Table of Contents
Top Gun ← you are here
R&D Test: NADC
America West Airlines
Navy MiG Kills (pdf)
'09 TOPGUN Article I
'09 TOPGUN Article II
Ault Report (pdf 3MB )
British & TOPGUN
Early Documentary Video
F-8 vs F-4 video
"Making Them Squirm" Cunningham, the "Ace"
Top Gun Video
The Red Baron
End of an Era
Robert Wilcox' seminal, authoritative, and enjoyable account of the extraordinary and hard-charging junior officers who, against the odds and in short order, established the "Real TOPGUN school." These few icons suddenly changed Naval Air for decades...and saved some lives.
Available at Amazon.
The epitome of a true Fighter Pilot [even if he was Air Force and not a Naval Aviator].
Bio's Book & Blog
The ACM 'Bible' by former squadron mate, Bob Shaw.
an elite school for the top one percent of its pilots.
Its purpose was to teach the lost art of aerial combat
and to insure that the handful of men who graduated
were the best fighter pilots in the world."
"Today, the Navy calls it Fighter Weapons School. The flyers call it..."
"Only the spirit of attack, born in a brave heart, will bring success to any fighter aircraft, no matter how highly developed it may be."
“Fighter pilots have to rove in the area allotted to them in any way they like, and when they spot an enemy they attack and shoot them down – anything else is rubbish.”
In my entire aviation career, there was never a more intense and challenging, yet thoroughly enjoyable period than the five weeks I was fortunate to spend at the elite, Navy Fighter Weapons School (NFWS) - more commonly known as TOPGUN.
But it was almost not to be. During my first cruise with VF-151, embarked aboard the USS Midway and flying combat missions in Southeast Asia, another extraordinary and talented pilot had been tentatively identified to represent our fighter squadron at Top Gun, Don Symington. Then one day, after a brief close air support mission in South Vietnam and thus having extra fuel to spare, my flight lead and I engaged in some ACM (air combat maneuvering) training before our scheduled recovery to the ship.
It was one of my best performances. My lead was a very talented and widely respected ACM pilot. He held great sway as to who would attend Top Gun. After our flight, he told the CO that I was the best and most aggressive young fighter pilot he had ever flown against. As a result, I got orders to NFWS, Top Gun/TOPGUN.*
The timing was perfect. Although still new, the school was rapidly making a real and vitally needed impact upon our Navy fighter community with regard to our tactics, training, and combat results; I had just finished my first combat cruise, and was about to embark on my second; and the air war over North Vietnam had just reignited in earnest with North Vietnam's Easter Offensive and the North bombing halt rescinded by President Nixon after a long pause. [Related]
Although the first ever Top Gun class convened in 1969, it would not be until the summer of 1972 for TOPGUN to finally and formally be commissioned as an entirely separate command. Nevertheless within those intervening short three years, initially as a department of, and then later as a detachment of the Pacific Fleet Replacement Air Group (RAG) squadron, VF-121, the school almost immediately became the most major development within Naval Aviation in decades!
[Note: The movie "Top Gun" was released in 1986 - 17 years after the establishment of the real Top Gun.
NFWS Top Gun grew rapidly from an embryonic idea following the historic and seminal, Ault Report. It began with a bunch of the Navy's best, brightest, and most hard-charging Fighter Pilots & RIOs - albeit mostly very junior officers - convening and trying to work in a cramped and sweaty trailer behind VF-121's large and spacious hangar.
Initially they had more fresh ideas than equipment or support, and they had no adversary aircraft. They had to use VF-126's two-seat instrument-training TA-4Js as their adversary aircraft. But it did not take long for them to expand due to their immediate impact. Eventually they moved to much needed full offices and classroom spaces in a large, separate aircraft hangar. This was a result of the great changes they were obviously making in not only F-4, but also all US Air-To-Air Tactics against Soviet built aircraft.
Over a short time, the "plank-owners" of the VF-121 Top Gun unit doggedly gained a small fleet of begged and borrowed, dissimilar adversary aircraft, a generous budget finally, and put to work a syllabus they had developed that would and did turn the air war in North Vietnam on its ear!
