Top Gun has been enshrined in the military aviation community as the official movie of fighter pilots. The film, pretty much functioning as one large recruitment commercial, was responsible for motivating a new generation of pilots and airmen to sign the dotted line in the hopes that they too could one day be top guns. And to be fair, it worked. A considerable number of future-aviators and fighter pilots were among that group, many still serving today. One of the many cool things about Top Gun is that, while it’s an entertaining and somewhat enjoyable movie especially for aviation buffs, it also comes with a degree of accuracy to it that the ordinary viewer wouldn’t really notice at a first glance. At certain points, it actually (very briefly) hints at a dark moment in military aviation history and then spends the rest of the movie explaining and demonstrating the solution which Navy senior pilots and officers created to remedy the problem they were confronted with.
Rewind to the skies over Vietnam.
Air Force and Navy air-to-air kill ratios were significantly lower than the brass had originally thought they would be. Navy pilots recorded around 3.7 enemy kills to every American fighter downed by a MiG. Air Force kill rates were even more frustrating. By this time, top officers of both the Air Force and the Navy realized that something needed to be done to improve the situation. To figure out the resolution, an in-depth study was quickly commissioned, initiated by then-CNO Admiral Tom Moorer and spearheaded by Captain Frank Ault, a highly-decorated and widely-respected naval aviator.
The Air-to-Air Missile System Capability Review was the final product of Ault’s investigations. More commonly known as the Ault Report, it contained the results and findings of an extremely comprehensive Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR) look into air-to-air engagements with the “employment” of missiles as the primary (and in the case of the F-4, versus the F-8, the only) offensive armament. The revelation was that a shift in air combat ideology had apparently led to the gradual atrophy of air combat maneuvering skills, making pilots reliant upon a very flawed understanding that air battles would be fought over expansive ranges with missiles and tight maneuvering was an unnecessary thing of the past. The rules of engagement, which called for close visual identification of prospective targets, bringing aircraft dangerously deep inside the enemy MiG’s kill zone, made things even more difficult for the unprepared pilots. Compounding the problem was the fact that fighter pilots weren’t nearly as experienced flying against dissimilar types of aircraft as they should have been (essentially foreign enemy planes); in the case of Vietnam, the MiG-17 Fresco, the MiG-19 Farmer and the MiG-21 Fishbed.
At the report’s conclusion and submission in May, 1968, there were an astonishing 242 areas for improvement identified by Ault. These disturbing findings brought to light the real problems faced by pilots sent to fight overseas, generally not ones they could easily solve by themselves. The answer to all of the above came from the forerunners to TOPGUN, Fleet Air Gunnery Units (FAGU) which were established to train pilots on… you guessed it, aerial gunnery at both the individual and unit level for squadrons attached to the Navy’s Pacific Fleet. The aforementioned change in air combat theory (that air battles would be fought exclusively with missiles over great distances) led to the disestablishment of these units, but the idea was retained when the Ault recommended that an “Advanced Fighter Weapons School” be stood up to bring back the original scheme of veteran fighter pilots training younger aircrew on “the lost art of dogfighting”. The proposed school would be created and staffed by Fighter Squadron 121, a former Pacific Fleet Replacement Air Group that was originally established with the purpose of training F-4 Phantom II pilots and ground crew. VF-121, The Pacemakers, from then on became the Navy’s Fighter Weapons School’s first host unit at NAS Miramar, San Diego, California.
LCDR Dan “Yank” Pedersen was the man selected by the Navy to set up this new school with VF-121 at Miramar. It was under Yank’s direction that TOPGUN was formed with procedures that he created himself. The school retains most of them to this very day. Pedersen did this all in record time, keeping in mind the urgency of the matter at hand. Improvements were required immediately due to the ongoing war effort in Vietnam. Funding was scarce at first and a building to house TOPGUN wasn’t available, so with a bit of smooth talking and bartering, Yank convinced a maintenance crew to move a small portable trailer onto the lot allocated for the school. In return, the crew were provided cases of beer and scotch. The trailer was furnished with surreptitiously-acquired chairs and tables from other parts of the base. Instructors were gathered, mostly veteran pilots who knew their way around their aircraft and knew exactly how to push themselves (and their planes) to the very edge of the envelope to exceed expectations and get the job done.
