Commentary - Situational awareness key to being a good wingman

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Eric Denny
  • 57th Wing Safety Office
Along with employing Operational Risk Management strategies, the hot concept in safety channels these days is employing the wingman concept. But what does being a good wingman really mean?

As a fighter pilot, the wingman concept is part of the mission. When out on a training or real-world mission, I rely on my wingman for support and mutual defense. Those two roles are based on the nature of the situation.

If we are in an administrative phase of flight, I expect him to offer suggestive inputs. For example, say I am trying to find the tanker in the air refueling orbit and happen to bite off on the wrong aircraft. If he has situational awareness that the correct aircraft is off our wing instead of off the nose, he might suggest, "Viper One, confirm the tanker we're looking for is right three o'clock."

He communicates that I am messing up, gets us back on task and does so in a manner that isn't disrespectful. His action is appropriate since the situation is not life threatening.

On the other hand, if we are executing a critical portion of the flight, say engaging the enemy in air combat, I expect my wingman to act in a much more directive manner when he has awareness that will save our lives and kill the enemy. For example, he looks over his shoulder and sees an enemy aircraft rolling in. In this case I expect him to take command of the situation and direct actions. "Viper one, break right, flare now, hostile your six o'clock one mile."

When the situation is critical and we may die, I expect my wingman to take positive actions to ensure our survival. As a military member, whether you fly fighters, walk the line, take blood, or fix jets, the wingman concept applies. It is really just an Air Force adaptation of the principle of teamwork.

Very little can be accomplished effectively in the military if we're not working as a team. We are dependent on each other to get the mission done. As wingmen, sometimes we make suggestive inputs, and sometimes we make directive inputs to ensure we accomplish the mission and get home alive.

The wingman concept is directly transferable to off duty situations as well. What's more, we have a responsibility to our friends and family to apply it just as we would on duty.

Let me give you two examples of what I mean. Say you and a friend are going out to ride ATVs at a new trail you just read about in the paper. When you get there, your bud jumps on his ATV and is about to blaze off without any knowledge of the trail or local conditions.

Before he does, you suggest looking at the posted trail map and familiarizing yourselves with the trail and possible hazards. Sure enough, you notice a switchback somewhere and you are both armed with the knowledge you need to slow down at "Mile 4" to prevent plummeting off the edge of a cliff.

Now how about this one? You invite a buddy over to party late on a Saturday night. Nothing too crazy, but he has some drinks early on. Around sunrise your buddy, who has been hanging out with you all night, decides its time to go home. You are pretty sure he is OK, alcohol wise, because he hasn't had any drinks for a few hours, but he has been up all night. As a friend, you offer up the couch and suggest a couple hours sleep before trying to drive ... and he declines.

Crunch time!

Is this an administrative situation or a critical situation? I would argue that this is a critical situation and it is time to be directive rather than suggestive. Don't give in to his refusal to sleep before driving. Take his keys and demand he get a few hours rest before he takes off.

You may be thinking that is way too pushy. Well consider this before you make up your mind: your buddy takes off for his 20 minute drive, falls asleep at the wheel, the car goes out of control, crashes and he's dead.

Don't forget, you invited him to the party, you watched him drink alcohol and you stayed up with him all night. You basically participated in forging all the links in the mishap chain and helped create the critical situation that notionally resulted in your buddy's death. Nothing will change your perspective on what is or is not pushy faster than that.

Fatigue and alcohol are continually re-occurring factors in traffic accident injuries and deaths. Don't drink anything if you are going to drive and don't allow your friends to either. If you see your buddy in a situation that includes alcohol, fatigue and driving, recognize that it is a critical one. Act positively to prevent the dangerous behavior.

After all, a few minutes of arguing to get keys are a lot less stressful than consoling a grieving family at the funeral.