Two years prior in 1970 as a VF-121 RAG student, I had the great privilege of flying a few hops with some of the initial cadre of Top Gun instructors; men who to me (and most others) were larger than life, and some of the best Fighter Pilots/ROs I have ever known.... Names like Pedersen, Rullifson, Laing, Gary, Smith, Mckeown, Pettigrew and several others (all described in Wilcox's excellent book about Top Gun's genesis, Scream of Eagles). Some even had recent experience in the then highly classified Have Doughnut and Have Drill projects, and some would later down MiGs over North Vietnam. They were a small group of junior officers led by a young natural leader and extraordinary fighter pilot, and later Captain, Dan Pedersen.
[A now seemingly quaint 1991 "Inside Addition" TV program (with a much younger, Bill O'Reilly) interview with Dan Pedersen, the first Officer-in-Charge of Top Gun may be seen here, at 3:06 minute mark within the seven minute video.]
Those original Top Gun instructors all worked extraordinarily difficult and long hours with minimal support or recognition. Nevertheless they astonishingly changed Naval Air against great odds and in short order for our country's benefit. Moreover their dedication and shared expertise saved pilots' lives in the Air War over North Vietnam.
Now the impressive initial Togpgun cadre I had known and had flown with as a student two years earlier while in VF-121 in 1970 had all moved on, mostly to the fleet. Now the NFWS was in full swing with another complement of the Navy's best fighter pilots instructing. It was already making its mark as a detachment separate from VF-121 in early 1972, finally having its own fleet of dissimilar aircraft and with then CDR Roger Box as its Officer in Charge (OinC). In July of 1972 the NFWS TOPGUN Detachment was finally commissioned as its own separate command with former OinC CDR Box thus becoming TOPGUN'S first commanding officer.
[As a side note: I was sitting in my Top Gun class in early 1972 on the day we received "flash" message traffic that a certain Lt. Cunningham (later the Ace) had shot down his first MiG. Surprisingly and ironically, there was some disappointment within the school with this news. I did not know why, but I learned this. The school always hoped for their own TOPGUN graduates to get the kills, to further validate their extreme new theories, syllabus, and school... and although he - like I did earlier - did fly with some of the initial Top Gun cadre in VF-121, and also as an observer in the back seat of VF-126's TA-4s during some ACM syllabus engagements, Cunningham was never an official Top Gun selectee or graduate, contrary to many sources. Indeed he was not even known prior to that day by our Top Gun class or our instructors, save for one who said he slightly knew him before then. However that would soon change.]
Study, Fly, Study, Then Study Some More
Although perhaps not as glamorous as the later movie of the same name, the intensity, quality, and value of the real Top Gun school far exceeded that of the movie.
Every day started very early with classroom study of a variety of lessons. . . from Soviet history to public speaking, in addition to cutting edge, "loose deuce" fighter tactics. Then at least one, if not two flights followed, flying against the best fighter pilots in the world at that time. Thoroughly tired and drained after the debriefs, more classroom work or study followed. Then it was home after dark for more study until late at night. Then the next morning, the same routine commenced once again.
Even though I lived with three other fighter pilots in a surprising, cheaply rented "snake ranch" mansion with a beautiful ocean view atop Mt. Soledad in La Jolla, I had no time to enjoy it. Nor was there any time for the inviting social life that my roommates were enjoying. But I didn't mind. There was no other place I wanted to be, nor anything I wanted more to do than to be a student at the best school ever - the Navy Fighter Weapons School!
MiG-19s = Almost a Friendly Fire Incident
Of our early Top Gun Class Picture below, only two of the four fighter crews pictured would later fly in SEA (South East Asia). And of those remaining four individual Pilots and RO's, only two - Bart (standing, left center behind me kneeling, and Jim, with glasses next to Bart) would ever down enemy MiGs** (separately, and documented here, here, and here.
Additionally, the History Channel has an excellent recent video re-creation [ start at the 10:00 minute mark ] of Bart's and other fellow Midway pilots' dogfights over North Vietnam during our 1972 cruise.
