The Real Meaning of “Wingman”

photo_wingmanWingman. For the Air Force, this has become a loaded word.  For decades, it was a term associated with the long understood criticality of mutual support in combat operations. It stood for the proposition that assertive teamwork was the key to mission success. In recent years, it’s been hijacked by sloganeers who’ve used it as a rhetorical device to saturate bomb airmen concerning their duty to take care of, safeguard, and surveil one another.  It’s become a cheap theme around which to construct “down days.” The service has developed a divided opinion concerning this once revered concept, and the term itself has become divisive.  As a squadron commander, I avoided it like the plague, because a mere utterance invited eye-rolling and “oh good grief” shifting in seats that made it clear to me I was one mediocre joke away from losing my audience.

wingman day

Upon hearing the word “wingman,” some will straighten their spines with pride. Others will furrow their brows with disdain. It is both a powerful concept and an increasingly trite notion. When I ask airmen what the word  means to them, the answers are mostly negative, with emphasis on the idea that “wingman” and “motherhood” have become too synonymous in the Air Force lexicon. Somewhere along the way, in its well-meaning attempt to encourage a climate of mutual support, the Air Force turned too many of its own people against this word and all it stands for. That mistake must be set right, because the service cannot thrive without this element of its culture.

Here’s what “wingman” means to me.

First of all, it’s not as simple as “take care of each other.”  Sometimes being a wingman requires much more than that.  Sometimes, it requires much less.  Three qualities define a good wingman, and each has its own texture.

c130_mainlargeMutual support is the part of being a wingman that gets the greatest emphasis these days as the Air Force struggles to hold itself together in challenging times. The best leaders expect wingmen to be on the lookout for threats to the formation and empower wingmen to intervene and keep the formation safe. If the third C-130 in a three-ship formation sees that the leader is about to fly the team through a thunderstorm, it is incumbent on that wingman to key the radio and transmit “lead, three … change heading now.” This applies across all contexts.  When a group of squadron mates find itself having a good time at a foreign cantina and one is clearly headed for trouble, the effective wingman is the one who demands “change heading now” … regardless of differences in rank or qualification. This isn’t always comfortable, but it is always the right thing to do and an expectation that should be created in everyone. Of course, to intervene and provide support to a teammate, it’s necessary to first sense a problem.

The second quality in a good wingman is situational awareness — not just of one’s own situation, but that faced by teammates. From the day anyone in any walk of life joins a team, no action or inaction — positive or negative — is free of consequence  for  teammates.   This means every team member must know where s/he is in time, space, and circumstance, but also remain aware of the situations confronted by teammates, and how individual actions might impact group dynamics.

B24sIn 1943, as the United States Army Air Force prepared for World War II, a formation of B-24 Liberators took off from a training field in Georgia for routine maneuvers. Sgt. Robert Hammer was relaying radio signals from his aircraft to another when he witnessed one bomber deviate from position and pass too closely to another; the deviating bomber was correcting his own airspeed without regard for his position in the formation, and the results were devastating. The two aircraft collided and were lost, along with 20 airmen — all because one member of the formation acted according to his own situation without appreciating how his actions might bear on a teammate’s situation.

061808-airman-yearThe mishap was preventable if anyone in the formation had sensed the subtle but important changes taking place. For members of today’s Air Force — or any organization engaged in team operations — this means staying involved enough to sense what’s going on with teammates. Awareness is critical because if a formation member is hiding a problem and performance degrades without warning, everyone suffers. Sensing degraded performance is made much simpler, however, when such instances are rare. This brings us to a third important point.

The least discussed but most important aspect of being a wingman is also the simplest: individual reliability. If each individual meets expectations and is always in position, the formation will spend less energy on mutual support and more energy on making the enemy suffer. This is an important message for the 2013 US Air Force, which spent years under General Norton Schwartz and Chief Master Sergeant James Roy expanding its focus on peripheral, administrative, and ancillary issues and now yearns for a long-overdue reversion to focusing on operational mission excellence.

creech_wm The key to recapturing and advancing a legacy of mission excellence is the raising of mission expectations and the exercise of tough individual accountability; wingmen aren’t grown with preaching, they emerge from an environment that considers every role on the team important — important enough that subpar performance can get anyone at any level fired.  When General Bill Creech took command of Tactical Air Command in 1978, he found a unique distraction. Many of his crews at Holloman Air Force Base were performing dive-bombing missions but crediting themselves with dive-toss proficiency. Put simply, they were “pencil-whipping” or falsifying training records. Because of this, he lost confidence in the ability of the wing to execute its combat mission. General Creech conducted an investigation resulting in the firing of multiple commanders and the disqualification of dozens of crews. These activities dominated the command’s focus for months and left it one wing short for a period of time.  But Creech did what was necessary to communicate clear expectations and raise the expected standard of mutual support so that it included holding teammates accountable. No organization can answer its given call — and certainly not the Air Force — without a commitment to individual excellence and responsibility. No organization is built with the assumption of subpar performance. When one airman or squadron falls short, it puts more strain on the rest of the team.

