TOP GUN SchoolUpdated: May 12, 2022
Top Gun 2: Maverick is a sequel to the 80’s Navy-themed action film Top Gun, based on the real United States Navy TOPGUN school. It stars Tom Cruise and Val Kilmer from the original film, plus Miles Teller, Jennifer Connelly and Jon Hamm.
Sadly, Kelly McGillis, star of the original film as Tom Cruise’s love interest, is not returning and told a USA Today interviewer that she wasn’t asked. The sequel brings new attention to the Navy TOPGUN school located at Naval Air Station Fallon. The first film brought a great deal of interest to both Navy and Air Force flying operations, and the sequel will no doubt do the same.
TOPGUN Versus “Top Gun”
No, “TOPGUN” is not a misprint. It’s also not an acronym – although the Navy does love to abbreviate. According to the Department of Defense, TOPGUN is simply a nickname the tactical department of Fighter Squadron 21 created for the Navy’s elite flying combat training school.
The Original “Top Gun”
“Top Gun” was directed by Tony Scott and stars Tom Cruise, Kelly McGillis, Val Kilmer, Anthony Edwards and Tom Skerritt. The film focused on a group of Navy fighter pilots attending the Navy’s elite TOPGUN program. A soundtrack featuring a then-popular Kenny Loggins pushed the film into blockbuster territory.
That was a big win for the Department of Defense, as enlistments in both the Navy and Air Force soared, according to a study from the University of Honolulu, which correlated military movie releases with recruitment numbers.
The Navy’s Flying Missions
But what about the real Top Gun? Known in military circles as TOPGUN, the formal name of the training program is the Navy Strike Fighter Tactics Instructor program (SFTI).
TOPGUN is part of one of 12 departments at the Naval Aviation Warfighting Development Center, which is located at Naval Air Station Fallon in Nevada. The program is 13 weeks long, and it only accepts the top 1% of Navy pilots.
A Brief History of TOPGUN
TOPGUN began in the late 1960s out of necessity. Despite flying the most advanced fighter planes in the world, the Navy was sustaining unacceptable losses – both planes and crew – in Vietnam, according to the Department of Defense. An in-depth study into the issue determined that the aircrew needed additional training, and TOPGUN was born.
Initially, four aircrews arrived at Naval Station Miramar in San Diego every other month to learn and enhance their one-on-one aerial combat (dogfighting) skills to defeat Soviet jets in Vietnam. The program was only a few weeks long, and the aircrews were expected to share their training when they returned to their squadrons.
Air Combat Training: Badly Needed
How badly was this training needed? According to the U.S. Naval Institute, a private, non-profit professional military organization, a U.S. fighter pilot could reliably destroy its target with an air-to-air missile (such as the tactics seen on-screen in the Tom Cruise movie Top Gun) roughly 10% of the time when such weapons were used.
Part of the blame for that low number rests with the missile technology itself. The Navy has since improved these equipment-related issues.
But there were also issues related to how and when the missiles were deployed. F-4 Phantom II and F-8 Crusader aircrews were firing missiles without a clear understanding of the actual range of the weaponry.
Don’t Blame the Tools
According to the DOD, the Navy’s F-4 Phantom IIs and F-8 Crusaders were technologically superior to the North Vietnamese fighter jets. Clearly, they were not the problem.
The Navy conducted a study of air-to-air missile warfare and a review of its training procedures in 1968. The study, “Report of the Air-to-Air Missile System Capability Review” is more commonly known as the “Ault Report” after Navy Captain Frank Ault, who headed the three-month study.
Ault and his team made several training-specific recommendations, according to the U.S. Naval Institute, including instruction about what Navy aircraft and weapons could–and could not–do.
A Game-Changing Recommendation by Frank Ault
Among the most notable recommendations made by Frank Ault and his team was that the Navy establish an advanced fighter pilot school and create a cadre of experienced professionals to conduct the training.
Only months after publication of the Ault Report, Naval Air Station Miramar established TOPGUN, and the first class graduated the same year (1969).
In 1996, the DOD redesignated NAS Miramar, the program’s original home, as a Marine Corps Air Station. TOPGUN relocated to NAS Fallon in Nevada where it operates to this day.
In the movie “Top Gun,” Maverick (Tom Cruise) flies an F-14A Tomcat. In 2022, the real TOPGUN program uses three different planes, according to the DOD: F-16s, used for aggressor training, F-A/18s and the state-of-the-art F-35s.
The Navy operates three TOPGUN training events each year. The focus is on three missions: mid-air combat, air-to-surface and maritime strikes.
TOPGUN students break into three groups:
TOPGUN Strike Fighter Tactics Instructors (SFTIs)
Maverick was a strike fighter tactics instructor student, or SFTI. SFTIs spend 13 weeks learning advanced aerial combat tactics in FA-18E/F Super Hornets and F-35C Lightning II. When they graduate, they go back to their fleets to teach others what they’ve learned. Some return as TOPGUN instructors.
The adversary program is nine weeks long, during which students learn the tactics other countries use. During the program, SFTIs and adversaries practice against each other. Like the SFTIs, adversaries also bring their training back to the fleets after graduating.
TOPGUN Air Intercept Controllers
The last group of TOPGUN students didn’t get any attention in the original film. The air intercept controller program, which is about nine weeks long, trains students to help guide fighter pilots in combat. When these air intercept controllers complete their TOPGUN training, they also return to their units and share what they have learned.
Today, the United States Navy continues to train pilots in advanced air combat doctrine and tactics. TOPGUN continues to operate out of NAS Fallon in Nevada.
Joe Wallace is a 13-year veteran of the United States Air Force and a former reporter for Air Force Television News