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Article: The Real "Top Gun" School!

Air to Air Combat

The Real "Top Gun" School!

Top Gun 2 is all the rage these days and is the follow-on to the 1986 movie "Top Gun" with Maverick and Goose.

Is this all fiction and movie fun, or is there really a "Top Gun" school for naval and marine pilots?

The Vietnam War

The Vietnam War actually started in the 1950s with the French, but in August of 1964, the USS Maddox was allegedly attacked by North Vietnamese patrol torpedo boats in the Gulf of Tonkin.


This was the excuse for the "Gulf of Tonkin Resolution" which gave the U.S. the authorization to enter into the Vietnam War.

By 1969 the air war over Vietnam was claiming 2 North Vietnamese MiGs shot down for every 1 U.S. aircraft shot down.

In October of 1967, John McCain was shot down on a bombing mission over Hanoi and wound up in a prisoner of war camp for over 5 years.

By 1969 the U.S. military understood it could not keep losing one American aircraft and pilot for every two MiGs.

On March 3rd, 1969 a naval pilot by the name of Dan Pedersen was tapped to head up the Navy's "Advanced Fighter Weapons School", nicknamed "Top Gun".

Staggering Loses

The North Vietnamese pilots were trained by Russian pilot instructors and knew how to get the best performance out of their older MiGs.

One American pilot and aircraft were lost for every two North Vietnamese pilots and aircraft.

It was clear that American pilots had lost the air combat edge they dominated in Korea and World War II.

The United States was training pilots to rely upon equipment like air-to-air missiles, sending them into battle and expecting victories.

Pedersen, known affectionately as the "Godfather of Top Gun", saw 11 pilots lost in 17 days while serving on the carrier USS Enterprise. He said he would go to dinner and see empty chairs at the table.

In January 1969, the Navy published the Ault Report, which came to the conclusion that U.S. aircraft losses were the result of inadequate pilot training in air combat maneuvering (ACM).

Dan Pedersen was chosen as the first officer in charge of the new school, along with eight other young F-4 pilots. They started the Advanced Fighter Weapons School on March 3, 1969.

Their job: Rewrite the rules of air combat maneuvering in 60 days. 

Nobody furnished them with new airplanes, facilities or mechanics; instead, they simply relied upon what they had: the F-4 Phantom.

Top Gun Training Facility circa 1969

The original "Top Gun" training facility at Naval Air Station Miramar in 1969


Training out of an old abandoned trailer, the group set out to learn how to fly the F-4 with new tactics based on their combined knowledge of the capabilities of North Vietnam's MiGs.

The first thing they did was throw away the manufacturer's recommendations on how to fly the F-4 Phantom and learn what its true limits were. 

The original safety factor built into the F-4 was fairly large, and they soon discovered that the airplane was capable of a whole lot more than they had been originally taught.

One of the new maneuvers they taught when engaging the enemy was to go straight up with full afterburner until they reached 40,000 feet and zero airspeed. They knew no MiG pilot would follow them.

At the top, upside down, the enemy fully visible below, they would swoop down behind the enemy aircraft for the kill.

Meanwhile, the wingman would be up top watching the fight and looking out for other enemy aircraft.

Many times they would find themselves engaged with two, three, or even six enemy aircraft in the dogfight. 

After 60 days they returned to rejoin the air war, dispersing new, cutting-edge know-how throughout the military.

By the war's end, the kill ratio had climbed to 24 enemy aircraft to 1 US aircraft.

The Original "Top Gun" Class:

 The first class of pilots from the new Air Combat Manuevring school at Miramar Naval Air Station in California.

The legacy of "Top Gun" today is as important today as it was back then.

Sometimes a $ 300 million dollar aircraft isn't the answer.

You can learn a lot more about these pilot and their aircraft in the new book by Dan Pedersen:

The cover of the book "Top Gun" by Dan Pedersen, the Godfather of Top Gun

Top Gun The Movie

In 1986 the original Top Gun movie came out featuring Tom Cruise wearing American Optical General Sunglasses with the iconic "teardrop" shape shown below.

AO Eyewear 23K Gold Frame Skull Temple American Gray Lens General sunglasses.

Today, however, many pilots prefer the American Optical Original Pilot sunglasses like the one below:

AO Eyewear Original Pilot Sunglasses Matte Black Bayonet Temple True Color Green Lens sunglasses

In the meantime, keep your eyes safe and focused on what's ahead of you Hersch!


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