It’s difficult to hear the phrase “TOPGUN” and not immediately have F-14 Tomcats zooming around in your brain against a rocking Kenny Loggins soundtrack. For most of us, the epic 1986 movie, Top Gun, starring Tom Cruise as fighter pilot "Maverick" and Anthony Edwards as his trusty co-pilot "Goose," is the beginning and end of our knowledge of the Navy’s elite specialized fighter training academy, the U.S. Navy Strike Fighter Instructions Program.
CDR David Baranek, USN (Ret.), actually lived the TOPGUN lifestyle as both a student and an instructor–yet not as a Maverick, but as a Goose. An F-14 radar intercept officer (RIO), Baranek whose callsign was Bio, eventually became commander of his own F-14 squadron.
Now the 20-year Navy man adds author to his credentials, with his recent book, TOPGUN Days: Dogfighting, Cheating Death, and Hollywood Glory as One of America’s Best Fighter Jocks.
The book details stints at TOPGUN, his deployments, and the part that he played in the film Top Gun. “I wanted to go back to that time and talk about the things I worried about and not do it from hindsight,” Baranek said.
Illustrations were easy to come by, since "Bio" always carried a camera with him on his flights. As a result, he was able to capture images of some of the Navy’s finest 1980s airpower from an intimate perspective. Check out a gallery of some of his shots here.
“Bio” will be at the National Air and Space Museum this Saturday, April 23, signing copies of his book, from 12 p.m. to 4 p.m.. I spoke to him about his time at TOPGUN, how he might have gotten the finger from Tom Cruise, and if he, as Maverick and Goose did , still feels the need–the need for speed.
You were an F-14 radar intercept officer (RIO), like Goose was in the film. What were your primary flight responsibilities–and were you capable of piloting an F-14, if necessary?
The primary flight responsibilities are spelled out in the F-14 operating manual. Those are navigation, communication and operating the weapons system. When the F-14 was designed, because of parts of its mission and state of automation, they still needed one guy to make the radar be most effective. In addition, the RIO shared responsibility for the safety of the airplane. And if we were in a dogfight, I shared responsibility . He’d keep track of the people he could, and he’d hand people off to me. In terms of piloting the plane, that’s easy. One, the Navy did not train RIOs to fly. And two, the F-14 had no flight controls in the back seat. That was not an option.
Calm, cool and in control, that's the stereotype of the fighter pilot, right? What was the tightest spot you’ve been in?
I thought you were going to say the stereotypical image was obnoxious, arrogant and loud ! The biggest adventure I had was when I ejected from an F-14 landing on an aircraft carrier. But the situation lasted one second, so there was no time to get nervous…
As a former graduate and a former instructor, what kinds of things were done to really push the buttons of pilots selected for TOPGUN?
You get all kinds . Most pilots and RIOs are good. They respect the instructors and know that they have things to learn. Of course they bring confidence, but they’re mature enough not to be offensive. But every once in awhile you get a student and he’s ready to take on his TOPGUN instructors, too . I have to tell you, TOPGUN instructors can handle that stuff! You’re coming into their arena, and although they appreciate a good enthusiastic fighter pilot, you’ve got to know your limits! They can put people in their place. If you don’t get the message the first time, they’ll do it again.
During your time as air-to-air combat instructor, what was the most important advice you passed on to your students?
For me, one of the things I tried to emphasize was that you’re not supposed to just sit in the back seat and play with the radar and talk to the pilot. There are times when you need to be directing things on the radios. You need to be assertive.
As an RIO, regarding the type of pilot you’d rather fly with, are you a Maverick guy or an Iceman guy?
I flew with a lot of talented pilots, and I have to say that I’m a little bit selfish. I liked flying with a good pilot who does his job. A lot of flying, especially back then, is pretty boring, so you want to fly with a pilot who’s funny and entertaining, so you can tell stories . So kind of like with a personality of Maverick, but a flying style of Iceman.
So is that why you started taking pictures, because you had time to kill during flights? (view image gallery here).
I just got that from my father. I started taking pictures in grade school, and it’s something I picked up. It was a few years after I started loving airplanes and wanting to fly. We all flew the same mission and had a lot of time in the plane, but some guys just never carried a camera. It just didn’t interest them.
You were on board for some of the aerial stunts in Top Gun–so was that you onscreen behind one of the black helmets in one of the enemy fighters?
The close-ups were of pilots . In terms of flying the black jets, I’m pretty sure that it’s me in the scene where Maverick is flying inverted above the MiG . I went out there and flew that mission. But we filmed that, and later I found out that one other RIO did that, also.
And how did you help Paramount with the dialogue?
A pilot and I went up to Paramount for two days. We looked at the film clips over and over again, and we helped one of the film editors to stitch clips into logical sequences for dogfights. And the main purpose was to tell Paramount what they would be saying in situations. We just sat there and looked at the film and the pilot and I started talking to each other…And a lot of that was dialogue for the flying scenes of the movie. But then they threw in a bunch of Hollywood stuff, too… “You hook ‘em, I’ll fry ‘em?” Come on! That’s Hollywood writer stuff!
Now with the increase of unmanned drones, do you think dogfighting is dead?
It’s hard to say. People have been predicting that for decades now. Nowadays there seems to be less dogfighting... I think it’s going to be awhile before we can turn everything over to unmanned vehicles. They’re great for some missions, but they can’t do everything. As long as you’ve got humans in tactical airplanes, they better be prepared to meet enemy airplanes. We’ve got to be ready to face a lot of countries around the world, and as long as they have fighters with people in them, we’ve got to be ready to duel with them and defeat them. I think dogfighting is going to be around for at least, certainly 20 more years–probably 50 more years.
It appears that most of your experience was in the F-14. Is there another particular airplane in which you’re still craving some quality flight time?
The planes that I want are gone. I always loved the F-8 Crusader, but you have to be a pilot to fly that. I loved the Air Force F-106. Just a huge, powerful, beautiful plane. But you have to be a pilot for that, and those are retired, too. One of these days I’ll get up in a biplane and that’ll be fun!