Founded in response to air combat shortcomings during the Vietnam War, the U.S. Navy’s fighter training program continues to turn out elite airmen.
In 1968 the U.S. Navy had a problem. Actually it had several problems, nearly all involving the four-year-old Vietnam War.
But one of the most pressing was carrier fighter squadrons’ disappointing record against North Vietnam’s air force. Mostly flying subsonic MiG-17s, the Vietnam People’s Air Force had exacted an unexpected toll on American fighter-bomber squadrons from 1965 onward.
Enter Captain Frank Ault. Known as an uncompromising truth teller, Ault had little ambition to make admiral—something of a rarity for an Annapolis graduate—but his reputation and attitude compelled the hierarchy to pay attention. During his 1966-67 tour commanding the attack carrier Coral Sea, Ault realized that naval aviation was not living up to its historic potential. He was especially concerned about the air-to-air victory record. Depending on the numbers cited, Navy pilots and aircrews were downing barely two North Vietnamese MiGs for each F-4 Phantom or F-8 Crusader lost in air combat.
Ault resolved to do something about it. The upshot was a 480-page assessment called the “Air-to-Air Missile System Capability Review,” released in early 1968. It became famous as the Ault Report.
Among nearly 250 recommendations, one stood out. Ault’s team proposed establishing a post-graduate fighter weapons school at Naval Air Station (NAS) Miramar, north of San Diego. Its mission: provide objective, real-world instruction for Pacific Fleet fighter squadrons to meet the challenge over Southeast Asia.
The Navy leadership accepted Ault’s recommendation, and the word filtered down from Washington to PacFleet to the Miramar wing commander to VF-121, the West Coast Phantom training squadron. There the job landed on the large shoulders of Lt. Cmdr. Dan Pedersen, a combat-experienced F-4 pilot leading the unit’s tactics phase training.
Pedersen, call sign “Duke” for his stature and voice similar to John Wayne’s, was an inspired choice. As a newly minted, 33-year-old lieutenant commander, he was senior enough to get things done and junior enough to be considered expendable. VF-121’s skipper, Commander Hank Halleland, gave Pedersen as much latitude as possible, merely cautioning, “Don’t lose a plane and don’t kill anybody.”
Pedersen had a ton of work to do in minimal time. Between December 1968 and March 1969, he had to organize the Navy Fighter Weapons School (NFWS), starting without a facility, a curriculum, a staff, aircraft or a budget. As if that wasn’t enough, three weeks before the first class convened, he and his back-seater ejected from a burning Phantom offshore. That hiccup barely registered with Duke, who got on with the job.
Despite the starting shortages, Pedersen had an enormous advantage. For instructors he selected four other F-4 pilots and four radar intercept officers (RIOs) whom he knew well. They were highly respected: combat-experienced super “sticks” and top-notch “scopes,” all with a burning desire to teach and win. Moreover, with the war stretching to infinity, Pedersen told his team, “We hold lives in our hands.”
One of the RIOs was Lieutenant Steve Smith, whom Pedersen reckoned could sell ice to an Eskimo. Smith was a natural-born scrounger, and for a case of whiskey he convinced a construction crew to lift an unused trailer off a building site and set it down beside Miramar’s Hangar 1. He also connived two safes, some barely adequate desks and chairs, and assorted gear.
The senior RIO, Lieutenant J.C. Smith, was a former pilot who lost his aviator wings, returned to the Navy and finished atop the first RIO class. In June 1965, flying with Commander Lou Page, he had controlled the Navy’s first MiG engagement over Vietnam, resulting in two kills for no losses.
Another RIO was Lt. (j.g.) Darrell Gary, call sign “Condor” because, as Pedersen said, “Birds with his traits tend to become endangered.” Benefiting from unauthorized flight time at Miramar, he later aced pilot training at Pensacola, returning as an NFWS student pilot, then pilot instructor.
Pedersen designated each of his instructors as subject specialists. Lieutenant Jim Ruliffson knew just about everything regarding the Sparrow radar-guided missile. Lieutenant Mel Holmes was perhaps the world’s finest F-4 pilot at the time, a self-taught aerodynamicist. Lieutenant Jim Laing, an RIO, had a MiG and two ejections to his credit. Each of the others were masters of their specialties.
