How Trouble in Vietnam Sparked the Creation of TOPGUN

TOPGUN's original trailer at Naval Station Miramar in 1969. (U.S. Navy photo)

Would things be different today if, back in 1986, Tom Cruise had starred in a movie called "Navy Strike Fighter Tactics Instructor Course"? Most definitely. No one would've rocked out to a Kenny Loggins song about the "thoroughfare to the hostile area of operations" and kids would've rejected a catchphrase about a hotshot's "requirement for acceleration."

Even the Navy understood that its elite aviator fighter course needed a sexy name, and that's why they came up with TOPGUN. That's all caps and one word, a way to distinguish the training program from the hit movie.

And yet, the history is complicated. TOPGUN started as an experimental and low-budget program designed to solve a very real problem during the Vietnam War. "Navy fighter pilots and aircrew were dying at an alarming rate, Navy Cmdr. Dustin Peverill, a 20-year Navy veteran and two-time TOPGUN instructor, explained in an interview with the DoD.

Navy Capt. Frank Ault was commissioned to lead an investigation into the unacceptable combat losses and produced a report that recommended the establishment of an advanced course to teach fighter tactics.

The Navy Fighter Weapons School was established at Naval Air Station Miramar, California, in 1969. Its first home was a trailer in a base parking lot. Lt. Cmdr. Dan Pedersen led a team of eight aviators and radar intercept officers that was given 60 days to come up with a curriculum for advanced fighter pilot training.

There was a conspicuous lack of resources. At first, the team had no money, no classroom, no mechanics and, most importantly, no airplanes. Pedersen eventually got access to airplanes and launched his four-week training program with training on F-4 Phantom II aircraft. In the early days, the Douglas A-4 Skyhawk and TA-4 trainers acted as stand-ins for the Soviet MiG-17s used by North Vietnam's military.

At first, Pedersen and his team had trouble convincing aviators to sign up voluntarily for a course that no one had ever heard of before. The legendary TOPGUN competition was devised as a way to fix that. Once they gave a group of hard-chargers a chance to score a victory and earn a patch, Navy aviators fought for a chance to prove their mettle at TOPGUN.

When director Tony Scott decided to make a movie 15 years after the first TOPGUN classes, the program's legend was assured. And, nearly four decades after that, the program will be back in the spotlight in 2022 with the upcoming release of the sequel “Top Gun: Maverick.”

TOPGUN moved to Naval Air Station Fallon in 1996. At the new Nevada location, the Navy folded TOPGUN into the newly created Naval Strike and Air Warfare Center. Now known as the Naval Aviation Warfighting Development Center, the command includes TOPGUN, the Carrier Airborne Early Warning Weapons School and the Navy Rotary Wing Weapons School.

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