Connecting with Your Wingmen

Jan 24, 2019

By Lt. Col. Rob “Waldo” Waldman

It's rare for a commander to meet you at your jet after a training mission. So when I saw Lieutenant Colonel Dodson approaching my F-16 with a stern look on his face, I knew something was up.

"Waldo, we need to talk," he said as I climbed down the ladder from the cockpit.

"Yes, sir," I replied, and waited, a little uneasy. Had I messed up? Was I in trouble? Was something wrong at home? I gulped.

"Waldo, Airman Tyler told me about your conversation before you took off this afternoon." His tone was serious, and I realized what he was referring to.

Just a few hours earlier during my after-engine-start checklist, I had reprimanded my crew chief Airman Tyler because my jet was shorted five hundred pounds of fuel. Not a huge amount, but enough to cut my rare and treasured air-to-air training mission short by at least ten minutes. Although atypical, sometimes the wing tanks won't fill up completely, and there is nothing the crew chief responsible for fueling the jet can do about it. I was frustrated and needlessly insulted the young crew chief. My sharp remarks stung.

"Waldo, do you realize how hard our crew chiefs work just so we have mission-ready jets to fly? Do you know how many hours they spend on the flight line?"

I was speechless. I had acted unprofessionally, and there was no excuse. The colonel continued, "Waldo, I'm taking you off the flying schedule tomorrow. Dig out your oldest flight suit and report to the maintenance hangar at six a.m. You're going spend the day on the flight line with the troops."

The next day was one of the longest in my Air Force career. I was up at the crack of dawn and spent the day fueling jets, inspecting engines, and moving fifty-five-gallon drums full of used oil. By the day’s end, I was exhausted. My hands were caked with grease and I smelled as if I'd been dipped in jet fuel.

However, the experience was still immensely rewarding. It gave me the rare opportunity to walk in the shoes of some of the wingmen who were vital to the mission of the 79th Fighter Squadron.  I got to know the crew chiefs as people instead of soldiers.  I listened to their complaints, empathized with their frustrations, and grew to appreciate the things they did to make the mission happen. Like me, they had to deploy to remote locations such as Saudi Arabia, sleep in tents and eat lousy food. They conducted the detailed inspections and exhausting labor behind the scenes to make sure the F-16s were safe to fly. Without them, the mission wouldn't happen. And despite what I thought I knew about their job, the experience painted a clear picture of what really went into giving me a jet that was "MR"—mission-ready.

I also learned that the crew chiefs looked up to and respected the fighter pilots of the 79th. But unfortunately, I lost that respect from Airman Tyler because of how I treated him. One thing was certain: he no longer trusted me.  I went from being a wingman to a wing nut! The bottom line was that I truly didn't appreciate the sacrifices the maintenance troops made for the mission. I didn't treat them as wingmen. And I was wrong.

That day on the flight line changed my perspective forever.

Who's on Your Flight Line?
When is the last time you took a few minutes out of your daily routine to "walk the flight line" and treat your employees and co-workers like wingmen? Are you taking advantage of opportunities to get to know your team on a more significant level?  Do you appreciate the sacrifices they make in accomplishing the mission?

Are you spending some time with your IT staff to understand the hoops they have to jump through to make sure your website, computers, and software are up to speed? Do you walk the factory floor and talk to the quality assurance inspector about her challenges? Have you ever spent a few hours with your channel partners and joined them on a few sales calls?

Walking the flight line takes time and effort. But the results are worth it.

Commanding Respect
A few years back, I went on a memorable tour of the Federal Judicial offices in Atlanta, GA and was escorted by the chief clerk of court, James Hatten. He introduced me to the 15-20 members of his staff and called them by their first name. He knew how long they had been with the organization and the names of their children. When he approached them, they smiled genuinely. Jim obviously knew how to walk the flight line.

He later told me that he felt his job was to serve his staff, and not the other way around. If he was not committed to serving them, how could he expect them to put in the long hours and go the extra mile for him?

True leaders command respect. They don’t demand it.  James Hatten clearly had the respect of his staff because he showed them respect.  Unfortunately, Airman Tyler lost respect for me because I didn't show him that I valued or appreciated him. I failed to check Airman Tyler's six. As previously discussed, checking six is about cross checking each other’s blind spots, providing mission critical perspective, and appreciating each other. Guess what happens when people don't feel that their six is being checked? They check out. They become complacent and detach themselves from the mission. I couldn't afford to have Airman Tyler or any of my crew chiefs check out. After all, they had my life and the success of the mission in their hands.

Are your wingmen passionate about supporting the mission or are they checking out and risking the life of your business? If you don't check your wingmen's six, they too may check out. They may get complacent and fail to double check their paper work or put in a few more hours to meet a critical deadline. Conversely, if your wingmen feel served and respected by you, they will put up with extra work, cost-cutting, and all the challenging aspects of today’s typical workplace.

Walking the flight line is a core tenet of wingmanship and one of the most essential practices you can adopt to build trust as a leader. When you take the time to appreciate the members on your team and recognize their contribution, you’ll transform relationships into partnerships. Not only will you be able to work together more effectively to handle challenges as they arise, but you'll also create more fulfilling interpersonal relationships and add greater meaning to your mission as a leader at work.

© 2010.  Excerpted with permission of the publisher from Never Fly Solo: Lead with Courage, Build Trusting Partnerships and Reach New Heights in Business, by Waldo Waldman, published by McGraw-Hill Professional.

About the Author(s)

Lt. Col. Rob "Waldo" Waldman is a former combat decorated fighter pilot.  He is the author of the best-seller Never Fly Solo: Lead with Courage, Build Trusting Partnerships, and Reach New Heights in Business (McGraw-Hill Professional, 2010). For more information, visit