In the run-up to the first class, Pedersen and his team wrote and rewrote its manual, then rewrote it again. They practiced their presentations remorselessly. The self critiques were so brutal that the staffers called each session “The Murder Board.” The phrase remains today.
The Navy Fighter Weapons School opened for business on March 3, 1969. It was immediately christened Topgun—one word—though Navy F-4s never had an internal gun. Four crews from two USS Constellation F-4 squadrons became NFWS Class 01, unlearning as much as they learned. At the time, the Phantom community was hard-wired for fleet defense, and dogfighting had fallen into disfavor. However, Topgun and a few squadrons recognized the changed reality in Vietnam and began revising naval fighter tactics. Their guiding philosophy: “Fight like you train.”
Pedersen and company pushed the big brute of a Phantom well beyond its intended use. They took it straight up, to zero airspeed, and flew it back from the near edge of uncontrollability. “We threw away the F-4 tactics manual and wrote our own,” said Pedersen.
Topgun graduates took more than advanced combat techniques with them after their training ended. They returned to their squadrons as tactics authorities and instructors, spreading the NFWS gospel. As the first few classes graduated, a Topgun patch became a sought-after item. The Navy fighter community began to recognize the worth and prestige of a NFWS diploma, and the school flourished. Pedersen rolled out in 1970, succeeded by J.C. Smith, but Duke’s influence has lasted half a century.
After President Lyndon Johnson declined to run for reelection in 1968, the air war “up north” lapsed into a coma. Few missions were flown into North Vietnam as Richard Nixon sought a negotiated end to the war. But in March 1970 word suddenly came that a Navy Phantom had downed a MiG-21. The Topgun staff held its collective breath: “Wouldn’t it be great if it was one of our guys?”
Finally the details emerged: Lieutenants Jerry Beaulier and Steve Barkley of VF-142 off Constellation got the kill. Alumni of Class 01! An instructor recalled, “We closed early and went to the club.”
Thereafter, however, the air war remained relatively quiet. Ambitious fighter crews began to wonder if there would be another dogfight in the endless conflict.
Meanwhile, Topgun fought on the home front. Because the school depended entirely on VF-121 for staff and aircraft, there were perennial shortages. Finally things came to a head when the Miramar CO, World War II double ace Captain Armistead “Chick” Smith, wanted a comparison. How would Topgun fare if it operated separately from 121? After a short trial period, the results were favorable, and the NFWS became an independent command in July 1972, under Commander Roger Box. Meanwhile the school moved into permanent spaces in the new Hangar 2.
By then the air war over North Vietnam had resumed in full force owing to the Communist combined-arms invasion of South Vietnam. Topgun graduates began downing MiGs almost routinely, and the school’s expanded instruction program for fleet squadrons also produced a crop of MiG killers.
At the end of U.S. involvement in Vietnam in 1973, the previous 2-to-1 kill-loss ratio had vaulted to a claimed 12-to-1. Only later did the final numbers become available, as 12-1 reflected the Navy figures without the Marine Corps. Thus, the actual fighter ratio was nearly 9-1, still far better than the Air Force’s overall 2-1, little changed since 1968.
U.S. involvement hardly had ended in Vietnam when Topgun faced another crisis, coming low and fast under the radar. In October 1973, combined Arab forces launched the Yom Kippur War against Israel, severely threatening the Jewish nation’s survival. Topgun had long enjoyed warm relations with the Israel Air Force, but could do little to help, except by contributing aircraft. Almost overnight the NFWS was stripped of all but one of its adversary jets, as the Israelis badly needed replacement A-4 Skyhawks.
Without aircraft, the school faced a grim future. The CO at the time, the puckish, colorful Lt. Cmdr. Ronald McKeown, believed that it’s better to ask forgiveness than permission. He learned of some Air Force T-38 Talon supersonic trainers awaiting disposal as target drones and arranged to take them to Miramar. Without proper tools or gear, his innovative maintainers got two Talons flying in short order.
