Top Gun: 40 Years of Higher Learning
The Navy Fighter Weapons School known as Top Gun took off after a humble start at NAS Miramar, training the nation’s fighter pilots into ever higher levels of excellence. As Top Gun celebrates its 40th anniversary, San Diego Magazine looks back at the program’s beginnings and lasting influence.
Tom Cruise may have flown hard and lived dangerously in Top Gun, but a Hollywood action movie just can’t do justice to the real story of the Navy Fighter Weapons School, established in a time of crisis by no less than the world’s finest, most dedicated fighter pilots. “Maverick”? Please. These guys—and the odds against them—would’ve eaten him for breakfast.
The finest aviation fighter training facility in the world was founded right here 40 years ago. Yet unlike other academic centers of excellence, Top Gun began not with the generous support of benefactors or big government but with the determination of nine pilots, the skepticism of the government and almost no budget. In 40 years it turned the tide of a losing air war in Vietnam, revolutionized military doctrine, inspired a Hollywood blockbuster and attracted and trained the best allied pilots from all over the world.
But all that glosses over the humble origins of Top Gun, which was conceived in a modular shed at Naval Air Station Miramar that was bartered for a case of beer and bottle of scotch.
Flash back to the mid-’60s. Navy and Air Force fighter pilots are suffering staggering losses in Vietnam during Operation Rolling Thunder, their kill ratio appalling—and alarming—in comparison to American dominance in the skies over Europe and Japan in World War II and in the Korean War.
The reason? With the advent of beyond-visual-range missile technology, fighter pilot doctrine quickly and radically changed, as top military brass proudly declared the end of dogfighting, or close-range aerial combat. As a result, an entire generation of pilots received almost no training in aerial-combat maneuvering. The only experts were either grizzled veterans from World War II and Korea or those who surreptitiously engaged in mock battles on weekends above the Southern California desert with other pilots and reservists from nearby bases. With Soviets our only threat in the atomic age, strategy for fighter pilots revolved around how best to quickly shoot down nuclear bombers and then hightail it back home.
Fighter pilots were now expected to intercept bombers and launch missiles from miles away. In 1960, the Navy and Air Force took delivery of the McDonnell Douglas
F-4 Phantom II, a supersonic jet so narrowly tailored to the fighter’s new role that even a machine gun was deemed unnecessary.
Yet when American fighter and attack pilots found themselves on bombing runs in Vietnam and facing smaller and more maneuverable subsonic, Russian-built MiG-17, -19 and -21 jet fighters, not only were they underprepared, they were shackled by unrealistic rules of engagement. The loss rate was frighteningly high. The Navy’s kill ratio was 2 to 1 (compared to 10 to 1 in World War II and Korea), at times dipping even below that, while the Air Force fared no better, at times, than breaking even.
On November 1, 1968, President Lyndon Johnson ordered a halt to bombing north of the 20th parallel in an attempt to bring the enemy to the bargaining table, which gave pilots time to regroup and assess what was wrong. Essentially, aviators were in battle armed with Sidewinder missiles with a range of 13 miles but rules that called for visual identification (so by the time they could identify the target, they were inside the missile’s minimum range); no guns; and little practice or tactics training.
The New School
The dire situation demanded a loud voice, which came in the form of outspoken USS Coral Sea Commander Frank Ault. Already in line for admiral and with nothing to lose, the World War II attack pilot put his gripes on paper in 1968 and sent them to the Pentagon. He was then asked to list in greater detail the problems and the solutions with aerial engagement in Vietnam, in what became known as the Ault Report. In May 1968, Ault identified 242 problem areas that included maintenance and improvement of the faulty Sidewinder and Sparrow missiles. More importantly, he recommended the formation of a school specializing in aerial combat.
The school was to be conducted by VF-121, a squadron based at Miramar (which then was the northern boundary of San Diego; there was no Mira Mesa, Scripps Ranch or UTC). VF-121 Lieutenant Commander Dan “Yank” Pedersen, 33 at the time, was ordered to make it happen. His F-4 Phantom Replacement Air Group (RAG) was responsible for training and providing air and maintenance crews to the front line in the Navy’s Pacific Fleet. Eight men (pilots plus backseat RIOs—Radar Intercept Officers) in the RAG, along with Pedersen, created the direction for the school, gathered intelligence and aircraft and devised a bulletproof operating procedure that endures to this day.
“[Pedersen] bore the primary burden—that there was an urgency here beyond anything we’ve ever done,” says Darrell “Condor” Gary, one of the original instructors.
With a mandate to create the United States Navy Fighter Weapons School but scant funding, Pedersen asked RIO J.C. Smith to locate a building. VF-121, the largest squadron in the Navy, was already bursting at the seams. With no rooms or buildings available, Smith appropriated a portable trailer from elsewhere on base. On a Friday he bartered with a crane operator crew to move it into place for beer and scotch, and on Monday morning he had his building.
