Our tame fighter pilot has Top Gun: Maverick in his sights

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Caveat 1: Nothing that happened in the movie was actually surprising, so, depending on your definition of spoiler, there may or may not be spoilers below.

Caveat B: Per my agreement with the military lawyers in obtaining permission to write for Hagerty, I can’t divulge what branch of the service I’m in. Thus, don’t read too much into this and think I’m in the Navy, or not in the Navy. I can neither confirm nor deny, etc., etc.

Caveat C: Apropos of nothing, I’ve never played volleyball, or football, on a beach with other fighter pilots while shirtless and wearing jeans. I’m not ashamed, however, to admit I do the “Top Gun double high five” with my kids.

Anecdotally, the vast majority of my friends and co-workers have enjoyed the new Top Gun: Maverick movie. Not to be a stick in the mud, but I’m one of the very few I know who thought it’s one of the dumber movies I’ve seen in a long time (to calibrate you to my movie-taste-frame-of-reference, I think the first Tremors is great but the fourth is terrible). I’m usually pretty good at suspending my disbelief while watching a movie (don’t try telling me graboids aren’t real and Reba doesn’t know how to use an AR-15), but this one just hit too close to home to hit the “I Believe” button. In my opinion, the film inaccurately portrays something about which I happen to know a lot. I couldn’t help but burst out laughing at several supposedly very serious and dramatic points because of the extreme level of absurdity, thereby earning several gentle elbows and shushings from my wife. To be fair, I can see the movie being a hit for those unfamiliar with fighter aviation—and the flying cinematography was pretty awesome. So, what didn’t I like about it? Well, in the words of Inigo Montoya, there is too much; let me sum up.

Before eviscerating (a small subset of) what the movie got wrong, let me start with something it got right. To do so, I’m going to vaguely humblebrag for a moment. I’m proud of what I’ve been able to do over my career; my flying credentials and qualifications are impeccable, and my academic record indicates a high level of intelligence. That said, I regard myself as pretty average compared to my peers because they are all extraordinary. Yes, Type A personalities, swagger, and cockiness fill every fighter squadron, but there are also silent killers like the movie’s slightly dorky Bob. Underestimate the Bobs of the squadron in a dogfight at your peril because they will take you and your ego behind the woodshed then beat you utterly senseless with a rusty tire iron.

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All fighter pilots must set their pride aside and take brutally honest feedback in order to be any good (Example: “The root cause of why we all died was your failure to appropriately employ basic radar tactics to sanitize the airspace in front of us. The bandit made it through unobserved and killed us. Let’s talk through what you did wrong so it doesn’t happen again.”). I’ve had an instructor pilot threaten to climb over the table during a debrief and shove a boot knife in my chest if I made the same mistake again. I’m not kidding about that, and neither was he, at the time. Much like Maverick, my sole motivation as an instructor fighter pilot is ensuring the younger pilots in my squadron have the requisite skills to successfully complete the mission, no matter what it is, and get home safely (which is never a guarantee, even on training missions). That only happens through untold hours of study of tactics and threats, along with lots of practice. And being told that you screwed up, and what over and over again. Believe me when I say the end of my military career is much closer to ending than beginning, but I’m supremely confident in those upcoming brash young pilots and their ability to stand tall in the face of any threat and dominate, much like the group in Top Gun.

The other thing they got right? It’s this: For all of the physical brutality of G forces and the mental effort and prep required to be successful, it’s impossible not to feel like the king of the world when the bubble canopy closes around you.

No serious review (not that this is one of those) of Top Gun: Maverick can be undertaken without first discussing Bob Hoover. I’d guess that few, if any, of you are familiar with the late Mr. Hoover. If you have heard of him, you likely don’t know why a man who served in the Air Force in World War II, is best known as an airshow pilot (flying his P-51 and Shrike Commander), and at 6-feet, 2-inches tall is a solid 7 inches taller than Tom Cruise, has any connection to the clown show that is Top Gun: Maverick. The common link between the two? Hijacking.

