Never, ever, leave your Wingman!

  • Published
  • By Col. Michael Panarisi
"Top Gun" fans remember this line all too well.

The scene was epic. "Maverick" and "Goose" had just returned from a mission, when reality struck and they realized that in their haste to score a "victory" they left their wingman vulnerable, and in the end they too fell victim to the "Jester."

In the locker room, they get a tongue lashing from their tactics instructor... "That was some of the best flying I've seen yet, right up to the time you got killed. Never, ever leave your wingman."

Luckily for Maverick and Goose, this was just a training mission, and luckily for us, this was just another Hollywood drama scene.

Unfortunately, it's becoming apparent that we have not taken this lesson to heart, and despite our focus on fostering a "Wingman" culture in the Air Force, the statistics are telling us we have much more to do.

In fact, the Chief of Staff is asking us to "Stand Down" and develop ways to counter an alarming trend of non-combat and off-duty deaths this year.

The numbers are staggering!

Since 9/11, the USAF has lost 55 Airmen in combat. All tragic reminders of the price of war.

But even more tragic, we have lost 655 to non-combat events. Everything from wreckless driving to gun accidents. Also tragic, but made even more so by the fact that these are preventable.

2010 has started off as one of the worst ever. In just the first three months, we have lost 18 to off duty accidents, and suffered 17 active duty suicides. This just has to stop!

For aviators, the term "stand down" carries a dark, almost surreal overtone.

These are rare, but almost always follow a fatal accident.

We all know what it means. One of our own has paid the ultimate price, and we'll pick apart every aspect of the event in an effort to make sure it never happens again.

Now we'll all participate in a "stand down" and we need everyone, and yes, I mean EVERYONE, to weigh in on what has to change.

These tragedies are real losses - losses to families, colleagues, our team, and our mission.

I understand that our unique work force mix here can present a challenge.

Maybe you don't think it's "your place" to look across the "line" for a teammate from another employer.

I'm telling you it is. In the military, we often see our service as a sacred duty. But we have an equally important mission ... duty to each other.

For us, that's a bigger family than you'll find in most bases. Our military, DoD civilians, and ATA partners ... we're all in this together.

In our "stand down" I need you to refocus on that.

For aviators, the "wingman" concept has been a part of our indoctrination since our first flight.

It pierces every aspect of our training, our missions, and our off-duty lives. Extending this mantra to the rest of the Air Force has met some resistance. Some see this as invasive.

Others dismiss the effort as "just another slogan." I've even heard it called "corny."

Trust me, there's nothing corny about handing a flag to a widow, a parent, or a child who has just lost a loved one.

At its core, the Wingman concept is about caring enough to take on whatever discomfort we must to prevent a colleague from adding to this year's statistics.

It sure can be awkward wrestling the keys from a friend who has had too much to drink.

You want awkward? Try looking the guy's children in the eyes after you passed on the opportunity to intervene.

We're going to "stand down" as many times as it takes.

I'm asking all of you to give this very serious event your most serious consideration.

As I have said on many occasions, I put your lives at the top of every priority list.

We need to do the same for each other, and I'm confident that at the end of our event, we'll have some ideas on how to turn this around.

I can't think of a better use of our time. Let's make the most of it.

You just don't know how much your efforts will be appreciated by the life you saved.