Wingmen for life

  • Published
  • By General T. Michael Moseley
  • Chief of Staff of the Air Force
One of my top three priorities is developing our Airmen and taking care of them and their families. It's a notion that's deeply rooted in our Air Force culture and heritage. "Taking care of Airmen" means more than just providing them with the training, equipment and quality of life they deserve. It also calls for providing leadership they can trust unconditionally. The wingman concept - the bond we all share as Airmen - is at the core of this conviction. It reflects the ultimate confidence in our fellow Airmen: we trust each other, quite literally, with our lives. It may have begun at the tactical level, with pilots checking each others' six for mutual support, but it has come to transcend flying. Now it extends from taking care of our wingmen during every day routine ops - both on and off duty - to saving lives in combat and beyond.

One of the most vivid examples of wingmen's commitment to each other began on March 10, 1967. That day a strike force of F-105s from the 388th Tactical Fighter Wing and 355th TFW and F-4s from the 8th TFW "Wolfpack" attacked an iron and steel production complex north of Hanoi at Thai Nguyen, an area considered one of the most heavily defended in the history of air warfare. Thai Nguyen was North Vietnam's only steel mill dedicated to war materiel, and intelligence sources indicated it was protected by six surface-to-air missile sites and more than 1,000 antiaircraft artillery pieces. Seventy-five miles prior to their bomb run, AAA barrage fire hit the F-4, flown by Capt. Earl Arnan and 1st Lt. Robert Houghton, and fuel poured out of their jet. Determined to strike this operationally important target, they continued their attack and were hit again. AAA fire also hit the F-4 flown by Capt. Bob Pardo and 1st Lt. Steve Wayne. Their F-4 also began leaking fuel, and engine warning lights flashed in the cockpit.

On egress, both crews quickly realized Arnan and Houghton's F-4 would not make it safely to the Laotian border and the two would have to bailout over hostile territory. Pardo and Wayne had enough fuel to limp away from the targets they'd just struck, but doing so would have forced them to abandon their 433rd Tactical Fighter Squadron "Satan's Angels" wingmen, possibly to be killed or captured by the enemy. Realizing the only way to save their wingmen was to somehow push the crippled F-4 out of harm's way, Pardo and Wayne first tried to nudge it with their jet's nose. This dangerous maneuver failed. With time running out, Pardo told Arnan to drop his tail-hook, and then maneuvered to push his own windscreen against Arnan's tailhook.
The desperate measure worked for about 30 seconds at a time before turbulence caused Pardo to lose contact. Time and again he backed off, maneuvered back into position, and tried again. Even after one of his own engines caught fire and had to be shut down, Pardo repeated this "push" until all four Airmen could eject safely over Laos. They were subsequently rescued by Airmen in HH-3 Jolly Green Giant helicopters escorted by A-IE Sandys, who also risked their lives to bring back fellow Airmen.

The story doesn't end there; the bond between Pardo and Arnan outlasted the war. Pardo continued to care for his friend and wingman, Arnan, through years of disability brought on by Lou Gehrig's disease. Pardo exemplified the commitment embodied in the phrase, "I will never leave an Airman behind," well before we captured it in our new Airman's Creed. The enduring bond between these two Airmen - and among all Airmen - reinforces the notion that, though all of us will eventually hang up our uniforms for good, we'll continue to serve our Nation, Air Force, and wingmen in myriad ways.

The wingman bonds we share today are a direct link to our proud heritage and yet another way we're standing on the shoulders of the giants who preceded us. While we fly, fight, and win, we're also obliged to treasure and foster our wingman concept, to take care of each other every day, and to never forget, "Once an Airman, always an Airman."