Where have all the wingmen gone?
By Col. Gerald Wirsig, 30th Space Wing Chief of Safety
/ Published October 03, 2006
VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. -- How does the following headline sound? Airman saves friend's life - warns of rock climbing dangers. Or try this one: Engineer saves astronauts' lives - ensures adherence of foam to shuttle external tank. Unfortunately, these aren't headlines we'll see anytime soon - they're not sensational enough - but I think we should. These are examples of everyday people like you and me fulfilling one of the most critical needs in the Air Force today - the wingman.
What is a wingman? According to the on-line resource Wikipedia, a wingman is a pilot who flies "beside and slightly behind the lead plane in an aircraft formation. This formation serves to...enhance mutual survival in a hostile environment."
Why do we need wingmen? Wing Safety representatives and your commanding officers cannot dictate and guarantee safe operations from on high - if it were possible it would have been done and we would have experienced zero fatalities and mishaps for the year. No, the Air Force needs safety representatives at the personal level - every man and woman on the Vandenberg team needs a wingman.
Every time a friend acts as a designated driver or warns a co-worker about driving too fast in the fog, he or she is functioning as a wingman. A good wingman corrects a buddy who is running along a roadway with headphones or running at night without reflective gear. But unfortunately, we too often neglect our wingman duties because of fear of rejection, not appearing "cool" or just plain laziness or selfishness.
When we fail to confront unsafe behavior, we may save ourselves a trip outside our comfort zone, but be sure that when vigilance is relaxed, accidents will happen. These mishaps will occur at all levels, from first-term Airmen to senior officers. Where was the wingman who should have reminded an Air Force colonel to use his seat belt before he was tragically ejected from his vehicle and died in July? Where was the wingman when a staff sergeant drowned while snorkeling in Hawaii this August?
But sad as these cases are, there is something even worse. Some who should be acting as wingmen actually compound a dangerous situation by goading a friend into unsafe behavior for a momentary thrill which could end in tragedy.
The crucial need of the moment is wingmen of all levels at Vandenberg who genuinely care about others and the mission more than their own ease and comfort. This is where we make our core value of service before self into a reality.
Where and who are these wingmen? If you have read this far, you realize that every one of us is a wingman, including you, the reader. So what will you do today, right now, to promote safe operations and recreation to enhance mutual survival in a hostile environment for yourself and your co-workers, friends, and family? Your actions may not make it into tomorrow's headline, but they could prevent another tragic story of a mishap or fatality.