Top Gun—a single metal trailer in which offices, classes and research were all conducted—was now in place and quickly painted red because, as Smith recounts in Scream of Eagles, an oral history of Top Gun by Robert K. Wilcox, “anything stolen you aren’t going to paint with red trim. Right?” The crew outfitted it in similar fashion, acquiring furniture from other squadron areas—a chair here, a table there.
“I found out later that we could have gotten anything we wanted from salvage,” says Smith. “But I’ve only been in the Navy four years at this point. What do I know?”
The instructors had a large room for classes, another for offices. That was all, along with a chalkboard, movie screen, tables and chairs. Their only luxury was a coffee machine. In those first several weeks, the instructors simply digested the finer points of the Ault findings—from the minutiae of missile maintenance to crew and machine problems in flight.
Gathering intelligence for such a new program wasn’t easy, either. After flying to Washington, D.C., every weekend, Smith and Pedersen found what they were looking for, deep in CIA storage: boxes of firsthand information on the Soviet MiGs. At first they weren’t allowed to take notes, and would rush from lengthy interview sessions with CIA spooks to write down everything they could remember. Instructors searched libraries at other bases, visited other commands and tried to get reports of MiG battles directly from the fleet.
But “the icing on the cake,” according to Gary, was the government obtaining MiG-17 and -21 jets. Instructors went to the desert to a top-secret location (possibly Area 51), where they were kept, and experienced firsthand the aircraft’s strengths, weaknesses and performance envelope. Coupled with more time in the F-4s, the instructors discovered that while the older Russian jets were indeed more maneuverable, the F-4 could be pushed and flown in ways previously unimagined by pilots and its engineers. Since exploiting strengths and weaknesses is the strategic essence of air combat, instructors experimented with tactics not part of the current doctrine. Eventually they nailed down a formula that would prove highly effective against MiGs and rigid North Vietnamese (by way of Moscow) fighting strategy.
The staff prepared its syllabus. Each member of the crew was to specialize in a particular topic—Sidewinder missiles or group combat, for example—with the goal for each instructor to become the foremost authority in the world on his area of knowledge. The team would fly two hops a day teaching their regular VF-121 squadron, then write Top Gun material for 16 hours, waiting for a two-finger typist to return drafts.
If they were to draw the best pilots, never mind get their program off the ground, all nine instructors had to be on top of their game. The course was polished in what’s still referred to as the “murder board.” Instructors practiced their presentations ceaselessly in preparation for rehearsals against their peers. The criticism was relentless. Any holes whatsoever in the presentation, any stammering or wardrobe imperfections was instantly seized upon. But the end result was utterly flawless.
And they needed students. The plan was to cull the best pilots in each squadron, make them even better, and upon their return, they’d become the training officer in their squadron, disseminating the latest air-combat maneuvering tactics. But captains were initially reluctant to send any pilots away for six weeks to a school they’d never heard of.
“The rest of the Navy didn’t know we existed,” recounts Pedersen in Scream of Eagles. “These skippers and their pilots and RIOs are saying, ‘Who the hell do you think you are? We’re gonna stop our operations and just come out there?”
But once word got out after the third or fourth graduating class, and pilots saw the results, they were gunning for an invitation. In the ultracompetitive culture of fighter pilots, squadrons noticed that Top Gun graduates returned as the dominant fighters. Soon every pilot wanted to wear the Top Gun patch.
Among those was Randy “Duke” Cunningham, one of two aces in the war, who later resigned as congressman amid disgrace after pleading guilty to accepting at least $2.4 million in bribes from defense contractors. According to former Top Gun pilots, this will leave Cunningham with no friends in the military community upon his release from prison in a few years, as they feel he stained the image of Naval aviation.
When President Nixon resumed mining the harbors and bombing campaigns on April 15, 1972, air-to-air combat results against the North Vietnamese were night and day from four years earlier. Navy pilots were registering kill ratios of 13 to 1, while the Air Force, which did no comprehensive overhaul of its approach to combat, actually saw its kill ratios worsen for a time. The true marker of success for Top Gun was the fact that all Navy kills but two were made by graduates, a fact that was finally and duly noted in the halls of Congress and the Pentagon.
Top Gun’s influence was not only immediate but lasting as well. The always-improving program drew return graduates for more training, and the very best were offered positions as instructors. The Air Force instituted its own aerial combat maneuvering school at Nellis, known as Red Flag.
Top Gun instructors shared close bonds and occasionally lived up to fighter-pilot reputations. In 1969 and 1970, RIO Jim “Hawkeye” Laing and Gary rented a home on Coast Boulevard in La Jolla they called the Lafayette Escradille; across from them were two other homes of friends.
“It didn’t matter whether you planned a party or not—every Friday and Saturday night,” says Gary, “people would just begin to show up. We always had beer; we were on the beach. A lot of young girls would show up, particularly San Diego State coeds, and Chargers would come over once in a while.”
