A fighter pilot tells us what the real Top Guns drive to work

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US Marine Captain Christopher Niemann
Christopher Niemann/USMC/Getty Images

Please welcome “Josh Arakes,” a senior US military fighter-jet pilot who has obtained permission to share some of his life and experiences with us here at Hagerty. If you want to hear more about the Top Gun lifestyle, both as it relates to jets and cars, please let us know. Josh is willing to tell us anything that doesn’t compromise operational security. Enjoy! —JB

John Gillespie Magee, Jr., an American serving with the Royal Canadian Air Force flying in a Spitfire squadron in Britain during the Second World War, wrote eloquently of having “[S]lipped the surly bonds of earth, and danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings; … wheeled and soared and swung high in the sunlit silence” and “flung my eager craft through footless halls of air.” Though he was tragically killed in a midair collision at the tender age of 19, Magee’s poem “High Flight” remains a favorite of pilots the world over. What his moving prose fails to adequately describe is the stark brutality of aerial combat. It’s akin to a knife fight in a phone booth, only with the combatants’ knives worth multitudinous millions of dollars.

Modern-day fighter jets, loaded with missiles, bombs, and fuel, weigh many tens of thousands of pounds. Bristling with sophisticated missiles, guns, and sensors they are extraordinary machines. The rumble of a military jet engine in full afterburner at takeoff is a visceral, primeval experience. In a dogfight, while pulling up to 9 gs (9 times the force of gravity), pilots use every bit of hard-won experience, a dash of chicanery, and, on rare occasion, out and out “cheating” in order to best their enemy. “Best their enemy” is a polite way of saying “shoot them down,” which, in turn, is a polite way of saying “kill them” (obviously, in training we don’t actually kill each other, but the jets display the same symbology for both training and real weapons, thereby allowing us to assess if our actions would have killed a real opponent). At the end of an aerial engagement, generally lasting no more than a few minutes, pilots are tired, sweating, and anxious to go at it again. After a short time spent climbing back up to altitude, then a few moments spent gathering one’s breath and revisiting successes and mistakes, it’s again time to call “Fight’s on!” and battle to place the pipper (gunsight) on the back of the opposing pilot’s helmet and squeeze the trigger.

Having slipped Magee’s surly bonds, pilots then return to earth, strap on a different vehicle entirely, and sit in traffic, bonded to the whims of surly traffic engineers. Much has been made of the cars pilots drive, from the many sportscars of Amelia Earhart, to the Kawasaki GPZ900R Tom Cruise drove along the runway in Top Gun. In the language of Hollywood, being a pilot means you drove something sporty and fast, and you do so with reckless abandon.

F35-A fighter jet landing south korea supplied via US
South Korea Defense Acquisition Program Administration via Getty Images

Much like every medical doctor hates E.R., those involved in the space program detest Gravity, and meteorologists loathe Sharknado, military fighter pilots aren’t fans of Top Gun. To be fair, when watching a trailer for Top Gun: Maverick, my kids were oohing and aahing, and I simply said, “I call that Tuesday.” Unlike Tom Cruise’s Maverick, my coworkers may not look like beautiful actors and actresses. I’ve never sung “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling” in a bar, crowded or otherwise, but my teeth are at least centered on my face. What I have done: spent twenty years around fighter pilots and military pilots of all types. Utilizing a slightly atonal duet of anecdotal evidence and fuzzy memories, let’s see if there’s anything to the pilots-drive-fast-cars stereotype.

Fresh out of college and with a monthly base salary of $1,926.30, I arrived at my pilot training base driving a two year-old Nissan Sentra GXE. Hate on the Sentra if you wish, but it had a 5-speed, got 40+ MPG, and had a sweet gray-and-funky-tile-mosaic-wait-is-that-linoleum? cloth interior. I wrongly presumed the couple hundred other student pilots already in training, fresh out of college themselves, would be in the same fiscally-constrained budget situation as me. Granted, I was older than the standard college grad and already married with a young family, but two clear memories remain of that first day. The first is the massive stack of publications, aircraft manuals, and regulations issued to me. I kid you negative, it filled thousands of pages and was at least three feet tall. The second was the sheer number of Audi TTs in the parking lot. Still relatively new to market, it was clearly a favorite of students and instructors. The contrast of my porky Sentra and those flashy TTs, coupled with staring down the giant mountain of training I would spend 2.5 years climbing to combat-ready fighter pilot, only added to my malaise.

Over the yearlong road to earn my wings, I saw plenty of other pilot-owned iron: BMW Z3s, IROC-Z Camaros, Civics, F-150s, and even other Sentras. The only crazy driving story from that entire year was when an Instructor Pilot (IP) drove to the auxiliary control tower where I was acting as scribe. IPs directed aircraft on this outer runway while the real controllers worked the main runway. These IP controllers commented on the students’ landings and my job that day was to write down their remarks. The road to this tower was dirt and severely rutted, and on this day I saw a Dodge Caravan, our normal conveyance to the tower, roaring towards us, bouncing and bucking as its driver whipped it ever faster. Skidding to a stop in a cloud of dust, the sliding door burst open and a classmate stumbled out, dazed by the drive. Looking at me, he blurted, “Your wife is going into labor! Get in the car!” Jumping in, the driver shouted for me to close the door, buckle up, and hold on. That ride was the closest I’ve ever been to a rally-race stage, and in a minivan no less; it was awesome and I beat my wife to the hospital by a solid twenty minutes.

