teacher who counted among his numerous students the famous Manfred von Richthoven, better known as The Red Baron. In addition to being an outstanding instructor, Boelcke was also one of the first two pilots to test the revolutionary synchronization system designed by Anthony Fokker which allowed the fighter pilot to fire his machine gun through the aircraft propeller without destroying it.

Recognized as one of the most talented pilots in the German Air Force, Boelcke was encouraged to travel to other air bases to pass on his considerable knowledge to other German pilots. In order to more effectively pass on the lessons learned from his experiences in the war to these pilots and help them stay alive in combat, Boelcke composed a list of 14 fundamental tactical principles and techniques known as Boelcke's Dicta. Historians generally consider this analysis to be the first systematic study of air combat, the basic ideas as valid today as when they were first conceived. The two Boelcke principles which apply directly to the wingman concept are:

· "The pilot should become accustomed to flying in a regular position in the formation, so that teamwork will improve and each man will get used to flying with the same companions."   And,

· "Formation is to be kept at all times, leaving the leader to spot the opposition while the others cover his and each others' tail by constant vigilance, unless another pilot spots the opposition first and signals the leader by moving ahead and waggling his wings before turning in the direction of the opposition."

Although these principles may seem to be common sense to us 21st Century Airmen, in the first year of World War One, most fighter pilots were solitary mavericks who preferred to fight alone. Unfortunately because of the lack of mutual support which would later be provided by wingmen, most of these pilots were easily shot down and did not survive the war. Boelcke's de-emphasis on individuality and emphasis on teamwork led to the standard formation fighting unit of leader and wingman, a concept which has been extremely successful and has survived to this day.

Let's fast forward to the present. Formation discipline, or the unbreakable contract that binds a Leader to his or her wingman and allows them to survive in both training and combat, is alive and well. Most successes in tactical aviation can be traced to a strong mastery and practice of this concept. Conversely, many high profile failures such as friendly fire incidents, aircraft mishaps, and missed targets have a dysfunctional relationship between the leader and wingman as a contributing if not a primary cause.

Recently, when mentoring a member of my unit about what he could do to improve his performance he confided to me: "Sir, I may have made some mistakes in the past and I may not have been the best officer, but here is something that you can always count on.... if we are flying together in combat and you are threatened by an enemy either in the air or on the ground, I'll roll in on the target with the 30 millimeter gun and I will not let up on the trigger until the threat is eliminated." The certainty with which he addressed me, his commitment to defend me at all costs, and his expectation and trust that I would do the same for him is the essence of what I believe being a good wingman is all about. No wonder the Air Force has utilized this concept to teach us how to support each other during peacetime against threats which are often more insidious than the ones we face in combat.

By now, you have probably sensed that I completely support the idea of taking this basic tenet of military aviation and making it an integral part of how we operate and interact with our fellow Airmen. My challenge to you is to embrace this concept as zealously and with the same commitment and urgency at home or in the workplace as you would during combat. For example, if you become aware of a coworker or family member who is experiencing a serious personal problem, TAKE ACTION NOW without any hesitation to help them eliminate or reduce the threats to their well-being. Just like an aviator would never dream of delaying the necessary mutual support to an aircraft in need, you should be just as aggressive and decisive when rendering aid to a friend or associate.

Oswald Boelcke invented a better way of doing business back in 1916 when he composed his famous Dicta which put teamwork at the forefront of tactical aviation. Let's not make the mistake the early pilots made of thinking we can confront problems alone. Be a great wingman to others and utilize your wingmen. You are certain to be more effective at defeating the challenges you are faced with!