Top Gun 2: Maverick is a sequel to the 80’s Navy-themed action film Top Gun, based on the real United States Navy TOPGUN school. It stars Tom Cruise and Val Kilmer from the original film, plus Miles Teller, Jennifer Connelly and Jon Hamm.
Sadly, Kelly McGillis, star of the original film as Tom Cruise’s love interest, is not returning, and told a USA Today interviewer that she wasn’t asked. The sequel brings new attention to the Navy TOPGUN school located at Naval Air Station Fallon. The first film brought a great deal of interest to both Navy and Air Force flying operations and the sequel will no doubt do the same.
TOPGUN Versus Top Gun
No, “TOPGUN” is not a mis-print. The Navy loves to abbreviate, hence, “BUPERS” for the Bureau of Personnel and “MIDRATS” for Midnight Rations offered to Navy shift workers, and TOPGUN for the Navy’s elite flying combat training environment.
The Original Top Gun
If you asked any Navy recruiter in the 1980s or 1990s, chances are you would get an earful (off the record and unofficially) about the original movie Top Gun and how it affected recruiting in both Air Force and Navy circles.
The film was directed by Tony Scott and stars Kelly McGillis, Tom Cruise, Anthony Edwards, and Tom Skerritt. The film focused on a group of Navy fighter pilots attending the Navy’s elite TOPGUN program. A popular soundtrack featuring a then-popular Kenny Loggins pushed the film into blockbuster territory.
That was a big win for the Defense Department, but privately Navy recruiters groused that the U.S. Air Force got as much of the benefit as the Navy.
Not All Flying Missions Belong To The Air Force Or The Army
The thinking at the time seemed to be for some, “There are really impressive fighter jets in it, I want to join the Air Force!” and never mind the fact that the aircraft in the film belonged to the Navy!
That mindset may have been true for a certain number of potential recruits with 20/20 vision or better (fighter pilots can’t wear glasses or contacts), but the Navy also got some recruiting visibility thanks to the film.
But what about the REAL Top Gun? Known in military circles as TOPGUN, the formal name of the training program is the Navy Strike Fighter Tactics Instructor Program (SFTI).
Physically located at the Naval Aviation Warfighting Development Center at Naval Air Station Fallon in Nevada, TOPGUN is part of an operation featuring 12 departments. TOPGUN is 12 weeks long and only the top one percent of Navy pilots are permitted to train in the program.
A Brief History of TOPGUN
TOPGUN began in the late 1960s out of necessity. The Department of Defense was not pleased with the inferior performance of Navy F-4 Phantom crews against Soviet-made airframes in Vietnam. Additional training was needed, and Navy officials were all too ready to develop a program.
Initially, groups of four aircrews were brought to Naval Station Miramar in San Diego with one objective learn and enhance aerial combat skills to defeat Soviet jets. The classes lasted only a few weeks and the air crews were expected to share their training once back from the training environment.
Air Combat Training: Badly Needed
How badly was this training needed? Some published reports state that in the earliest days of the Vietnam war, a U.S. fighter pilot could be counted on to make a “kill” with an air-to-air missile (such the tactics seen on-screen in the Tom Cruise movie Top Gun) roughly 10% of the time when such weapons were used.
Part of the blame for that low number rests with the missile technology itself which has since improved by leaps and bounds.
But there were also issues related to how and when the missiles were deployed. A lack of training had some F-4 and F-8 pilots firing missiles without a clear understanding of the actual range of the weaponry. Rules of engagement in Vietnam further complicated things. U.S. pilots were required to visually identify their targets before attacking.
Don’t Blame The Tools
At the time of the Vietnam War, F-4 Phantom IIs were considered to be among the best fighter jets in their class, so the issues haunting the DoD at this time clearly indicated more training was needed.
The Navy began a study of air-to-air missile warfare, and also began reviewing then-current training procedures. The result of these efforts included the document known as Report of the Air-to-Air Missile System Capability Review also known as the Ault Report after Navy Captain Frank Ault, who headed the three-month study conducted in 1968.
Ault and his team reported that specific types of training ranges were needed with the ability to track missile launches, their effective ranges, and the ability to accurately debrief trainee pilots after air combat exercises were finished.
A Game-Changing Recommendation By Frank Ault
Among the most notable recommendations made by Frank Ault and his team? The suggestion that the Navy establish an advanced fighter pilot school and create a cadre of experienced professionals to conduct the training. TOPGUN would become a reality thanks to Ault and company.
Only months after publication of the Ault Report, Naval Air Station Miramar established TOPGUN and graduated the first class the same year. The program known as TOPGUN was commissioned as a squadron, the Navy Fighter Weapons School, in 1972.
Decades later, the program would be relocated. The original home was lost when NAS Miramar was redesignated as a Marine Corps Air Station in 1996. TOPGUN relocated to NAS Fallon in Nevada where it operates to this day.
The Navy operates four TOPGUN classes each year. Known as “Power Projection classes,” this instruction runs for nine weeks and runs a combination of single-seat jets and dual-seat jet aircraft. There are nine fighter jets involved in each class from a combination of Marine Corps and U.S. Navy planes:
- Single-seat F/A-18Cs and Es
- Two-seat F/A-18Ds and Fs
Like in the movie Top Gun, this course is for experienced fighter pilots, not those who are still learning the craft and science of basic flight operations. TOPGUN classes cover every area of fighter jet deployment including air-to-air operations, air-to-ground, and instructor-versus-student air combat drills.
The schoolwork includes 80 hours of lecture and 25 flying missions. There is an emphasis on individual training for tactics, and “threat presentation.” An advanced portion of the training involves large-scale flying training thought of as a close second to actual flying missions. This training can have as many as 50 jets in the air in any one scenario.
TOPGUN Air Intercept Controller Training
One critical aspect of TOPGUN that isn’t mentioned in the original film? The school also trains a special type of air traffic controller that guides fighter pilots in combat.
The Air Intercept Controllers class teaches these vital crews advanced techniques in combat control and communication.
Without controllers on the ground (or in the air in the case of Air Force AWACS missions), military pilots would be forced to do without anything but the information they can pick up while dealing with the finer points of flying and fighting at MACH-1.
When these Air Controllers complete their TOPGUN training, they are expected to return to their units and share what they have learned, much like the pilots themselves.
Today, the United States Navy continues to train Marine Corps and Navy pilots in advanced air combat doctrine and tactics. The need for skilled combat pilots has not diminished even in the era of drones, drone strikes, and the explosion of unmanned aerial vehicles in general.
Until the world switches to driverless aircraft there will always be a need for highly skilled pilots in general, and TOPGUN-trained fighter pilots in particular. TOPGUN continues to operate out of NAS Fallon in Nevada.
Joe Wallace is a 13-year veteran of the United States Air Force and a former reporter for Air Force Television News
|Military Ranks & Insignia Charts||Navy Day|
|Air Force Day||Aviation Incentive Pay & Bonus Programs|
|Midway Movie||Salute to Military Movies|