Movie audiences were enthralled when the Hollywood’s “Top Gun” hit theaters in 1986. This supersonic action adventure, starring Tom Cruise, Val Kilmer and Kelly McGillis, popularized post-Vietnam carrier aviation and made Top Gun a household name. Although the antics of Cruise’s character, Lt. Pete “Maverick” Mitchell, are entirely fictional, there is a strong connection between the real Top Gun and the USS Midway (CV-41).
When the air war over North Vietnam paused in 1968, the Navy conducted an investigation into the less-than-advertised performance of its air-to-air missiles. The resulting report found deficiencies not only with the new technology of the expensive missiles, but with the state of aircrew training in the art of aerial combat. With sophisticated missiles being the apparent future of air warfare, the Navy and Air Force had allowed classic air-to-air dogfighting combat skills to atrophy. To reverse this, the report called for a renaissance in dogfighting training in the form of a graduate-school program for talented naval aviators already flying tactical fighter jets.
The Birth of Top Gun
In March 1969, the Naval Fighter Weapons School, soon to be nicknamed Top Gun, was born. It began inauspiciously at Naval Air Station (NAS) Miramar near San Diego in a secondhand trailer using a handful of fighter aircraft from the local training squadron and others borrowed from neighboring units. The plan was simple: take especially adept Navy fighter crews from fleet squadrons and put them through a rigorous course of tactical study and intense flying against their instructors in realistic combat conditions. Top Gun graduates would then return to their parent squadrons sharing their knowledge and experiences with fellow aircrews with the aim of improving combat proficiency throughout the fleet.
The early Top Gun alumni did not have long to wait before combat returned to the skies. In 1972, the Midway rushed across the Pacific to defend South Vietnam from an invasion from the North. On May 18, Top Gun graduates Lt. Bart Bartholomay and his Radar Intercept Officer (RIO), Lt. Oran Brown, flying with Fighter Squadron 161 (VF-161), shot down a MiG-19 supersonic fighter in a twisting aerial battle. Just five days later, fellow squadron mates and Top Gun alums, Lt. Cmdr. Ron McKeown and his RIO, Lt. Jack Ensch, knocked down a pair of MiG-17s after escaping a trap laid by the enemy over its own air base.
Throughout the 21 remaining years of the Midway’s career, the Top Gun program expanded and proved its worth to the fleet. In 1995, the school was moved to Naval Air Station Fallon, in the high desert of Nevada 60 miles east of Reno.
USS Midway Museum’s Connection to Top Gun
The museum’s F/A-18 Hornet strike fighter on the flight deck currently displays the camouflage paint scheme and markings of an adversary aircraft employed by Top Gun in the late 1990s. Today, the Midway’s connection to Top Gun extends far beyond mere hardware. Top Gun graduates and former instructors are now key volunteers with the museum.
One of the leaders in the development of the museum’s F-4 Phantom ready room exhibit is Jim Laing. A MiG killer as an ensign with Fighter Squadron 114 (VF-114) during a combat deployment to Vietnam in 1967 aboard the USS Kitty Hawk, Laing was one of the original Top Gun instructors in 1969. He subsequently made two more combat deployments to Vietnam on board Midway’s sister carrier, the USS Coral Sea.
USS Midway Museum volunteer docent Kenneth “Pete” Pettigrew is the real life “Viper” depicted by actor Tom Skerritt in the original “Top Gun” film. With a tour as a Top Gun instructor behind him, Pettigrew went on to shoot down a MiG-21 over Vietnam in 1972 flying with Carrier Air Wing 11 (CVW-11) from deck of the Kitty Hawk.
Carrying on the connection is museum docent Mitchell Moore who graduated from Top Gun in 1984. Though an attack pilot flying the A-7 Corsair II, the Navy ensured its tactical pilots, regardless of community, got the very best in air-combat training.
Cruise is again thrilling movie goers today with the release of the sequel “Top Gun: Maverick.” This new film, however, is updated to include not only F/A-18 Hornet jets, but a daring low-level mission over fearsome terrain and the presence of younger stars, both male and female, filmed inside these high-performance aircraft. With advances in camera technology, the filmmakers have delivered an exhilarating ride for both fans of the original as well as those new to the story of naval aviation. Although no longer set in NAS Miramar, the Top Gun legend continues.
Launch em’… until next time,