Patch Wearers

When people think about TOPGUN, they envision motorcycles, beach volleyball and an egotistical Navy pilot stereotype set to an 80’s power chord soundtrack. But the real TOPGUN, also known as the Navy Strike Fighter Tactics School, couldn’t be further from the Hollywood myth. In this exclusive Faces of the Fleet episode, we meet the skilled Naval Aviators of TOPGUN—those who are helping to protect our country while preserving history.

51 Years Of Flight

It’s 5.30 AM in Fallon, NV and the sun has barely risen, but the United States Navy Strike Fighter Tactics School is in full swing. Better known as TOPGUN, the world’s most elite Navy Fighter Pilots and Naval Flight Officers make their way into various classrooms to learn about the latest aerial combat tactics.

The atmosphere is relaxed, but it’s impossible to mistake the sacred walls of this school. Lining the hallways are pictures of the select few aviators who have been fortunate enough to graduate from the program, spanning back to 1969 when it was first conceived.

During the Vietnam War, there was a need to hone Navy fighter tactics as only ten percent of air-to-air missiles were reportedly destroying enemy targets. U.S. Naval Aviators were flying the most sophisticated fighter jets in the world – the F-4 Phantom II and the F-8 Crusader – against the relatively weak competition of the North Vietnamese Air Force, yet the kill ratio was only 2.5:1. Kill ratio is a measure of fighter performance; it indicates the number of enemy aircraft destroyed for each U.S. fighter jet lost. Something had to change.

The Navy ordered an in-depth study of air-to-air missiles, aircraft and radar, as well as the training and tactics of aircrews. The review was known as the Ault Report, led by Captain Frank Ault who was a veteran World War II pilot who commanded the USS Coral Sea in 1966-1967 during Vietnam combat operations. After three months of gathering information, Ault’s team published the eye-opening report offering 104 recommendations. While addressing technical flaws in aviation equipment, the report also recommended a shift in training. From helping aircrews recognize when they were “in the envelope” for launching missiles to establishing an advanced fighter weapons school, Ault’s report helped consolidate and coordinate a doctrine for fighter pilots. With full support from the Navy’s aviation community, TOPGUN was born.

TOPGUN began by assigning the task to officers at Fighter Squadron-121, the F-4 fleet replacement air group training squadron for the U.S. Pacific Fleet. With virtually no funding, nine pilots and instructors used a small trailer at NAS Miramar in San Diego as an office and classroom.

With Lieutenant Commander Dan Pedersen at the helm, TOPGUN trained aviators on how to gather intelligence on enemy aircraft, while also providing advanced engineering information to extract the best out of their fighter jets. There was increased training in dogfighting, allowing pilots to practice complex maneuvers in battle simulations. Just two months after the Ault Report was published on January 1, 1969, the first class was in full-swing.

More Than A Hollywood Stereotype

TOPGUN quickly began to flourish thanks to the rigorous academic culture created by the earliest instructors. Though the program evolved, the instructors continued to hand down knowledge to their students through the years.

By 1996, TOPGUN had moved from Miramar, CA to Fallon, CA when the former base became a Marine Corps air station.

Thanks to Hollywood, most people think of TOPGUN as a school focused on dogfighting and missile deployment. But that’s just a small part of what it’s all about. The main goal of the school is for instructors to train Naval Aviators in every type of aerial maneuver they may use in combat.

“After TOPGUN, students go back to the fleet as a Training Officer in a squadron. We take what we’ve learned at TOPGUN and we train junior pilots up to the syllabi that are required for them to get their initial fleet qualifications in F-18 flying,” said TOPGUN Instructor Lieutenant Orion Kelly.

Instructors have to meet the highest standards for lectures, often done in two-hour classes with no notes. Whether it’s a lecture on radar-guided missiles or one-on-one maneuvering, instructors follow guidelines explicitly stated in their class approval process. These standards have resulted in ultra-disciplined lectures that have helped TOPGUN establish its reputation of excellence.

In addition to lecture discipline, instructors are required to have a high level of stick-and-throttle skill in order to challenge students. Everything that happens in-flight—from a student in an F-18 Super Hornet being “shot” by an instructor in an F-4 Phantom, down to simple mistakes in the cockpit—is analyzed and debriefed. There is no such thing as perfection.

“The most dangerous misconception for a TOPGUN Instructor is to think that they have arrived and that they are as good as they need to be because we’re not in the business of good enough,” LT Kelly added.

The skilled aviators who come through TOPGUN are some of the most humble in the Navy. It’s a place where egos are left behind if you’re going to succeed. Never far from danger, instructors and students understand that survival is about working together safely.

“Hollywood depicts the big ego, being dangerous… but in reality, everyone here is extremely humble. They’re approachable. It’s an honor to work next to these guys every single day. If you can’t trust the guy next to you, you’re ultimately not going to be able to accomplish that mission,” added TOPGUN Instructor Lieutenant Kyle Haith.