Lockheed P-80 Shooting Star
Lockheed P-80 Shooting Star Underwood Archives/Getty Images

For reference, I’m confident you’ve heard of Chuck Yeager, the man who broke the sound barrier. Following Yeager’s Glamorous Glennis Bell X-1 rocket plane when he bested the “demon in the air” was none other than Bob Hoover flying in a Lockheed P-80 Shooting Star. The sound barrier was broken on 14 October 1947, but the hijacking in question occurred roughly two years earlier.

Then-First Lieutenant Bob Hoover was shot down in his Mark V Spitfire on 9 February 1944 over the Mediterranean Sea and was picked up by a German boat. After his wingman turned tail and ran, it was Lt. Hoover against four FW-190s with a fuel tank that refused to jettison, thereby severely limiting his maneuverability. He shot down one FW-190 and likely a second before they got him. After spending 16 months as a POW—I promise this is a true story—he escaped from the camp, stole a FW-190 from a German base, and flew it to Allied territory in the Netherlands. Presuming imitation is indeed the sincerest form of flattery, as I watched Maverick steal that F-14 and fly it back to the carrier, all I could think of was First Lieutenant Hoover doing that for real, though in an airplane he had never flown before and whose gauges were in a language he didn’t know. I guess movies and TV shows do sometimes write themselves.

World War II German fighter bomber, Focke Wulf FW 190-F8
Focke Wulf FW 190-F8 Bettmann Archive via Getty Images

I grew up watching the original Star Trek with my dad. I was too young to fully realize its cheesiness, but I have since embraced the savagely accurate movie Galaxy Quest that mocks every stereotype of Star Trek or anything in that genre. Crew member doesn’t have a last name? Gonna get eaten by the lava monster. Cute and cuddly looking aliens? They’re going to get mean, ugly, and there will be a million of them. And my favorite, used in every Mission Impossible movie and countless others: if there’s a countdown timer to something bad happening, it always gets stopped with one second left. The same idiotic trope is trotted out in Top Gun at least twice.

Iceman liked to call Maverick dangerous in the first movie and it’s still a very apt moniker. In training, it’s mandatory to stay a minimum distance from other aircraft when practicing combat maneuvers (the actual minimum distance varies on experience level and the event in question, but is generally at least several hundred feet). Maverick violates that rule repeatedly in this movie. Speaking from experience, I’ve had unintentionally close passes with other fighter jets and it’s not an enjoyable experience. If you’ve ever been on a narrow two-lane highway (headed to the danger zone, naturally) and a car going the opposite direction gets a little too close to the centerline, your combined closing speed of 100+ mph can startle you with its abruptness. Imagine the same thing happening but with 1000+ mph of closing velocity; it’s enough to cause your sphincter to suck up your seat cushion. There’s no doubt that Maverick would have been grounded long ago, notwithstanding Ice’s top cover.

Don’t get the impression we’re a bunch of stupid fighter jocks who disregard every rule, do whatever we want with our egos writing checks our bodies can’t cash, and never get held accountable for our actions. Of course, fighter pilots relish killing bad guys and breaking their toys, but we also say the rules are written in blood; i.e., if something is prohibited, it’s probable that someone died doing that very thing before it became prohibited.

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Let’s talk about something relating to cars: speeding and turns. When I drove the Nürburgring, there was a turn whose decreasing radius really surprised me. Fortunately, I stayed on the track as my VW Golf’s tires valiantly held on for dear life. Undoubtedly, we’ve all taken a turn a bit too fast in a car, leading to squealing tires or a departure from the road surface in extreme cases. The same thing is true, in a sense, in aircraft. An aircraft’s turn radius is defined by its speed and g.

