FARGO-Saturday night, in a bar on the north side, the wingmen gathered around, their girls on their arms and their buddies nearby.

As modern-day bar parlance would have it, a wingman is the loyal friend who hits the town with you, ready to fend off brawls, awkward cocktail chatter and other hazards of the modern-day dating scene.

But only in this bar, on the Air National Guard base, were the wingmen hoisting glasses of 40-year-old cognac. The real deal.

Jim Reimers admits he would have preferred to be a pilot, but in the three years he served as wingman, or "backseater," in the North Dakota Air National Guard's 119th Wing, there weren't any pilot slots available.

"I was disappointed," at first, said Reimers, but he soon found camaraderie in the position, as well as prestige.

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It was once a critical position for the unit, known as the Happy Hooligans, because the position required someone who could watch the pilot's back, keeping an eye out for enemy fire as well as navigating the fighter jets.

Retired Chaplain William Ziegler logged about 13 hours as a wingman. "In the backseat is actually a harder ride than the front," he said. "You're thrown around a bit more."


On this night, the assembled backseaters first turned over 15 glasses, inscribed with names of the backseaters of the 119th who have died.

Then, after a toast, they put their glasses away, with the understanding that the last 5 backseaters left alive will drink a final toast to their fallen comrades.

As of now, only one backseater, Col. Kent Olson, the base commander, is the only one still working.

The idea for the pact, or "tontine," came from retired Lt. Col. Mark Ugelstad, who served as a backseater for the 119th from 1981 to 1990.

Ugelstad said it's a way to honor the brothers-in-arms of the unit, as well as to memorialize the men who've gone before.

It's a fellowship that goes beyond partnership and generations, throughout the unit, said Reimers.

"Everybody was trained the same," he said. "Everybody had different strengths and weaknesses."

Ziegler agreed.

"Backseaters-weapons system officers-are a dying breed," he said.