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.