If the math bores you, just know that your turn radius increases with the square of your velocity. That’s why the SR-71 needed half the western United States to turn around when flying Mach 3 (slight exaggeration, as at 2200 mph and the SR-71’s 3g limit, the turn radius is 21.6 miles). Yes, pulling 9g would significantly decrease the turn radius (down to only 6.8 miles for the Blackbird), but the dominating factor of turn radius is airspeed. In Top Gun: Maverick they were flying up the canyon at 660 knots (if I remember correctly), which equates to about 760 mph. Maverick said they’d be pulling 9g (my personal record is 10.2g), but even at 9g the turn radius was a massive ~4300 feet. Although I don’t recall ever seeing a scale, some of the bends in the notional canyon in which their ingress took them through appeared to have radii well below 4300 feet, meaning the pilots would have to exit the canyon vertically to avoid the 100 percent certainty of atomizing themselves as they become one with a canyon wall. Hate Newton if you wish, but even Maverick can’t outfly physics.

Ah, but exiting the canyon vertically meant getting shot at by those intimidating Surface-to-Air Missiles (SAMs), which for some unexplained reason weren’t targeted by cruise missiles like the airfield was. They never told us the name of the SAMs, and there are some dangerous SAM systems out there, albeit some with better marketing than others—are you more intimidated by the SA-6 “Three Fingers of Death” (nee “Gainful”), SA-11 “Gadfly”, or SA-20 “Gargoyle”?

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In simple terms, there are two main types of missiles, be they Air-to-Air (AAM) or SAM: heat-seeking and radar-guided. When the threat is a heat-seeking missile, flares are the best countermeasures. Against a radar-guided threat, chaff (strips of metal designed to clutter the radar with noise) is your friend. The F-18s in the movie puked out positively massive numbers of flares which successfully decoyed the missiles. Here’s the thing: as evidenced by their radomes, the SAMs in the movie were all radar-guided. Ergo, flares would have done the square root of jack squat against them. Admittedly, the flares made for much better visuals as chaff bundles are hard to see with your Mk-1 eyeballs, but tactically it was a joke. All that was missing were aileron rolls to try and avoid getting shot, another domesticated peeve of mine. Let’s not even talk about the SAMs firing the instant the F-18s popped out of the canyon. What radar was providing cueing to the missiles? Presuming there was an enemy radar out there we never saw, some finite amount of time is required to detect, acquire, and cue before the launching of missiles can begin; although depicted as such, that finite amount of time isn’t measured in nanoseconds.

Speaking of time, temporal distortion is a thing in combat. Once during a post-combat sortie debrief with intel, I described what I thought had occurred over 45 minutes centered around a target attack. As I watched the tapes later, I was amazed to discover my 45 minutes was only about 20 minutes, and I had to update my debrief with intel accordingly. In dogfighting, opportunities to take a shot and kill your opponent are generally fleeting and must be anticipated and seized when they present themselves. Throughout both Top Gun movies, there is entirely too much discussion during fights about switching from missiles to guns and not enough killing the bandit and getting out of Dodge. Like moths to a flame, fighter pilots on all sides are drawn to aerial fights. Should you find yourself in one, it’s best to end it quickly because you don’t know who’s going to show up to the party next—and if they’re bringing some friends. Much like the villain who monologues instead of killing the hero, the enemy fighter pilots in Top Gun: Maverick should have shot down Maverick when they had the chance, because doing so would have allowed them to get both Maverick in his overmatched F-14 and Hangman in his F-18.

Thankfully, the good guys and gals all survive and make it back to the carrier where, once again, they are greeted by a mob of fellow sailors rejoicing in the success they all achieved together. The first time I dropped bombs in combat, I climbed out of my jet after landing and was met by maintenance and weapons personnel. Seeing that I had returned without any bombs remaining on my jet, they were curious and excited to know what happened. As I talked them through the attack, whom we were supporting, and how it all went down, they peppered me with questions and added whoops and hollers throughout the conversation. It was the middle of the night and there weren’t hundreds of people, just several of the best Americans I’ve ever met, united in the fact that we had, together, no kidding made the world a better, safer place.

Regular people from all over the U.S. of A., standing between their loved ones and war’s desolation, working as a team to accomplish something great, and succeeding? Guess that’s something else Top Gun: Maverick got right. You know what? Maybe it’s not such a dumb movie after all.

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