forsyth_mh3Major General Maury Forsyth was one of the best leaders I ever worked for.  He was difficult to talk to sometimes and occasionally had a short fuze, but his credibility, toughness, and relentless pursuit of excellence earned him enough respect to turn those potential flaws into strengths.  Forsyth, when asked what he expected of individual team members, would simply reply “everything” … with a coy yet serious grin and without elaboration.  He raised the bar for every member of his squadron, from E-1 to O-5, never suffered foolishness gladly, and held individuals responsible for failings while asking their teammates to reflect on the anatomy of failure.  His approach was incredibly effective; his team had huge successes, kept itself out of trouble, and excelled in combat.  Forsyth was effective because he understood not only what it meant to be a wingman, but what it didn’t mean. He said something to me once that captured the essence of mutual support: “when you go it alone, you pay the price, and so does your wingman.”  I’ve never forgotten those words, because they explain the potentiality and the limitation of this concept all at once.  In my humble opinion, the Air Force could use a refresher in this area; a wingman culture is not a universal answer to individual or team failings, and shouldn’t be cheapened as a slogan.

Here are a few things that being a wingman isn’t.

Despite considerable Air Force preaching to the contrary — especially among senior enlisted leaders and especially where off-duty conduct is concerned — a wingman culture is not a tool for collective responsibility.  Individuals are responsible for their actions.  Wingmen are encouraged to step in when things are headed down the wrong path, but they are neither law enforcement officers nor morality police, and in most cases they have no authority in off-duty contexts to tell their teammates what they can and cannot do.  Individual responsibility has always been and must always be the dominant logic governing matters of good order and discipline.  Blaming wingman action or inaction, even perceptually, when an individual does something wrong, transfers core accountability away from the wrongdoer and on to someone else.  Other potential wrongdoers view this as indulgence are emboldened.  Wingmen grow resentful of being blamed for failing to prevent wrongdoing by what amounts to judgment calls in gray areas, and tend to avoid off-duty teammate interactions in the future.  This degrades mutual support rather than enhancing it.

A wingman culture is also not an excuse for a low involvement level.  Leaders should certainly embrace the reality that they can’t and shouldn’t be everywhere at all times and therefore must build a spirit and climate of teamwork that operates even when they are not present.  But this is not a free pass to shrug off an earnest attempt to get and stay as involved as possible.  Knowing the stories and psychologies of team members is the key to understanding their motivations, which can be a critical advantage in shaping conduct.  But it’s also important for its own sake; when team members know that a leader cares enough to stay involved, their minds open to the leader’s message, and this increases investment in the mission.  When mission investment levels are high, distraction levels tend to be low.

It’s also important to internalize that a wingman philosophy is not a proxy for substantive resources or help.  For years, the Air Force has embraced a punishing operating tempo that has put tremendous pressure on the key relationships of its airmen, and this has in turn led to higher rates of suicide as well as other disciplinary issues.  Too often, service leaders have responded after an unfortunate spate of incidents by reminding airmen to take care of one another. This feels to airmen like a dodge, and is a necessary but insufficient response; striking at the core of suicide and other service troubles means reducing pressure on the force, and this in turn means reducing life tempo as much as practicable.  Deployment lengths should be reduced where possible, unnecessary deployments should be eliminated, and commanders should be given flexibility in providing relief to airmen who clearly need it.  Assignments should be lengthened, needless square-checking requirements should be actively banned, and the service should send senior officers to the field to look for and eliminate other sources of strain and frustration.  Wingmen are not the answer to twelve years of unprecedented operating tempo, and the service owes its people a more meaningful response.

Finally, and most importantly, a wingman culture is not something for the corporate Air Force to implement directly.  A wingman culture is cultivated and reinforced at the squadron level, where camaraderie, loyalty, and effective teamwork are things upon which life and mission depend.  Notwithstanding the words offered here to explore this subject, a wingman mentality inheres much that can’t be explained.  It’s an unspoken bond between people who understand one another on a level unapproachable from outside their closed group.  The trick for the Air Force is to encourage a wingman culture by encouraging squadrons to engender it; for better or worse, “street-level” airmen despise slogans passed down from corporate headquarters, and the Air Force has too often risked the entire concept of wingmanship in recent years by dabbling in it too directly.

There’s nothing more important to our current and future Air Force than reinforcement of a positive service culture. The term wingman has been overused in recent times, but reflecting on all that it implies is the key to an excellent future. While the Air Force can survive tactical engagements — both on and off duty — by encouraging a culture of intervention, it can only truly thrive by creating a culture that champions all aspects of being a good wingman.  Such a culture tends to obviate the need for direct intervention by smothering mischief upstream.

Being a wingman and encouraging a wingman mentality in a flying unit are as old as airpower. It’s a special cultural feature unique to aviation heritage, and something eminently worthy of careful cultivation.  It can’t be made into a tool used by leaders to browbeat airmen into behaving linearly, and attempts to operationalize it this way dishonor an idea older than the Air Force itself.  For the sake of something larger than itself, the Air Force must rethink its approach to this term and its meaning, and leave it to squadrons to do squadron business.  Observant organizations far and wide will take a lesson — mutual support is not the realm of sloganeers, but the thoughtful business of serious leaders and teams.

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