Not that you could believe it by looking at him now, but it was a whole 36 years ago that Tom Cruise first took our breath away in the original Top Gun film. Alongside literal wingman Goose (Anthony Edwards), the appropriately named, cockpit-sure fighter pilot, Pete ‘Maverick’ Mitchell is given the opportunity to train at an elite US Navy Fighter Weapons School, which we are told – thanks to a handy explanation at the start of the film – is a real place that actually exists. Known among flyers as, yes, actually… TOPGUN.
Once enlisted on the programme, Maverick experiences rivalry versus Val Kilmer’s straight-laced pilot Iceman, explores newfound romance with instructor Charlotte ‘Charlie’ Blackwood (Kelly McGillis), finds camaraderie in the form of some gratuitously shirtless beach volleyball and, of course, enjoys many a daring manoeuvre in the danger zone itself: the lessons and exercises of TOPGUN’s strict training regime.
But what of the real-life school? We spoke to TOPGUN instructor and retired Navy Commander Guy Snodgrass about how 1980s Hollywood’s vision compares with the truth. If you feel the need, the need for an IRL reality fact-check, keep reading…
Personality vs Professionalism
If you believe the film, when the elite students of the US Navy’s top-flight school aren’t showcasing their skills in the air, they’re filling their time with banter, good-natured ribbing, and locker-room confrontations. Things are a little more professional in real life though.
“I think what Hollywood doesn’t necessarily capture about what TOPGUN is really about is the sheer professionalism; the sheer amount of hard work and dedication that goes into it. Because you’re working long hours, and there’s a very formalised process for how we conduct our training and how we debrief. So it’s not: ‘I’m going to grab a plane, fly out and have fun, and we’ll just meet up over beers and talk about it’. That’s not the real TOPGUN.
“One thing I learned early on is that you can measure who you’re going to bring through TOPGUN based on their talent, based on their passion, and based on their personality. And you have to have all three of those. Obviously, you have to have some measure of talent because otherwise, you don’t have credibility; you have to be very passionate about it in order to survive the long hours, day after day, working some weekends, etc; and of course, personality is a key ingredient because, frankly speaking, if you’re just a raging jerk no one’s going to want to learn from you or listen to you.”
Not so Much Working 9-5
Through the magic of cinema and, crucially, editing, movies tend to leave out a lot of extraneous detail. As a result, in Top Gun we don’t get a full sense of the characters’ actual day-to-day experience, because the film needs to tell a dynamic story and show us plenty of high-fiving. So what are we missing?
“There’s sort of a spectrum you follow through when you do any TOPGUN event. First, there’s your preparatory phase where you are studying. Say, if you know your mission is going to be aerial combat, you’re studying those aeroplanes, you’re preparing for the area where you anticipate having combat, etc. You then take all of that work and walk your team through all the critical elements of flight.
“The next, say, 30 minutes or so is enough time to grab your flight bag, all the materials you had, and walk out to the aircraft hangar. At that point, you’re transitioning into actual flight mode. Then you sign for the aircraft, which means you’ve reviewed all the discrepancies and you’ve made sure the aircraft is safe for flight, and then get into the aircraft to start pre-flight checks. Once all the members of your flight are ready, you take off. The event itself will usually last about 1 hour and 15 minutes to 1 hour and 45 minutes, and then once it’s complete, everyone lands and you turn the aircraft in and sign any paperwork, and then all head back to debrief the members of your flight.
“So, just from the preparatory phase all the way through to the debrief can take anywhere from 4.5 hours, to 8-9 hours. It’s a very long period of time, and for an instructor you’d start at 5.30am and you might be leaving at 10pm or 11pm. And that doesn’t come through in the movie!”
Those Debriefs in Full
The process above is more or less what is actually portrayed in the film, albeit a stripped-down version. But do those debriefs happen the way we see them on screen?
“The overall structure – they’re sitting in a room, they’re watching the exercise on replay and you’ve got the instructor Charlie saying ‘this is what you did, but this is what you could have done better’ – that, loosely speaking, is accurate. That’s what you want to accomplish in a debrief: you want to see what happened, and what could you do better and you try to work out how to fix those things as you progress through the TOPGUN syllabus.
“The debrief in TOPGUN is really where the magic happens, because you can have the best plan, you can have a great brief, and the operation can still go poorly because your adversary is really good, or because you made a glaring mistake or a terrible omission. So the debrief lasts anywhere from maybe an hour and a half to three hours depending on how intricate the mission was. And when you finish the debrief that’s when you give the student their grade and determine if they are going to pass to the next one.”
Feeling the Need, the Need to Compete
Obviously, these rigid processes and procedures are all well and good, but a big part of the Top Gun films is the sense of rivalry; the competition to see who is really the best. Surely, every TOPGUN course sees a friendly wager or two as well?
“There is no competition element involved. That’s something that is very different from the movie. In the movie, you’re accruing points and, at the end of the class, who has the most points becomes the ‘Top Gun’. That’s not a real thing; it’s basically a pass/fail system. There have been students who fail to graduate because they do not meet the standards they’re set by the TOPGUN staff, and a critical part of being an instructor and graduating as a student is: there is a standard and you have to meet it. If you can’t meet it, then you will not graduate.
