You’ve seen “Top Gun”. But what does the real TOPGUN program look like?

The big summer blockbuster is “Top Gun: Maverick,” which has already sold more than $1 billion in theater tickets worldwide and shows no signs of slowing down, according to Variety. The film stars Tom Cruise as an older, slightly wiser version of brash Navy pilot Pete “Maverick” Mitchell, the character he portrayed in the 1986 hit “Top Gun.”

Although both “Top Gun” films are fictional, they are based on an actual military aviation program, the US Navy Fighter Weapons School, aka TOPGUN. The real TOPGUN, which the Navy launched in 1969 to reduce combat losses in Vietnam, was originally based at what was then known as Naval Air Station Miramar in California, the setting of the first “Top Gun”. This location is now a Marine Corps air base, and since the mid-1990s TOPGUN has been located at Naval Air Station Fallon, Nevada.

While the location, aircraft, and technology have changed over the years, the mission is essentially the same. According to the US Department of Defense website on the program.

“The ultimate goal of TOPGUN can best be described as ensuring that naval aviation is trained and ready, and has the tactics necessary to win in combat against any adversary, at any time,” says the commander. Christopher “Pops” Papaioanu, a veteran. Navy pilot and TOPGUN alumnus who served as the school’s commandant in 2018-19.

To achieve this goal, TOPGUN students take one of three courses, according to Papaioanu. In addition to the Combat Attack Tactics Instructor Course (SFTI), the one depicted in the films, there are two nine-week courses. In the first, select TOPGUN pilots learn to replicate the capability and tactics used by other nations, so they can play the role of enemy airmen more realistically in Navy training exercises. In the second, students learn (via simulators) how to use their sensors and provide SFTIs with situational awareness to help them make decisions.

Graduates often become instructors at Navy weapons schools, but they also help develop operational testing for new aircraft being developed by putting them in tactical scenarios that show whether a fighter aircraft is capable of what what it is supposed to do. And some are offered a chance to become instructors at TOPGUN itself.

What it takes to join TOPGUN

In the 13-week Fighter Tactics Instructor Course, pilots undergo a demanding regime of classroom instruction and study, continuously analyzing what they are doing in the air. Those who become TOPGUN instructors have an even more grueling requirement. After researching an aviation topic in an effort to become an expert in the field, they must go through what is known as “murder counseling” and deliver a three-hour lecture entirely from memory. Between flying, studying and teaching, an instructor can spend a day of 12 to 16 hours.

This intellectual rigor is one of the reasons why mastery of flight is only one of the requirements for making TOPGUN.

“We are looking for three things,” Papaioanu says. “The first is passion. They have to be passionate about being good on the plane, they have to be passionate about instruction, they have to be passionate about doing this job.”

The second most important qualification is having the right personality. While Hollywood might make brash overconfidence a prerequisite, TOPGUN actually seeks the opposite type of temper. “If they come in confident, overconfident and arrogant, that’s not like a personality you can improve on, is it?” said Papaioanu. Instead, the program favors “someone who is humble, who can go out and do an event, make a big comeback, admit they’ve made mistakes, and be willing to criticize themselves or allow us as instructors to improve them”.

Pure talent as a driver actually ranks third, according to Papaioanu. “The way we look at it is if they have the passion and they have the ability, we’re going to make them better.”

“TOPGUN pushed me to expand the envelope of my abilities, resulting in a much higher skill level after leaving the staff as an instructor,” says Guy M. Snodgrass, via email. Graduated from TOPGUN in 2006, became an instructor at the school for three years and wrote a 2020 book, “TOPGUN’S Top 10: Leadership Lessons from the Cockpit”, about what he learned at TOPGUN that is transferable to other projects.

“This constant demand for excellence has spanned all phases of flight: preparation, effective flight briefing, mission execution and debriefing,” says Snodgrass, who is now CEO of Defense Analytics, a national security and intelligence consulting firm. foreign politic. “The secret to TOPGUN’s success is high standards and the ability to gain experience at elite training levels. The first time you walk 500 feet [152 meters] pulling 7G is an eye-opening experience. But when you can perform at such a high level for several years, the ability to perform becomes second nature.”

In addition to improving his performance as a pilot by honing his skills and reducing imperfections, Snodgrass notes that the training also pushed him to do things he had never done before, to become more creative and to solve problems better.

“TOPGUN is an immersive program,” he explains. “You go all out from day one. That means you stretch your abilities at every event, AND you get unique experiences and opportunities along the way. Because the program keeps the bar high, students (and instructors ) get the best of both worlds – personal and professional growth at an accelerated pace.”

No one ever beats their instructor

When Snodgrass was studying to become an instructor with TOPGUN, part of the evaluation was to do a “rush ride”, a series of simulated dogfights, in which he had to face his own TOPGUN instructor. In his book, Snodgrass recalls the rushing run as a humiliating experience, in which his opponent outmaneuvered him and actually took him down with a mock missile in the second of three sets.

Dejected Snodgrass met his instructor, analyzed his defeats and outlined areas for improvement needed on a whiteboard. Afterwards, he was surprised when his instructor told him he had done a good job – no one ever beats their instructor, he explained – and invited him to stay and be himself. instructor. What he didn’t realize was that he wasn’t just being measured on his flying abilities, but on his character – specifically, how committed he would stay to learning and improving.

“Each TOPGUN instructor takes a quick lap to test their abilities before the staff votes on whether or not to accept them as a new member,” says Snodgrass. “The type of flight may vary – dogfights, air-to-ground bombardments, large-scale battles – but the overall process remains the same. How does a potential instructor behave? Does he have the talent, the passion and personality to succeed?

Snodgrass remembers having to absorb an overwhelming amount of information at TOPGUN. “It’s part of the course design: adding stress beyond just performing the flight,” he says. “Teaching students how to prioritize the most critical and urgent tasks over those that are less important. As I discuss in my book, I have found this characteristic to be critical to long-term success, you are in uniform, in a corporate office or any other daily work.

The real TOPGUN versus the movie version

Movies inevitably embellish real-life experiences for dramatic purposes. Even so, Snodgrass notes that in many ways, the “Top Gun” films actually got the program right and the experience of participating in it. He was impressed by the flight footage, which Papaioanu said was taken by real Navy pilots.

Beyond that, “the real TOPGUN has a tremendous amount of camaraderie and esprit de corps, which also shines through in the movies,” said the former Navy pilot.

But Snodgrass agrees with Papaioanu that Hollywood allows itself to play on the characters’ egos and their thirst for competition, which doesn’t really correspond to the reality of TOPGUN.

“Being part of an elite military unit like TOPGUN is a real team sport,” says Snodgrass. “Points aren’t awarded and rankings don’t exist. Instead, it’s an iron whetstone. Establishing the conditions under which everyone is allowed to reach their full potential. Yes, c “It’s a competitive lifestyle, but not supported by people undermining each other. Rather, it’s about performing to the best of your abilities and then learning to stretch those abilities a little more each day.”

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