[Bart looks good in the video. But his hair color certainly has changed since we went through Top Gun together in 1972. Nevertheless, his thoughts, his maneuvers, and his expertise are all accurately depicted. And as he expresses in the video they are all the same things as I remember him during our training, so many years ago.]
Ironically, only a few months after the below photograph was taken, I nearly shot down Bart over North Vietnam, in a potential friendly fire incident.
My section was given a "cleared to fire" by our "Red Crown" controllers on two MiG-19s we had been chasing. My RO, (call-sign "TA") had deftly locked up on our radar what we were told was one of the hostile "Bandit" MiG-19s. With that confirmation, I was eagerly set to fire an AIM-7 "Sparrow" missile head-on at the rapidly approaching, targeted Bandit.
I only hesitated, so as to close the range and "sweeten the shot" to ensure a greater probability of a 'kill'. . . . when suddenly I saw in the distance - Smoke!
I knew MiG's did not smoke; I knew that F-4's did smoke, so I therefore thankfully held my fire.
A moment later Bart in his smoking F-4 - my previously "cleared-to fire-upon, 'enemy' target" - blasted by my port side at 600kts!
While on a separate radio frequency and without our knowledge of his position, Bart also had been vectored onto the same MiG's that were initially between us - the ones we were given clearance to fire upon. (We learned later that the two MiGs had slipped away undetected, out low to the south, leaving Bart and I unknowingly flying fast toward each other with our missiles armed and ready, and with us given a clearance to fire on our locked-up target!)
In our flight debrief, Bart casually brushed the near catastrophe off. But to this day, I still shudder at how close I came to firing on my friend.
[ I have recently learned that my old fighter pilot friend, colleague, and fellow classmate TOPGUN graduate, Bart lost in his final battle, his life on 5 October, 2015 while battling a serious illness. It is a deep loss for me, and especially for his family. May he rest in peace. Throw a nickel on the grass.***]
“Nor was there a test to show whether or not a pilot had this righteous quality. There was, instead, a seemingly infinite series of tests. A career in flying was like climbing one of those ancient Babylonian pyramids made up of a dizzy progression of steps and ledges, a ziggurat, a pyramid extraordinarily high and steep; and the idea was to prove at every foot of the way up that pyramid that you were one of the elected and anointed ones who had the right stuff and could move higher and higher and even God willing, one day – that you might be able to join that special few at the very top, that elite who had the capacity to bring tears to men’s eyes, the very Brotherhood of the Right Stuff itself.“
*"Top Gun" or "Topgun" or "TOPGUN"?   Which written term is more correct?
In its embryonic days beginning in 1969, the Top Gun unit III/detachment/school/VF-121 spinoff was casually, and in the vernacular always referred to by two words: "Top Gun" -- as it also was in official correspondence.
I believe it was sometime later in its important and rapid evolution, and after it finally became a wholly separate command in 1972 rather than a separate detachment, the Top Gun moniker was eventually and officially changed to a single word, with all capital letters: "TOPGUN". However, the always official name nevertheless remained intact while it still remained at NAS Miramar before repositioning to NAS Fallon as: The "Navy Fighter Weapons School" (NFWS).
[Later edit: Although still referred to as "TOPGUN" today, it isn't like the old one. Indeed even the name has been changed from "Navy Fighter Weapons School" to "United States Navy Strike Fighter Tactics Instructor program." Today it is a far different and greatly expanded program.]
My apologies to those who are upset when TOPGUN is referred to as Top Gun here on my website. I know it offends some, but I am old school.
** The name "MiG" is a contraction of the names of two extraordinary Russian aircraft designers, Artem Ivanovich Mi(koyan) and Mikhail Iosifovich G(urevich). They designed a series of excellent Russian fighter aircraft. Thus each aircraft model number of theirs is preceded by their "MiG" design emblem, i.e., MiG-17, MiG -19, MiG-21, MiG-29, etc.
*** "Throw a nickel on the grass" explained.
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