‘Top Gun’ and ‘Top Gun: Maverick’ are based on a super-elite US Navy training program, and fighter pilots say the films are pretty spot on

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“Top Gun” is based on the US Navy’s elite fighter pilot instructor course.
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Paramount Pictures; CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images
  • “Top Gun” is an iconic 1980s film about Navy fighter pilots, and its sequel – “Top Gun: Maverick” – is set to come out 34 years after the original in June 2020.
  • Top Gun is the nickname for the elite Navy Strike Fighter Tactics Instructor school that opened in 1969. The film is a fictionalized depiction of the life of fighter pilots at the Top Gun training program, and it brought fame and recognition to the elite training.
  • Like the program depicted in the film, Top Gun is highly competitive. It’s only for the best of the best naval aviators in the country.
  • Retired Top Gun instructors say that both “Top Gun” and the trailer for “Top Gun: Maverick” are incredibly realistic.
  • This is because film producers worked with the US military to utilize real military grounds and equipment. The 1986 movie proved itself to be a recruiting dream for a generation of naval aviators.
  • Star Tom Cruise also shadowed Top Gun’s elite fighter pilots to prepare for his role in the 1986 film, and actor Kelly McGillis shadowed Christine Fox, the civilian employee that her character was based on.
  • Take a look at the similarities and differences between the movie “Top Gun” and the real-life training.
  • Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.

“Top Gun” was the no. 1 movie at domestic and international box offices when it came out in 1986.

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Paramount Pictures

Source: Box Office Mojo, The Numbers


The iconic 80s movie about pilots in the US Navy’s elite Fighter Weapons School known as Top Gun follows Maverick’s journey through the rigorous program, which is complete with love, loss, and loads of discipline.

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Tom Cruise plays Maverick in “Top Gun.”
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Paramount Pictures

Source: Amazon


Three decades later, the sequel titled “Top Gun: Maverick” comes out in June 2020.

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Tom Cruise in “Top Gun: Maverick.”
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Paramount Pictures

Source: Business Insider


At the end of “Top Gun,” Maverick could have had any job he wanted, and he chose to be an instructor at Top Gun.

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Tom Cruise in “Top Gun.”
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“Top Gun”

Source: Amazon


While the film is fiction, the prestigious fighter pilot program 
the film is based on is not.

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An F-16A Fighting Falcon of the famous US Navy Top Gun Naval Fighter Weapons School at the Naval Strike and Air Warfare Center, Naval Air Station Fallon, Nevada.
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Stocktrek Images/Giovanni Colla/Getty Images

Source: US Navy


The Top Gun program in the film is based on an actual program that’s currently at the Naval Strike and Air Warfare Center at Naval Air Station Fallon in Nevada.

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Pilot in the cockpit of an Attack Squadron 304 A-7E Corsair II aircraft in flight over the Naval Air Station in Fallon, Nevada, during an ordnance deployment exercise in July 1987.
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CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

Source: US Navy


The program is called the Navy Strike Fighter Tactics Instructor program, but it has gone by the nickname “Top Gun” since long before the film.

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U.S. Navy Fighter Weapons School (Top Gun) F-5F Tiger II leads two F-5Es during a training flight.
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Dave Baranek/Stocktrek Images/Getty Images

Source: US Navy


Like the program in the film, Top Gun is only for the elite. Only the top 1% of naval aviators get the chance to work through this 12-week program.

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American actors Val Kilmer and Tom Cruise on the set of “Top Gun.”
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hoto by Paramount Pictures/Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images

Source: US Navy


The program is unique because it’s not only about learning the information, strategies, and techniques, it’s also about being able to share the knowledge with other pilots.

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Val Kilmer and Tom Cruise in “Top Gun.”
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Paramount Pictures

Source: US Navy


“One of the points here at Top Gun isn’t just to make the guys good in the jet,” a Top Gun instructor told the US Navy. “It’s to make them effective teachers. It’s not an evaluation course; it’s a course of teaching.”

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An F-16A Fighting Falcon of the famous US Navy Top Gun Naval Fighter Weapons School at the Naval Strike and Air Warfare Center, Naval Air Station Fallon, Nevada.
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Stocktrek Images/Giovanni Colla/Getty Images

Source: US Navy


The program was created to change the way pilots flew and fought after a 1968 study determined that US pilots needed better training during the Vietnam War.

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The US Army during the Vietnam War.
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US Army Signal Corps

Source: US Navy


“The Top Gun course, while challenging, is rewarding,” another Top Gun instructor told the US Navy. “You learn how to become a better instructor and you learn how to fly the aircraft in ways you’ve never done before.”

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Top Gun instructors are ready to give an airborne lesson to Navy regular squadrons crews in 2018.
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Courtesy of Vincent Vagner

Source: US Navy


Dan Pedersen is known as the “godfather” of Top Gun. He was one of nine pilots who started the program in 1969.

