'Top Gun' today
Three decades after the movie, our experts weigh in on what's changed
“Top Gun” is due for an upgrade.
Believe it or not, May 16 will mark 30 years since Tom Cruise and company made fighter pilots – pardon us, naval aviators – the envy of thrill-seekers everywhere. Technology has changed. Culture has changed. And so has the art of war itself.
Kenny Loggins, thank goodness, has not.
So what would a “Top Gun” sequel or reboot look like? We asked some of our former fighter pilots and TOPGUN graduates to take their best guess, given how much has changed at the U.S. Navy Strike Fighter Tactics Instructor program since the heady days of 1986.
And here’s what we found.
Spoiler alert, there’s probably no beach volleyball. Just wanted to get that out of the way right up top.
“Top Gun” is all about “Fightertown USA,” the nickname for the former Naval Air Station Miramar in San Diego.
The Navy moved TOPGUN from Miramar to Naval Air Station Fallon in western Nevada in 1996. So, a new “Top Gun” would be pretty light on motorcycling up the coast, training sorties over the Pacific and pilots crooning and carousing in the nightclubs of downtown San Diego.
Moving out of Miramar bummed out fans of Fightertown, but the advantages of running TOPGUN out of Fallon became apparent very quickly, said former U.S. Navy Cmdr. Neil “Waylon” Jennings, who graduated TOPGUN in 1990.
“It’s got tremendous resources – just the amount of airspace, the fact that there are areas where you can fly supersonic and you’re not restricted in your airspeed,” said Jennings, who now works at Raytheon. “There are tons of targets out there in the desert that are designated for your use. Fallon was where it had to go. It really is a better place for it.”
The pilots in “Top Gun” trained on F-14 Tomcats, twin-engine, supersonic fighter jets that were already about 10 years old at the time of filming. The U.S. military retired them from service in 2006. Today TOPGUN pilots fly F/A-18 Hornets and F/A-18E/F Super Hornets.
But they aren’t the only aircraft streaking around the skies over Fallon. The training sorties in a modern “Top Gun” might also include E/A-18G Growlers, F-16 Fighting Falcons (some flown by instructors serving as enemy pilots) and SH-60R/S Seahawk helicopters, all of which fly at Fallon’s Naval Aviation Warfighting Development Center. And those, in turn, would probably warrant at least a cameo for some Raytheon technology: Next-Generation Jammer will fly on the Growler, and Raytheon has a host of advanced sensors and weapons on the F-16.
In short, a new "Top Gun" movie would show a wider variety of aircraft and give a more complex picture of what it means to dominate the skies.
“Instead of just training the F-14 guys, they train the whole air wing,” said retired U.S. Marine Corps Col. Jeffrey “Jaws” White, a 1983 TOPGUN graduate who now works at Raytheon. “They realized to do power projection is more than just dropping bombs on targets.”
One other note about the F-14: It was notoriously hard to land – especially for the panic-stricken Cougar in the opening minutes of the movie, and especially when compared with what they’re flying at TOPGUN now. The plentiful information on the F/A-18’s heads-up display “really makes it easy to land the thing, even when conditions are very aggressive,” Jennings said.
“I was never scared bringing an F/A-18 back on board,” he said. “I always knew I was going to get it back into the wires. I can’t say that about the Tomcat.”
One of the missiles from the movie is still flying today – it’s just much more powerful. We’re talking about the heat-seeking AIM-9 Sidewinder.
The jocks in “Top Gun” would have been carrying the AIM-9M variant, whose modifications improved its ability to find targets, lock onto them and avoid detection.
The latest variant, Raytheon’s AIM-9X Block II, is what’s called a dual-use missile, meaning it can launch from an airborne platform or from a ground launcher with no modifications required. The AIM-9X Block II also has updated electronics that allow the missile to lock on to a target after launch, and a new datalink that helps it find targets beyond visual range.
“The 9X is much sleeker. It looks smaller because the fins are tremendously smaller and shorter, and the less wing surface you have on your missile, the less drag you have on your missile,” Jennings said. “It’s got a great rocket motor, a terrific seeker … obviously, a lot more sophisticated.”
The F-14s of the “Top Gun” era also carried AIM-7 Sparrow missiles, which have since given way to the Advanced Medium Range Air-to-Air Missile, or AMRAAM.
The key difference: guidance. The AIM-7 guidance system relied on the radar of the plane that fired it, meaning pilots had to follow their shot – right into the range of enemy aircraft. AMRAAM, on the other hand, is what pilots call a “launch-and-leave” missile. That means that in the film’s final dogfight, Maverick and the gang could have been on their way back to the aircraft carrier while the missiles were dispatching the MiGs.
“It’s a thousand-percent improvement,” Jennings said. “With an AMRAAM, it opens up a whole range of possibilities.”
In the movie, the Top Gun trophy goes to the best fighter jock of the class – Lt. Tom “Iceman” Kazansky, who got his call sign from his flying style – “ice cold, no mistakes.”
In reality, that’s a terrible way to win the Top Gun trophy. That’s because in reality, there is no Top Gun trophy.
The closest thing, Jennings said, was the gag award they handed out to whoever finished last.
“During the time I went through, when you got the trophy, it was awarded to you because you were the worst air crew in that particular class,” Jennings said. “If you got the Top Gun trophy, that was not a good thing.”
The role of women
Speaking of the trophy, there’s a line about it that just screams machismo: “The plaque for the alternates is down in the ladies’ room,” Iceman says as Maverick and Goose walk by the list of past winners.
Only three of the characters in “Top Gun” are women – two the wives of pilots, and the third a civilian Top Gun instructor and astrophysicist (whose real-life counterpart went on to become the highest-ranking woman in the Department of Defense).
A modern “Top Gun” would almost certainly include female fighter pilots, who have been flying since Defense Secretary Les Aspin lifted a long-standing restriction in 1993. (The Navy, by the way, had been training women to fly in non-combat roles since 1973. And before that, there were the Women Airforce Service Pilots, civilian aviators who provided critical support during World War II.)
“Life changed,” said Jennings, who flew in the squadron that had the first two female fighter pilots. “Before, some of the guys wouldn’t take showers every single day … there was definitely a cultural change.”
Thirty years after “Top Gun,” it’s clear nearly everything has changed – the planes, the weapons, the avionics, the pilots themselves and the world they have sworn to protect. Maybe it really is time for a new “Top Gun.”
The first, after all, was an enormous box-office success – hardly a crash-and-burn.
As for a second, we don’t know.
But it’s looking good so far.