“With that being said, yes, it’s a challenging atmosphere, but it’s also a very collaborative atmosphere. The purpose of the TOPGUN staff is not to berate, demean, or discourage any of the students. It’s quite the opposite. It’s to say ‘You walked in the door with a baseline level of skills; your natural level of capability and now we’re going to spend the next few months making you the very best kind of pilot you can possibly be’.”
Dangerous Manoeuvres in the Sky
At least all the aerial footage in the film must be accurate, particularly as the filmmakers were adamant they needed to get cameras attached to real Navy aircraft in order to get actual flying scenes captured realistically.
“Yes, I would say that they’re relatively accurate. Every plane is bound by the laws of aerodynamics and so since they were using real footage in the movie, it parallels what you can do in real life. The big difference between then and now are the types of aircraft we have. Back to the original film, the airplane that was kind of the hero in everyone’s mind was the F-14 Tomcat. It was a much more sluggish aircraft. It had this sluggish wallowing motion and it was a much harder plane to fly and control.
“The plane that I flew the most was the F/A-18 Super Hornet, and I also flew the F-16 Viper. Those are much more agile, much more controllable during a dogfight, and very quick when they manoeuvre. So that gives you an advantage that goes beyond what the movie portrayed in 1986.”
A key theme in the original Top Gun movie is confidence and how losing that confidence can impact a pilot’s ability to get back up in the sky (or get back down again). It’s not hard to imagine this is a very real issue faced by naval aviators in real life.
“There are two main obstacles that students face. There’s the technical obstacle and then there’s the confidence. The technical obstacle is: ‘do you have the mental acuity to handle being a fighter pilot?’ I once flew with some pilots who used to be helicopter pilots and they transitioned from flying helicopters to flying fighter jets. For some of them, it became very difficult because you go from flying 80-90mph to flying 600mph. You have to make very rapid decisions and then act on those decisions, and of course, once you’ve acted, you have to observe and be able to respond again. Some people technically just can’t keep up with that…
“Then there is a confidence level. When I was a junior officer, one of the pilots in my squadron suffered a crisis of confidence. He went to end of the runway to take-off and basically sat there for thirty minutes. He just wasn’t able to muster the courage to take-off. He came back and, to my recollection, I don’t think he ever flew again. He was given opportunities, but it was just one of those things where he made a self-determination that ‘this is not for me, I don’t feel comfortable’. That’s actually a brave decision to make.”
We actually see this in action in the original Top Gun, when Cougar, played by John Stockwell, gets involved in a hairy aerial situation and does not react well, causing him ultimately to hand in his wings.
Far Too Radio Active
“We happened to see a MiG-28 do a 4g negative dive” — accurate and realistic dialogue, or Hollywoodised nonsense speak? Are there any instance of the film taking artistic liberties with how the characters would speak to each other in real life?
“One thing in the movie is that there’s a lot of emotion on the radio calls. There’s a lot of yelling, and they talk A LOT. That’s very different to real life. At TOPGUN we preach radio discipline. When I was a commanding officer of my own fighter squadron in Japan, if you were listening to our radios, there would be very little conversation or discussion. Because you always wanted to leave the radio open so you could listen and think, and you only wanted to speak if it was important to do so. That’s a significant departure from what you see in the movie where they’re bantering back and forth constantly and having this running conversation and dialogue. You won’t see that with real fighter pilots in the real world.”
It’s a Team Effort
Perhaps the greatest enjoyment in watching Top Gun comes from the palpable sense of camaraderie between all involved. The entire film is filled with punch-in-the-air moments of team-cheering.
“There’s a strong sense of shared focus. And a squadron is not just, say, 12 or 15 pilots – when I had a squadron in Japan, it was 15 pilots, but then you had another 220 other sailors, who fixed the airplanes, handled the ordnance, and refueled the airplanes, so it’s a huge team effort. Then you extend that out to everyone on the aircraft carrier, that was roughly 4000 to 5000 people, and then I think you can extend that out to your families as well because a lot of times, when you have a very unique lifestyle and, in many cases, you live overseas on a military base, it creates a positive culture of support.
“It was basically like an extended family. And I think you could feel that in the professional environment as well. The standards were high, everyone wanted to be the best, but it was more of a collaboration because, you were only limited by your capability rather than an external influence.”
Making time for fun
With that many people involved, that must make for one massive shirtless beach volleyball tournament. Is that how everyone really spends their downtime?
“There would be dinners, times where you’d get dressed up and book a very nice hotel or restaurant, and celebrate the achievements of the squadron. There were times of course where you’d hit the bars together just to blow off steam. I think people would always describe it as having a ‘work hard, play hard’ mentality. You wanted to be the very best you can be professionally, but then when it was time to just relax and blow off some steam, then you still wanted to be in each other’s presence and enjoy each other’s company.”
As for the film? Snodgrass finishes by saying, “As with most things in Hollywood, there are some things that are over-exaggerated. They focus in on the bar scene, or on beach volleyball. Between you and me, as an actual TOPGUN instructor, I’ve never played a game of volleyball, beach or otherwise!”
Top Gun: Maverick hits screens in the UK on 25 May and in the US on 27 May.
Commander Guy Snodgrass wrote about his experiences for the first time in his best-selling book Top Gun’s Top 10: Leadership Lessons From the Cockpit.
Below, check out our interview with Top Gun and Top Gun: Maverick producer Jerry Bruckheimer, who chats to us exclusively about how the Top Gun sequel stalled along the way, the original cast members in discussions to come back, and which of his healthy back catalogue of movies he wants to tap next for a follow-up.