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The Top Gun Program: America’s Elite Pilot School

Written by Dave Page

The 3rd of October 1986 would see the release of one of the most iconic films of that decade. Over the years, millions of people have gone through a veritable rollercoaster of emotions as they follow the exploits of Maverick, Goose, and the other pilots as they strive to achieve the elusive spot as the greatest fighter pilot that the United States Navy has to offer. We are, of course, talking about Top Gun.

But just where did the idea for this fantastic piece of cinematography come from? Today we will find out as we take a look at the history of the real Top Gun flight school.

The use of aeroplanes in military conflicts can be traced back as far as the First World War when, in October 1914, the French pilot Louis Quenault first used a machine gun to open fire on a German aircraft. From this point onwards, planes were routinely fitted with machine guns in order to attempt to shoot down enemy pilots. This would, in turn, lead to the development of the dogfighting style of aerial combat. These close quarters combat manoeuvres would be the main staple of air-to-air combat training for many decades. This would all begin to change during the late 1940s when, as missile technology improved, close quarter dog fighting skills became less essential and, as a consequence of this training in such techniques took somewhat of a back seat to allow for instruction in the use of the new complex missile systems. 

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This tactical transition would continue until, during the height of the Cold War, both the United States Air Force and Navy would take delivery of the new supersonic F4 Phantom. By this point, Navy pilots had become so dependent on missile technology that the planes had been ordered without machine guns installed, relying only on the extremely sophisticated on-board missiles to deal with any potential threat.

Unfortunately, not long after the start of the Vietnam war, two navy pilots were accidentally shot down by their own side. Following this tragedy, the Pentagon issued orders that pilots must identify enemy targets by sight before opening fire. This effectively neutralised the tactical advantages provided by the Phantom and its long-range missile system. Even worse than that, in Close combat situations, the enemy Mig was the far more manoeuvrable aircraft.

In late 1967, Phantoms would launch 55 Sparrow guided missiles without a single hit due to the fact that pilots had to be much closer to enemy aircraft than the Sparrow’s 1-mile minimum operating range. This caused the Navy’s kill ratio to plummet from around 17 to 1 down to 2 to 1 meaning that instead of shooting down 17 Vietnamese planes and losing only one themselves, they were now losing one plane for every two that they destroyed.  At the height of this decline, the Navy lost 17 pilots in 11 days. Clearly, this situation could not continue.

This was certainly the opinion of Navy Captain Frank Ault who, after witnessing the death of many of his pilots without any return, began a ferocious memo writing campaign to the Pentagon in which he outlined the problems that were being faced. Eventually, Ault was summoned to a meeting at the Pentagon and was told that “if you know so much about it, why don’t you go out there and solve the problem?”

To that end, Ault compiled the “Air-to-Air Missile System Capability Review” more commonly known as the “Ault Report”, in which he made 242 recommendations.

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Somewhere very close to the top of this list was the creation of “The United States Navy Strike Fighter Tactics Instructor program” which would not only provide top pilots with the badly needed air combat manoeuvres training required to compete with the Mig Aircraft, but also the ability to take those skills and pass them on to other members of the squadron. This program would later be known as Top Gun.

Once the creation of this new school had been approved by the Pentagon, the search began for the right person to orchestrate this ambitious undertaking. The job would eventually fall to Dan Patterson, a Navy Air Force pilot trainer working at Miramar Air Station in San Diego.

According to Dan, “A fellow named Sam Leeds who was a contemporary of mine in the squadron came to me and said, ‘I’ve got something to show you’, and he gave me the Ault Report, and I read it and he said, ‘How would you like to take charge and put together the graduate school that’s defined in here?”

Patterson had previously flown with some of the best pilots that the Navy had to offer, and from these he handpicked his instructors. The first instructor, JC Smith, was the first American pilot to shoot down a Mig during the war and he had this to say about the early planning stages of the program: “We sat down and looked at that report and Dan said ‘Let’s develop some tactics for a school. Let’s get it built so we can change this around and save lives.”

The fundamental principle of the school was to take pilots back to basics and relearn the techniques of dog fighting that have been lost over the years. From the very beginning, Patterson was beset with problems. Although the Pentagon had approved the creation of the school, the project had been given no budget, no aeroplanes, and no teaching materials. In the beginning, they did not even have a classroom. 

Petty Officer 3rd Class Roberts climbs into the cockpit to service an F-5E Tiger II adversary aircraft assigned to the Navy Fighter Weapons School. Referred to as “Top Gun,” the school provides air combat maneuvering (ACM) training for Navy and Marine Corps pilots.
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This last problem at least, did not prove too difficult to solve. Although there were no available buildings on the base, Patterson was able, in exchange for several cases of beer, to commandeer an old trailer and it was in this that one of the most famous flight schools in the world got its start.

Now that a base (of sorts) had been established, the team began work on the next problem. What exactly were they going to teach these pilots? Patterson and his team spent three months combing through every scrap of available information on every air encounter in Vietnam in the hope of finding something that would give the edge to the Phantom pilots. It would not be until instructors were able to get their hands on a captured Mig that such an edge would be discovered – The Mig had a blind spot. Due to the oversized jet air intake, Mig pilots could not see what was directly under the nose of the craft. Now armed with this vital piece of information, the instructors began working on tactics which would allow navy pilots to exploit this weakness. Although the Mig was far more manoeuvrable than the Phantom, the Phantom could climb higher and faster. And it was this ability on which the Top Gun instructors would capitalise. Pilots were taught that in order to evade and destroy a pursuing Mig they would need to climb quickly and continue that climb into a loop which would bring them behind and underneath their opponent where they could take advantage of the aforementioned blind spot.