Preserving Aviation Excellence

Instructors like LT Kelly and LT Haith have assigned themselves to a significant commitment: excellence on the ground and in the air. Whether it’s their lecture presentations, flight briefings, mission conduct or extensive late-night debriefs, they willingly accept this commitment and strive to live up to the standards set 51 years ago by the founding aviators.

“We’re standing on the shoulders of giants. What the founders did to get this thing started was incredible. We just don’t want to mess it up. We all feel it to a certain degree. We want to maintain the same reputation that TOPGUN has always had,” added Instructor LT Stu Whipkey.

This burden of responsibility comes at a price. Aviators at TOPGUN often work fifteen-hour days as they relentlessly uphold the mission and values of the school. Many pilots like LT Kelly are also family-focused, so striking a healthy balance between work and home life is no easy task. LT Kelly often returns home after 8 P.M., where he is greeted by his wife and two year-old daughter. After reading to his daughter, LT Kelly and his wife tuck her away before spending a couple of hours to themselves.

“The family time is precious here no matter how it’s spent. It’s time that you never get back, so you want to ensure that you’re present 100%,” added LT Kelly.

There’s something magnetic about TOPGUN that makes pilots like LT Kelly push further and further each day, despite the weight of being a husband and father.

“As a Naval Aviator, I don’t think there is an attainable goal of a level of execution that I think that I will ever reach because I’m always trying to be better than I was, and given that, that bar will always be raised. While I’ll never reach that goal, the constant pursuit of perfection is an accomplishment in of itself,” LT Kelly continued.

A Strong Bond

While the long hours at TOPGUN don’t give instructors and students much time to relax, there’s a strong bond between them that’s unique to Naval Aviation. On weekends, Pilots and Naval Flight Officers will often congregate at each other’s homes for barbeques, or to watch sporting events. These gatherings aren’t exclusive—the community of husbands, wives and children make for a tight-knit group.

“The camaraderie here at TOPGUN is pretty tight. It’s a trend in
Naval Aviation that you’ll find in any squadron around the world. Everyone is typically very good friends. We spend all week together at work and then spend the weekends together hanging out with each other’s houses,” LT Kelly said.

Given Fallon’s small size and modest amenities, aviators at TOPGUN tend to live close to one another, often within walking distance. With a population of just 8,606 residents, there’s only a handful of restaurants, bars and coffee shops that locals get to enjoy.

“We work together, we pretty much hang out together all the time because of Fallon’s size. It’s just a close-knit community that most people won’t ever experience in a bigger town,” added LT Whipkey.

Their bond is ultimately forged by what they accomplish in the air. With zero-tolerance on egos, these skilled aviators trust each other with their lives every time they step into the aircraft. Often flying just feet apart, there is no room for error.

“When you’re traveling 500 miles an hour, and having close encounters with other aircraft, that is inherently risky. Taking care of yourself and abiding by the training rules and thinking about what you’re going to go out there to do that day, it creates a stronger bond,” LT Haith continued.

Getting to TOPGUN is no easy feat. Those that walk in the hallowed hallways of the Navy Strike Fighter Tactics School are some of the most gifted aviators in the business. There’s a relentless determination and perfectionism in everything they do. Whether it’s preserving the history of the school or training the next generation of fighter pilots, instructors like Haith, Whipkey and Kelly are well-aware of their responsibility. They are forging new war-fighting techniques to give the Navy superiority in the skies. Those that graduate earn the TOPGUN patch on their flight suit. These patches are a universal symbol of aviation supremacy. It’s something they carry on their shoulders for the rest of their lives, embodying the values of a school that thrives on hard-work and humbleness.

Do you have what it takes to become a Naval Aviator?

Navy Pilots and Naval Flight Officers (NFOs) are important components in an exclusive, world-class group of Officers. As a Naval Aviator, you will be required to perform at the best of your ability at all times, using advanced training and unparalleled knowledge to provide the utmost safety and security in the skies.

As a pilot, you may take part in antisubmarine warfare and mine countermeasures, as well as search and rescue operations and vertical replenishment missions. You will receive specialized training on the advanced tactical systems found on Navy aircraft. Pilots may project aviation power in fighter and attack, reconnaissance and sea control missions—launching from aircraft carriers or surface combatants. You may also conduct enemy surveillance by collecting photographic intelligence.

As an NFO, you may study aerodynamics, aircraft engine systems, meteorology, navigation, flight planning and flight safety, as well as train and specialize in EA-18G Growler electronic countermeasures aircraft, F-18 Super Hornet, E-2C Hawkeye early warning and control aircraft, or the new P-8A Poseidon antisubmarine aircraft. NFO’s also can electronically detect and track ships, submarines, aircraft and missiles.

Whether you’re searching for underwater threats or executing strategic aerial maneuvers anywhere from the stratosphere to just a few feet above the sea, the life of a Naval Aviator is one of the most exhilarating in the fleet.

To learn more about becoming a Naval Aviator, visit https://www.navy.com/flynavy.