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VFC-13 pilots take their Red adversary mission to heart with decorated flight gear. Dan Pedersen is not pictured.
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Courtesy of Vincent Vagner

Source: TIME


While he made it clear that the program feels much more serious than it does in the movie, Pedersen told TIME just how true-to-life the film really is.

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A VMFA-323 legacy Hornet landing.
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Courtesy of Vincent Vagner

Source: TIME


“The flying was superb, probably some of the best camera photography of tactical airplanes that’s ever been done,” Pedersen told TIME.

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Maverick flies inverted in “Top Gun.”
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screengrab from Top Gun

Source: TIME


But “Top Gun’s” realistic depiction of Top Gun didn’t come without help from the US military.

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Tom Cruise in “Top Gun.”
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Paramount Pictures

Source: TIME


According to TIME, producers paid the US military a total of $1.8 million for the use of the real US Naval Air station …

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A Top Gun F-16A at the Naval Air Station Fallon.
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Courtesy of Vincent Vagner

Source: TIME


… real aircraft carriers …

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An aircraft carrier.
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US Navy Photo

Source: TIME


… real planes, and the flying services of real pilots — which cost producers a total of $7,600 an hour.

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US Navy Fighter Weapons School (Top Gun) F-5E Tiger II is painted black for filming scenes for the movie “Top Gun.” In reality, Top Gun planes other than F/A-18s are used to mock enemy fighters.
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Dave Baranek/Stocktrek Images/Getty Images

Source: TIME


And it didn’t stop there — Tom Cruise shadowed pilots at Top Gun in preparation for his role.

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Tom Cruise on the set of “Top Gun.”
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Photo by Paramount Pictures/Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images

Source: TIME


And Kelly McGillis — who played Maverick’s civilian instructor and love interest — shadowed Christine Fox, the woman who inspired the role.

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Kelly McGillis sits at a desk in a scene from “Top Gun.”
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Paramount/Getty Images

Source: TIME


When the first film was being made, Fox was a civilian employee at the Center for Naval Analyses, but in 2013 she became the highest-ranking woman ever to serve in the Department of Defense.

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Christine Fox inspired Kelly McGillis’s character in “Top Gun.”
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Alex Wong/Getty

Source: TIME


While much of her position at the Center for Naval Analyses was classified, she describes it as knowing “a lot about the guy in the backseat” of the plane.

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Christine Fox inspired Kelly McGillis’s character in “Top Gun.”
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Department of Defense photo

Source: People


Ultimately, “Top Gun” showed us what being an elite navy pilot looks like, and it inspired a new generation of people to enlist.

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Tom Cruise as Maverick in “Top Gun.”
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CBS via Getty Images

Source: Business Insider


Former Top Gun instructor Cmdr. Guy Snodgrass told Insider that he saw “Top Gun” when he was 10, and it inspired him to become a Navy pilot.

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Anthony Edwards plays Maverick’s partner Goose in “Top Gun.”
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Paramount Pictures

Source: Business Insider


And he wasn’t the only one. David Berke is another retired Top Gun pilot that said he was inspired by the film.

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David Berke was a Top Gun instructor.
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Courtesy of David Berke

Source: Business Insider, Business Insider


Berke says that what he learned at Top Gun is taught at all elite organizations — there is no such thing as perfection.

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A scene from “Top Gun.”
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Top Gun via YouTube

Source: Business Insider, Business Insider


Snodgrass told Insider that the trailer for “Top Gun: Maverick” reminds him of his time teaching at Top Gun.

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Tom Cruise in “Top Gun: Maverick.”
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Paramount Pictures

Source: Business Insider


Snodgrass told Insider that during his time at Top Gun, he “performed all the maneuvers the new trailer shows and then some.”

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Tom Cruise in “Top Gun: Maverick.”
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Paramount Pictures

Source: Business Insider


Snodgrass told Insider that the first film was as realistic as it could be, and “It’s reassuring to know that they’re taking the exact same approach with this movie.”

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Tom Cruise in “Top Gun.”
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Paramount Pictures

Source: Business Insider


But the original movie didn’t get everything right. Pedersen told TIME that there was no beach volleyball. In reality, Pedersen said Top Gun pilots play racquetball to relieve stress.

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Val Kilmer in “Top Gun.”
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Paramount Pictures

Source: TIME


Digital Spy found some technical issues with the flight scenes in “Top Gun,” too. According to the site, some of Maverick’s daring moves would have ended in a plane crash in real life.

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Tom Cruise in “Top Gun.”
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screengrab Top Gun

Source: Digital Spy


Ultimately, Snodgrass told Insider that the most realistic thing about the trailer for “Top Gun: Maverick” wasn’t the aviation — it was the importance of teamwork.

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Tom Cruise in “Top Gun.”
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YouTube/movieclips

Source: Business Insider