At first, their job was to find solutions to each of those 242 problems outlined by Ault in his report, something they accomplished with the help of the Central Intelligence Agency which had obtained and compiled volumes of information on Soviet-built MiG fighters. The next best thing happened soon afterward, when the US government managed to acquire a small number of MiG-17 and MiG-21 fighters through defections of foreign military pilots. Yank’s instructors hopped on a flight to a highly-classified location (most likely Area 51 according to some sources) and got their chance to analyze each aircraft individually, flying and testing them for their qualities and shortcomings. A curriculum was soon formulated and implemented, revolving around the appropriate usage of missiles in dogfights; guns if necessary. TOPGUN instructors would function as adversary pilots in aircraft that would simulate the characteristics of enemy fighters. The T-38 Talon, borrowed from the Air Force, the A-4 Skyhawk, occasionally the A-6 Intruder and Air Force F-106s were the first adversary aircraft used. Instructors went nights upon nights without sleep, grilling themselves and drilling the curriculum into their heads to remove any chances of mistakes occurring in their courses. So strenuous was their preparation that even pronouncing each and every syllable for in-class instruction periods was part of their method. Merciless and ruthless criticism from each instructor towards one another in the professional sense was encouraged, so as to deal with the minutest of errors. No details could be left out. The goal was to save American lives and in this endeavor, there could be no slip-ups or miscalculations.
On the 31st of March, 1969, the Navy’s Fighter Weapons School opened its doors to its first batch of students. It was finally time for class.
The plan was to take the best pilots from active front-line squadrons, bring them to TOPGUN for six weeks and send them back out armed with new-found ACM knowledge and experience. When they returned to their units, they would be expected to pass onto their fellow pilots what they had learned, theoretically extending TOPGUN teachings and principles beyond Miramar’s graduates to all fighter pilots in the Navy. At first, the commanding officers and executive officers of squadrons forward-deployed in the midst of the Vietnam conflict were very reluctant (most were flat-out unwilling) to let go of their best pilots for, what they thought of as, a “six week vacation”. They felt that the presence of their best pilots was far more required where the war was and not at home. This attitude changed pretty quickly after the graduates of the first few classes of TOPGUN returned to their units and quickly shot to the top of their squadrons’ kill boards, having relearned the art of dogfighting that was considered obsolete after the Korean War, and using their new knowledge and skills to immense effect against enemy North Vietnamese pilots. Soon, TOPGUN rose in fame within the naval aviation community. All Navy fighter pilots and their RIOs vied for a shot at going to Miramar; everybody wanted to earn and wear the coveted TOPGUN patch. By the end of the Vietnam War, this revolutionary new program had more than proven itself. The Navy kill ratio had dramatically improved to 12.5/13 enemy fighters downed for every 1 American aircraft lost. Further cementing its elite status and utter effectiveness was the fact that its graduates accounted for all but two confirmed American air-to-air kills during the war, after the establishment of the school.
The unmitigated success of TOPGUN led to the Navy separating it from its original host unit and forming it into its own individual command with a constant flow of funding. A number of TOPGUN graduates who flew in Vietnam came back to Miramar as instructors, teaching the next set of classes dogfighting as they had learned and improved upon it. Over the years, TOPGUN adapted to the ever-changing nature of modern air combat, replacing older Skyhawks and Talons with F-5Es and the F-16N to simulate modern MiGs and Sukhois while primary strike fighters evolved into the F-14 Tomcat and the F/A-18 Hornet. 1996 marked the end of an era in which NAS Miramar was transferred to the Marine Corps, making it MCAS Miramar, and TOPGUN (today called the US Navy Strike Fighter Tactics Instructor Program) was moved to NAS Fallon, Nevada as part of the Naval Strike and Air Warfare Center (NSAWC). Currently, instructor pilots fly the F/A-18 A/B/C/D/E/F Hornet/Super Hornet as well as the F-16A/B Fighting Falcon. TOPGUN now holds four nine-week classes a year for a combination of Navy and Marine Corps fixed wing strike fighter aircrew, as well as Air Intercept Controllers, flying aboard E-2C (and soon-to-be E-2D) Hawkeyes. The days of the Tomcat’s roar over Miramar and Fallon are long gone with the last F-14 course held in 2003. Thanks to its success, similar programs and schools have formed within the Air Force, Marine Corps and various other air forces around the world.