Earn Your Wings: The Art of the Wingman

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A friend of mine was at a bar the other night when a woman caught his fancy. He made his way over and as he introduced himself, she introduced her dear friend, Sue, who was visiting from Alaska, a state that, according to Sue, isn’t nearly as cold as most people think.

An hour later my friend knew a whole lot about Sue and very little about the woman who had caught his attention. My friend was in dire need of a wingman.

The term wingman (used for both males and females) was introduced to most of us in the fighter jock movie Top Gun, when Tom Cruise and Val Kilmer faced off in a battle of eighties coolness. I checked in with retired Air Force pilot William Norris, call sign Tank, to ask what a wingman technically does.

“When more than one plane is flying, someone has to be the lead and someone has to be the wingman. The flight lead is generally the shooter and the wingman’s job is to make sure no one sneaks up on you. You need a lookout because at those speeds, when you’re approaching someone, you’ll cover twenty miles in one minute.”

In the Air Force, a wingman has your back because things happen fast. The same is true in the world of dating. After careful research, I’ve identified four main responsibilities for any wingman.

1. Introduce your friend.
It can be tricky to introduce yourself to someone, but a good wingman will cut through the awkwardness of the first approach and put both parties at ease. For the nervous man or woman making the approach, it’s almost essential to have someone break the ice for him or her. And for the approached party, adding that extra social layer smoothes the whole process and says, “I’m not here to hit on you. I’m here to make an introduction.”

2. Occupy the friend.
Ah, yes, the Sue issue. If I had been with my friend, I would’ve listened with rapt attention as Sue described all the different types of snow that fall in Alaska. I would’ve asked her about Sarah Palin. Anything to keep her occupied and away from my friend and the woman he liked.

It is yeoman’s work. It is not pleasant. But as Tank said, when flying in twos, someone has to take the lead and someone has to watch your back.

3. Save your friend.
There are times when you’re approached, when some person with ridiculous self-assurance takes a liking to you, and will not let go. This is a time for a non-verbal signal to your wingman to save you.


Tank explained that when a lead pilot wants his wingman to come closer, he wiggles his wings. In much the same way, a glance of the eyes, a hand to the head, a desperate scream for help, can all serve as signals for the wingman to spring into action.

Your wingman can come over and explain you have to go or put a cell phone in your hands and say, “You’d better take this.” As long as the reaction is cool and calm, the ridiculously self-assured soul will be forced by propriety to let you go.

(As an aside it should be stated here that all three of these roles could be summed up as “paving the way.” A good wingman paves the way for you to meet someone, get some time to chat with the object of your desire, or gracefully leave.)

4. Bug-Out
You’re laughing. He’s laughing. Arms are being touched. Hair is moved behind the ear. It doesn’t happen all that often, but sometimes you hit it off with someone you’ve just met. At times like these, you’ll be served well by a wingman schooled in the art of the bug-out.

A good wingman recognizes when his services are no longer required. He knows it is not important to say goodbye. A simple point of the thumb or a, “I’m going to the bar/bathroom/not coming back here,” will suffice. No one will protest.

Of course, a superb wingman will check back in from across the way just to be sure things haven’t gone south. Things are happening fast and sometimes a successful bug-out becomes a “save your friend” mission.

In the end, we’re social animals and socializing and mating rituals are easier for us in pairs. The wingman is a time-honored role that greases the social wheels and helps people get together. Think of the wingman as a big shot of vodka … that can talk.



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