Another incredibly important tactic that was taught and something that was very well represented in the original movie, was the importance of flying in pairs. Two aeroplanes are vastly more difficult to defend against than one and, although this was not new information, the fact that it had to be re-introduced to training manuals is another example of how far behind pilots had fallen with regards to air combat manoeuvres and strategy.

CPT Stan Sutterfield, a flight instructor with 425th Tactical Fighter Training Squadron, discusses a training flight with two Saudi Arabian flight students.
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Now that the instructors had something to teach, they began work on the next, and arguably most important, problems: Just who were they going to teach, and where would they get the aircraft with which to teach them? Because at that time the school had no way of proving that it would be successful, very few commanding officers were prepared to commit pilots and resources during war time. According to Smith, “We had to go around and talk to the squadron CO’s and we said ‘Okay, what we want though, we want you to send your aeroplanes, we don’t have any aeroplanes, we want you to send your maintenance crew to keep these aeroplanes turning and your best young pilots’.” Unsurprisingly, this rarely went down well and according to Patterson, “I would often have to suggest that they called their Air Wing Commander so he could explain to them why they really wanted to do what I was asking them to do.”

And so it was, in February 1969, after meticulous planning, cajoling and minor acts of bribery, that the first pilots arrived at Top Gun. During the intensive five-week course they were taught not only the information that we had previously mentioned but also many other advanced air combat manoeuvres. Not only this, but they were also trained in the best ways to impart this knowledge to fellow pilots. In April, 11 pilots would graduate, and the question on not only Patterson’s mind but the minds of everybody else in his team would be “have we done enough?”

The pilot of a Navy Fighter Weapons School F-5E Tiger II adversary aircraft gives the “thumbs up” signal prior to taking off on a mission. Referred to as “Top Gun,” the school provides air combat maneuvering (ACM) training for Navy and Marine Corps pilots.
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When recalling that day, Patterson says “I remember asking the graduates ‘Did you learn more? What did you learn and was it good? Was it good enough?” One pilot would reply “Just learning to fly the aeroplane like this is good enough. The rest will come.”

Although the course certainly seemed to be popular amongst the graduates, the real question of whether or not it could possibly make a difference to the Navy’s fortunes in Vietnam had still to be answered. As the Navy were keeping pilots on a short leash whilst peace talks were in progress, it would be more than a year before anybody would find out. During this time, dozens more pilots had graduated from Top Gun and were waiting impatiently to prove themselves. On Saturday 28th of March 1970, one of them would finally get that chance. 

While patrolling the skies over north Vietnam, two Phantom pilots would engage with two Migs. One of these pilots, known as Jerry, was a Top Gun graduate and would successfully execute the looping manoeuvre that had formed part of his training, taking down his opposition. This resulted in the first successful Navy kill in many months and also provided the first evidence that the techniques being taught were effective.

In April 1972 when peace talks had begun to stagnate and America resumed its bombing campaign, a second Top Gun graduate successfully destroyed two enemy aircraft in the same engagement through the deployment of air combat manoeuvres that he had been taught at the school. This would go a long way towards silencing critics of the program. However, more proof of Top Gun’s validity was still to come.

The 22nd of April 1972 would see yet another graduate of Top Gun outfly his adversary to such a degree that the pilot elected to eject from the plane in an attempt to save his own life rather than continue the battle. This was enough to silence any further scepticism. In a comparatively short amount of time, the United States Navy pilots had gone from being hopelessly outmanoeuvred by the enemy to a point where their adversaries would rather eject from their planes than engage with them. Although this was a one-off incident and we were unable to find any evidence of it ever happening again, the accompanying morale boost was invaluable to the program. According to Patterson, some of the greatest converts came from the group of commanders who had been reluctant to send their pilots to an untested school. He remarked that “They saw what they learned and what they could teach the other people in the squadron. I don’t think a single one didn’t come back and say thank you, you did a heck of a job for us.”

An A-4F Skyhawk attack aircraft from the U.S. Navy “Top Gun” Fighter Weapons School, San Diego, painted in desert camouflage, makes a visit to the U.S. Air Force Fighter Weapons School. (Exact Date Shot Unknown) https://nara.getarchive.net/media/an-a-4f-skyhawk-attack-aircraft-from-the-us-navy-top-gun-fighter-weapons-school-486e26

As encounters between Migs and phantoms continued, the Navy’s success rate increased dramatically, with the kill rate increasing from 2 to 1 up to 13 to 1. One report shows that out of 32 Migs shot down, 30 of those were hit by Top Gun graduates.

But it is not just superior piloting skills that Top Gun instils in their pilots, there is something else. A sense of confidence and surety almost a sense of invincibility. According to Randy Cunningham, one of the first ever Top Gun graduates, “After I went through Top Gun, I never thought that I was going to go out and lose, and it gave me the confidence that no matter who you met your training was going to carry you through the day.”

From its humble beginnings in an old trailer on Miramar airbase, the school would continue to grow into something truly special and, although in 1996 it would be merged with the Naval Strike and Air Warfare Centre at NAS Fallon in Nevada, its dedicated instructors still teach the ultimate blend of cutting-edge techniques and back-to-basics old school air combat manoeuvres. In 2011, the Top Gun program was inducted into the International Air & Space Hall of Fame, forever ensuring its status as a shining beacon to exactly what fighter pilots the world around aspire to be.

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