Hold on to your aviator sunglasses, Pete "Maverick" Mitchell is back. After a nearly-40-year hiatus, the Top Gun franchise is taking off once more with Top Gun: Maverick, a long-awaited sequel to the hit 1986 film. In theaters now and filled with visual thrills and real-life air sequences, the Tom Cruise vehicle takes viewers back to fighter pilot school.
But what is the U.S. Navy's real training program like? And how accurate was the throwback flick that catapulted both the high-powered military school and the iconic F-14 fighter jet into the public consciousness?
Though it's popularly known as TOPGUN, the Navy's program is actually called the Fighter Weapons School. And as a point of clarification, it hasn't been around since the dawn of fighter planes. Far from it: Though there was a Korean War-era gunnery school, it was brief and had been discontinued by the Vietnam War.
And by 1968, it was painfully clear that U.S. troops were at a disadvantage in the air war over southeast Asia.
Though the proxy war's biggest toll was on the Vietnamese people—it took the lives of an estimated 2 million civilians, 1.1 million North Vietnamese and Viet Cong, and an estimated 250,000 South Vietnamese soldiers—the conflict proved deadly to American troops, too. According to the U.S. military, 58,220 American troops were killed in Vietnam, the vast majority before 1970.
North Vietnam's air force was equipped with MiG 17s, a Soviet-designed aircraft that was surprisingly effective. They weren’t built for dogfights in the air—their original intent was to intercept the bombers cruising at altitude and dropping ordinance straight down from on high. But the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong flew them in dogfights with a frustrating—and deadly—level of daring and success.
For the U.S. Navy, which played an essential role in the air war over Vietnam, the situation was unacceptable. When naval officials reviewed their own air-to-air missile performance in 1968, they gave themselves a dismal grade. Just one kill had been achieved for every 10 firing attempts over a three-year period, the Naval Air Systems Command wrote in a document informally known as the Ault Report.
The Navy’s assessment of the preparedness of its own flight crews was brutal. "While the experience in air-to-air missilery is the highest it has ever been, formal missile system training is still largely a 'boot-strap' operation in many areas," the report said. One of its many recommendations was that the Navy establish an advanced training school for fighter pilots.
That's where TOPGUN began, Hill Goodspeed, a historian at the National Naval Aviation Museum, says via email: "The resulting Navy Fighter Weapons School literally changed the face of the air war over North Vietnam as seen in the improved kill ratios against enemy fighters."
Based at Naval Air Station Miramar in San Diego, the program that emerged was rigorous and demanding. Its instructors were subject-matter experts who used real-world intelligence to help trainees grow as fighter pilots. The program involved both lectures and training flights followed by relentless debriefs.
"You'd go back and revisit every turn, every move," says Christopher Browne, the director of the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum. A former naval flight officer, Browne trained in the program in the early 1980s.
By then, the F-4 Phantoms and F-8 Crusaders of the Vietnam War had been replaced—but the Cold War was still raging. "Our training and efforts really centered around countering the Soviet threat," he says.
The Navy had a not-so-secret weapon: the Grumman F-14 Tomcat—a supersonic fighter jet that ruled the air for more than 35 years. Designed in 1968, the aircraft was specifically developed to counter the Soviets. It featured six long-range AIM-54 Phoenix missiles and others designed for dogfights. Also on board were the most advanced weapons system of its time, and the aircraft had the speed, maneuverability and all-out power needed to dominate the air. "What made the F-14 unique was its adaptability," says Goodspeed. Though it was massive in size, with a 64-foot wingspan and twin engines, it was unexpectedly maneuverable.
It was also fun to fly, says Browne, who learned to pilot the plane in 1981.
"It was essentially a rocket," he says, as he reminisces about what it felt like to feel the raw power of the plane, with a full cargo of weapons, as it got an extra boost from its afterburner for take-off. "Particularly at night, you'd see these plumes of flame going 100 feet after the aircraft. It was not a casual event. It was a thrill ride all the way."
The public was thrilled by the plane, too, as evidenced by its use in multiple movies, not just Top Gun. It made its screen debut in The Final Countdown, a 1980 film starring Kirk Douglas and Martin Sheen that depicted the iconic jet as a time-traveling machine that might just stop the bombing of Pearl Harbor.
Students at the Navy Fighter Weapons School often felt like they were running out of time, too. Browne recalls the program's grueling schedule, with lectures, flights, debriefs and lessons that involved studying the enemy's aircraft, too. Browne chuckles when he thinks of the depictions of volleyball games and late-night hangouts in the 1986 film. "It's not that; folks don't have fun along the way. It's training for the real world."
That real-world training took Browne to the skies above the international waters of the Gulf of Sidra, which Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi had claimed for his country. Though Browne himself was not there that day, on August 19, 1981, Libyan jets fired on two F-14 Tomcats, which promptly shot them down. Browne later flew one of the planes that had engaged with the Libyan fighters, but says that he never got within more than 50 miles of a Libyan plane.
"When they knew you'd locked on to them, they'd turn and run," he says.
Such was the power of a TOPGUN-trained fighter pilot in the much-feared F-14—and Top Gun the movie only increased the world's interest in, and respect of, naval fighters. But it did sow some misconceptions about the program, most related to its rigor and professionalism.
Fighter pilots aren't quite as brash as Tom Cruise's Maverick. "While fighter pilots are a confident collection of individuals," Goodspeed says, "one former TOPGUN commanding officer stated, 'We are not looking for someone who is arrogant or overconfident. We are looking for aircrew who are humble and approachable; traits that will make them effective teachers in the end.'"
Browne concurs. "What people don't always recognize is that when the Navy deploys a carrier to sea, it's a national asset," he says. "[The fighter pilots] were mindful that we were the difference between success and failure for the carrier."