The group had a routine social circuit: Wednesday was the Beachcomber, Thursday was Bully’s in La Jolla, Friday was the officers club at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot, Saturday was frequently date night, and probably a party at one of the three houses, and Sunday was Downwinds, the officers club on the beach at Coronado, “which is one of the rowdiest places I’ve ever been,” says Gary, “because you have the SEALs, the Marines, Navy fighter pilots, young girls, alcohol and a live band. I mean, if you were to pick a formula for disaster...”
Usually, after Downwinds closed, everybody would go to Mexican Village, have dinner and go home. “Back in the day, flying came first, and flying and partying didn’t really mix well, so you had to learn how to segment your life fairly carefully,” says Gary. “So we partied hard when we weren’t flying, and the rest of the time there was really no room for anything other than flying.”
Mission Beach’s Coaster Saloon owner John Renna remembers several pilots during the ’80s in particular. He says, “They would work hard and play hard,” typified by Casey “The Animal” Gagan, who lived just around the corner. “He had just gotten promoted to lieutenant commander, and he drank 15 shots of tequila in 45 minutes. He was just about to lose consciousness when the doorman and I each grabbed an arm and dragged him home. We put him in his condo, and by the time we walked back to the bar, he had gotten out of his condo, came in the back door and was sitting at the bar.
“Sometimes Casey and ‘Party’ Marty would walk in on a Friday, knowing that they had a three-day pass. They’d look at me and say, ‘You know, you need a TV over in this corner. We’re gonna spend enough money in your bar this weekend for you to put a TV up there. Can you do that for us?’ And they would. And I would. That’s the kind of relationship we had.”
Onto the Screen
The alluring flyboy lifestyle was too good for Hollywood to pass up, and in 1986 Tom Cruise famously starred in Top Gun, which captured the spirit, if not the precise details, of life around Miramar, inspired by a 1982 California Magazine article. Much of the movie was shot in and around San Diego. Many of the flight scenes were filmed at Naval Air Station Fallon in Nevada, although aerobatic pilot Art Scholl died while filming a flat spin off the coast of Carlsbad. Neither he nor his biplane was ever recovered. The movie’s influence reportedly boosted Navy and Air Force recruitment. The Navy stationed recruitment booths in some theaters.
But even celluloid immortality couldn’t keep Top Gun in San Diego, as Miramar lost the school founded on its jet-fuel-soaked soil to 1993’s Base Realignment and Closure process. The commission recommended Marine Corps Air Stations El Toro and Tustin be closed and that NAS Miramar be transferred to the Marines. Top Gun and the Navy Reserve adversary squadron were to be transferred to NAS Fallon; various Pacific Fleet operations formerly based in Miramar were relocated to Norfolk, Virginia, and Point Mugu, California. In 1996, Top Gun was officially relocated to Fallon, the Navy’s premier air-to-air and air-to-ground training facility, as the United States Navy Strike Fighter Tactics Instructor program.
“Few things in the military last for 40 years,” says Gary. This one lives on, however, even if it’s now in a different town.
Many of the original Top Gun instructors have stayed in San Diego and made their lives here—often in unrelated professions. “Universally, everybody’s felt like San Diego is home,” says Gary. “Many of those guys, no matter where they’re from, ended up picking San Diego as the place they wanted to raise their families. They love the weather, the city and the people. And it’s probably [also] the fact that after the Vietnam War we didn’t get a particularly warm reception home from the nation. I’d have to say I don’t think we ever experienced that here.”
And they have nothing but pride for what they created from scratch. Many credit the foresight, however incidental, of the Navy in allowing junior officers to get it off the ground. Leave it to junior officers—and irreverent flyboys—to question the competence of senior officers. They swear it’s key to Top Gun’s success.
- 1960 Navy and Air Force take delivery of McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom IIs. Military strategists proudly proclaim the end of dogfighting.
- August 7, 1964 Gulf of Tonkin Resolution passes; United States finds itself at war with North Vietnam
- 1964-1968 Losses mount in air campaigns over Vietnam; ill-equipped jets and crippling rules of engagement handicap the U.S. forces.
- November 1, 1968 President Johnson halts bombing north of the 20th parallel in Vietnam.
- May 1968 Commander Frank Ault releases the Ault Report, a damning indictment of U.S. military air strategy.
- March 31, 1969 Top Gun accepts its first students.
- April 15, 1972 Air combat resumes in Vietnam with improved results; all but two kills are by Top Gun graduates.
- 1975 San Diego–based Cubic Corporation develops and implements Air Combat Maneuvering Range at Top Gun, a sophisticated computer system that tracks dogfights, eliminates guesswork and unsupported kill claims and aids in teaching tactics, weapons performance and safety (originally suggested in the Ault Report).
- 1986 Top Gun, starring Tom Cruise, is a major hit.
- 1996 Top Gun relocates to NAS Fallon, Nevada.