Top Gun Has Been Making Enemies Squirm Since the 60s

Fighter Weapons School at Miramar turned good fighter pilots into great fighter pilots.

On March 3rd 1969 the United States Navy established its Fighter Weapons School at Naval Air Station Miramar outside of San Diego in California. You know the school better as TOP GUN. The school began producing pilots and crews with much improved air combat maneuvering (ACM) skills, who were then able to pass their knowledge on to their squadron mates. TOP GUN also spawned a woefully inaccurate but nonetheless popular 80s movie. But how much do you really know about TOP GUN?

In 1968, United States Navy Captain Frank Ault was directed by the Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral and Naval Aviator Thomas Moorer, to look into the reasons why the Navy was losing so many aircraft and experienced crews in the skies over Vietnam. More specifically, Moorer and the Navy High Brass were concerned that having procured a fighter aircraft that was not armed with guns might have been a blunder. The Navy and Marine F-4 Phantom IIs were just not scoring kills with their primary (and in most cases only) weapon- the air-to-air missile. Ault’s charter was to figure out why and to propose potential fixes.

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Consider this: Between March 2nd 1965 and November 1st 1968 (the days of Operation Rolling Thunder) the United States lost nearly 1000 aircraft in roughly 1 million sorties. Even though both the Navy and Air Force losses were included in these telling statistics, the reasons for the losses were not interpreted by the Navy and the Air Force the same way.

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Although the Air Force had not commissioned a formal study into the abysmal performance during Rolling Thunder, the Air Force nonetheless came to the conclusion that their losses came about because Vietnamese MiGs, operating primarily at the direction of ground controllers, were routinely being steered by those controllers into positions from which they were both unobserved before they attacked, and most often attacked from behind the Air Force jets. The Air Force interpreted the data and decided that their losses were primarily due to technology.

In order to address what they believed were equipment shortcomings, the Air Force specified and procured the F-4E variant of the Phantom II. The F-4E added an internal M61 Vulcan multi-barrel cannon, additional internal fuel capacity, improved radar homing and warning (RHAW) equipment, more powerful engines, leading-edge maneuvering slats, and more reliable targeting systems for the radar-guided AIM-7 Sparrow and heat-seeking AIM-9 Sidewinder air-to-air missiles. The Air Force also worked with the missile manufacturers to improve quality control during the manufacturing process, which benefitted all parties. The Navy would eventually incorporate some of these improvements into later variants of their Phantom IIs, but did not adopt an internal cannon. Every fighter aircraft developed after the F-4 incorporated an internal gun of some kind.

Captain Ault published his report in May of 1968. He reached the conclusion that inadequate air combat maneuvering (ACM) training was the root of the problem. Although he interpreted the poor results attained using the missiles the same way the Air Force did, Ault believed Navy and Marine aircrews were being adequately trained only to maneuver into position to fire their missiles at targets but not in the kind of frenetic maneuvering then taking place in the skies over Vietnam. His conclusions were seconded by the pilots flying the Vought F-8 Crusader. Equipped with four 20 millimeter cannon but a handful to maneuver effectively, the F-8 would also reward pilots who practiced ACM on a regular basis.

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Based upon the findings published in the Ault Report, the Navy concurred with Ault’s conclusion that an advanced fighter weapons school be established with the goals of improving aircrew ACM skills, coordination between Navy pilots and radar intercept officers (RIOs), and essentially giving each crew the experience of having fought multiple simulated but realistic ACM engagements before entering actual combat. Once a graduating crew went back to their fleet squadron, they would pass along what they had learned to their squadron mates. Subsequent graduates of the school would pass along the latest gouge when they returned to the fleet, resulting in a perpetual culture of skills development and maintenance among fighter aircrews.

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In essence the objective of the school was to teach ACM tactics using Dissimilar Air Combat Training (DACT). DACT essentially utilizes American aircraft that are flown using the tactics, performance envelopes, and handling characteristics of the Soviet fighters the fleet aircrews could expect to encounter in then-current and future conflicts.

At first, standard A-4 Skyhawk attack aircraft were used to simulate the MiG-17 Fresco and occasionally the MiG-19 Farmer. Borrowed Air Force T-38 Talons mimicked the MiG-21 Fishbed. Any other available aircraft, such as Navy and Marine A-6 Intruders, Navy Reserve F-8 Crusaders, Air Force F-100 Super Sabres, F-106 Delta Darts, and others could be and were used to provide simulated Soviet-bloc aircraft for the school’s student aircrews to engage.

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TOP GUN began as a part of the west coast F-4 Phantom II replacement air group (RAG), VF-121 Pacemakers. The initial instructors were primarily F-8 pilots who started building the syllabus. Years earlier the Navy had stopped dedicated aerial gunnery training in the belief that the advent of the radar-guided missile had made aerial gunnery obsolete. Many of the F-8 pilot instructors were graduates of these gunnery training units (known as Fleet Air Gunnery Units or FAGUs).