My first combat squadron featured a mix of reasonable cars, with a few on the extremes: a new 350Z roadster, various BMWs, and a Corvette Z06 among the more respectable entries. On the other end was my Sentra and whatever was the junker du jour driven by the one guy who bought ‘em cheap and fixed ‘em just enough so he could drive ‘em, regardless of looks and performance. One pilot drove a giant, gaudy, jacked up Hummer H2, but it is left to the reader to decide whether this is admirable or pitiable.

The owner of the Z06 was my direct supervisor and, without question, also the craziest driver in the squadron. One day, driving a group to lunch in my Sentra with him in the passenger seat, he pulled my e-brake at 45 mph just to see what it would do. (Answer: squeal surprisingly loudly and put a bald spot on the tires.) He was known to put rental cars through the wringer, off-roading them, jumping curbs, etc. After I left the squadron he put his new Aston Martin into a ditch, totaling it. The squadron commander, who went on to command Top Gun (or maybe its sister-service equivalent as I’m required by regulations not to identify which service I’m actually in), drove a giant Dodge pickup. In the air, he’d take everyone behind the woodshed and administer massive beatings; on the ground, he was tough but fair, took care of his people, and drove his truck with aplomb and, befitting his midwestern upbringing, a toothpick in his teeth.

The Mercury 7 astronauts were offered sweetheart lease deals by a Chevrolet dealer in the Cape Canaveral area. GM thought astronauts should drive Corvettes and charged them something like $1 per year for the Vettes, a deal that runs afoul of many an ethics law today and would land any government employee in jail that took advantage of such an offer. Not all the astronauts leased a Vette though, as John Glenn opted for a station wagon. He needed one to haul his family around and made the sensible decision, though his fellow astronauts never failed to bust his chops about his ride.

Befitting the stereotype, the most experienced IP at my next assignment had a beautiful red 1967 Mustang. It had been restored and was the nicest car in the parking lot. He drove it almost daily, a Harley being his other ride, and I never saw a speck of dust on either. Surprisingly, he sold the ’67 to a car collector in Amsterdam for what he described as a king’s ransom. It was evidently enough money that he never expressed any sadness for no longer having it.

When talking about power, jet engines are rated in pounds of thrust, a unit that doesn’t easily convert to horsepower, making it tough to compare the pounds per horsepower of your tuned Civic SI to that of an F-15C. Top Gear and others have raced fighter jets against cars, with the cars frequently (always?) winning. I’d bet my newly-commissioned-officer’s $1926.30 monthly paycheck that each of the four fighter jets in which I’ve been qualified would lose to nearly every car found at an open track day in an eighth or quarter mile race from a standing start. The F-15 Streak Eagle, which set eight time to climb records including to 9000 m (roughly 30,000 feet) in under 50 seconds, needed approximately six seconds from brake release (technically, it was held in place with a chain since the brakes wouldn’t hold full afterburner) to liftoff, during which time it covered approximately 400 feet. Thus, if a fighter jet optimized for rapid takeoff and climb could only barely beat a really fast car over an eighth mile, it makes sense that most fighters would lose an equivalent race.

All in all, I’d guess about 20 percent of the fighter pilots I’ve known over the decades drive fast, sporty cars; a percentage certainly lower than what’s depicted in movies or pop culture. My current flying unit has several Teslas in the parking lot, as well as a BMW or two, a couple Mustangs of various types (including a GT350), two Audis, a Corvette ZR1, two Miatas (one each NC and ND) a new Toyota Supra, and a guy recently reassigned elsewhere had a stunning red Alfa 4C Spider. Without actually counting, I’d guess the number of sporty cars in the parking lot is only slightly higher than the number of aircraft owned by my squadron mates.

It’s possible the incongruity found herein between perception (all pilots drive sports cars) and reality (most don’t) is due to the Roller Coaster Effect (a thing I just made up). Simply put, if your day job makes riding roller coasters a snoozefest, it’s tough to get excited in a car. I’ve taken off and would have been supersonic before reaching the end of the runway if I hadn’t canceled afterburner (take that, Chuck Yeager!); at the end of the runway I stood the jet on its tail and rocketed to the moon (or so it seemed). I routinely spend an hour flying low-level (500 feet) through mountainous terrain at 500 mph, ripping through canyons and over peaks in designated training areas. My takeoff and landing speeds are in excess of 150 mph. Frankly, there are few vehicles that wouldn’t be boring to drive after such activities, but they cost significantly more than a Sentra GXE with a strange interior. That’s not to say I’m bored when I point the nose of my Miata ND—with its top down and my wife seated next to me—towards a curvy canyon, or when drive my grandfather’s 1969 Jeepster Commando anywhere. Perhaps it’s merely a matter of gratitude and perspective. As in “High Flight,” I can state that I’ve “done a hundred things You have not dreamed of” while airborne. Yet those experiences make me all the more grateful when I am earth-bound and my perspective is from a road winding through the trees—as opposed to roaring over them.

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