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Tasked with training new pilots to fly and fight the F-4 Phantom II, VF-121 could only supply one side of the training equation. Other Miramar-based units, such as VC-7 Tallyhoers and VF-126 Bandits, played the role of the aggressors. Having started playing the role of adversary in April of 1967, The Bandits eventually became the school’s dedicated aggressor squadron.

TOP GUN quickly established a reputation for producing aircrews who had already fought several realistic engagements against the aircraft they would take on for real in the skies over Vietnam. The school had started off on a shoestring budget with no resources, but TOP GUN graduates had been returning to the fleet and disseminating what they had learned to their squadron mates.

Training Starts Paying Dividends

When the bombing halt was lifted and aircrews began tangling with Vietnamese MiGs again, it was immediately clear that TOP GUN training and tactics had clearly made a huge difference. The Navy kill-to-loss ratio rose from 3.7:1 before TOP GUN graduates went back to the fleet to 13:1 after TOP GUN began schooling Navy fighter aircrews. Having already experienced 1 vs 1, 1 vs 2, 2 vs 1, 2 vs 2, and more complicated engagement scenarios, TOP GUN graduates were far more experienced in ACM and it showed.

In several cases Navy aircrews who had graduated from TOP GUN and returned to the fleet were able to score air-to-air kills and later return to TOP GUN as instructors. Even though they had not graduated from TOP GUN, the Navy’s first aces of the war (Cunningham and Driscoll from VF-96 Fighting Falcons) flew many DACT ACM flights against TOP GUN instructors while they were training with VF-121.

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Meanwhile the Air Force kill-to-loss ratio did not improve despite the aforementioned improvements to their fighters.

TOP GUN became a separate command thanks to the success of its graduates. As Navy fighter aircraft evolved over the next two decades, so too did Navy fighter doctrine. TOP GUN acquired their own F-5E (single seat) and F-5F (two seat) Freedom Fighter aircraft to better impersonate the MiG-21 and later the MiG-23 Flogger. Their A-4s received uprated J-52-P408 engines. The new engines, along with the removal of equipment superfluous to their role as lightweight fighter imposters, gave the already maneuverable A-4s outstanding performance to match.

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Adversary training and practice were and still are conducted outside of TOP GUN as well. At Naval Air Station Key West in Florida, every year a group of adversary pilots square off against fleet fighter squadrons. At NAS Fallon in Nevada, Marine Corps Air Station Yuma in Arizona, and NAS Roosevelt Roads in Puerto Rico, DACT training occurs either as dedicated and focused ACM or as part of larger exercises.

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The tactics taught at TOP GUN would pay dividends again during the 1980s. In two separate incidents, the first on August 19th 1981 and the second on January 4th 1989, F-14 Tomcats were threatened by Libyan aircraft flying aggressively (or launching missiles). The Tomcat pilots had benefitted from years of collective experience in ACM against a variety of DACT adversaries. In both engagements the scores were Navy 2, Libya 0. Both scores also made awesome Tomcat T-shirts.

The Air Force did create its own DACT training program, as well as Red Flag, which simulates the first ten combat missions a crew might be expected to fly in wide-ranging and realistic conditions. Both services benefitted from the Air Force Have exploitation programs and the 4477th Test and Evaluation Squadron. Shrouded in secrecy for many years, actual MiG aircraft were acquired and their characteristics analyzed. Strengths and weaknesses were evaluated and performance estimates went from informed guesses to first-hand knowledge. A select few TOP GUN instructors were allowed to fly the Soviet aircraft and pass along their findings to their students. A limited number of ACM engagements were flown against the MiGs in the restricted skies over Nevada.

TOP GUN added the Air Force F-16 Fighting Falcon to their stable of dedicated aggressor aircraft when F-14 Tomcat and F/A-18 Hornet crews were faced with potentially engaging newer Soviet fighter aircraft like the MiG-29 Fulcrum and Su-27 Flanker fighters. The first group of Navy F-16Ns developed structural cracks that resulted in the aircraft being grounded permanently. A second group of early-production F-16As and F-16Bs were refurbished and diverted to the Navy when an embargo prevented their sale to Pakistan. TOP GUN still uses these F-16s, along with F/A-18s, as their primary aggressor aircraft today.

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TOP GUN training also began to include E-2 Hawkeye early warning aircrews in order to fine-tune the coordination between the Tomcat and Hawkeye crews required to successfully engage targets from longer distances. The TOPGUN course has evolved as have the aircraft crews in training fly. In March of 1985 the last F-4 crews graduated from the school. October of 2003 saw the last F-14 TOP GUN graduate crews.

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The school was moved from Naval Air Station (now Marine Corps Air Station) Miramar to Naval Air Station Fallon in Nevada during 1996 to be re-invented as the Strike Fighter Tactics Instructor (SFTI) program, now a department of the Naval Strike and Air Warfare Center (NSAWC) at Fallon.

Here is a question for all you readers out there. In the movie Top Gun, “Maverick” employs (not once but twice) a tactic described as “hitting the brakes”, thereby forcing the trailing aircraft about to lock him up to “fly right by.” Exactly how does firewalling the throttles (not once but indeed twice) relate to “hitting the breaks?” Not the only head-scratcher in the film but seriously…that really got past everybody?