Meanwhile, one of the original instructors was working behind the scenes. Lieutenant Com-mander Jim Ruliffson, an original NFWS instructor and later CO, had testified before Congress on budgetary matters, and his influence resulted in Topgun receiving two-seat adversary aircraft for improved student instruction.
Before Topgun, F-4s mostly had trained against F-4s, or occasionally F-8s. Obtaining jets such as Skyhawks to simulate MiG-17s was a major step forward. Retired Vice Adm. Dave Frost explained, “Fighting against a more realistic MiG simulator was as important as any other factor in improving the fighter community’s readiness to win….”
Air combat training experienced a renaissance in 1975 with the arrival of Cubic Corporation’s Air Combat Maneuvering Range. The San Diego firm, working closely with Topgun, established a grid of tracking stations near Yuma, Ariz., with datalink relay to a trailer at Miramar. Instructors and students could replay any engagement in real time or stop-frame motion from a variety of perspectives. Missile shots were easily verified whether in or outside successful launch parameters. No longer were debriefs reliant upon hastily scrawled notes or sometimes garbled tape recordings. The reality was there for all to see.
Following the Carter administration doldrums, the Navy refocused on fleet defense as the F-14 Tomcat continued replacing the Phantom. The school’s syllabus expanded considerably, absorbing the Top Scope program of the E-2 Hawkeye early-warning community. With F-4 and F-14 squadrons working hand in glove with Hawkeyes, it made sense to combine the two curricula against the growing Soviet threat.
But there was always room for more innovation. In 1980-81 Commander Lonny McClung delighted in conspiring with his “blue suit” Air Force colleagues. He established a permanent NFWS detachment at Tonopah, Nev., to enhance short-notice air combat maneuvers.
Back at Miramar, individual student aircraft were sent to the Catalina Island operating area for an unknown “one vs. many” scenario. Navy crews might encounter a B-52, or even a nocturnal SR-71 streaking through the atmosphere at Mach 3.
For a graduation exercise, Topgun classes flew a “mini war” at China Lake, Calif., with full electronic warfare simulations. It was a rare opportunity to combine everything learned during the course in one intense scenario.
Eventually the curriculum settled on eight six-week classes, leaving two weeks for school year intervals and a much-needed two-week respite at year end. As McClung noted, “The post-Christmas event at Tonopah was just the thing to shake out the cobwebs. A three-day ACM [air combat maneuvers] fest was a whole lot of fun, flying against the Air Force’s MiGs. Those were great days in the fighter community.”
Topgun also expanded its service by taking classes on the road. The Fleet Fighter Air Combat Maneuvering Program exposed deploying squadrons to the school’s updated tactics, maintaining a sharp edge on the aerial trident.
As the Soviets gained greater capability in tactical and maritime aviation, Topgun worked hard to keep up. In the 1980s, CO Ernie Christensen wrote a report analyzing Navy adversary aircraft versus the emerging Communist threat. He found that 5 to 10 percent of the adversary jets were supersonic capable compared to nearly 90 percent supersonic fighters in Soviet service. Eventually Topgun and the Navy generally received more supersonic F-5s and F-16s along with the school’s own Tomcats.
Procedures also evolved. Working with fleet and training squadrons, Topgun helped develop “Chainsaw” tactics that established long-range combat air patrols far from a carrier task force. Since Soviet cruise missiles had a 200 nautical mile range, training focused on forward interception of Russian bombers before they could launch their missiles—a key element of late Cold War tactics.
In the early 1980s, Topgun began incorporating a third fighter into the curriculum when the F/A-18 Hornet went operational with the Navy and Marines. As a dual-mission aircraft, equally adept at air-to-air and air-to-surface, the Hornet required extra classroom and flight time.
Then in 1986 Topgun rocketed to world acclaim with a spectacular movie starring a young Tom Cruise. The script was inspired by a 1983 magazine article describing the adventures of an F-14 crew at the school. Paced by a pounding, soaring musical track and some of the finest aerial photography ever shot, Top Gun (two words) set box office records.
Top Gun also proved to be one of Hollywood’s most effective recruiting films. There were reports of Air Force recruiters in theaters showing the movie. Knowledgeable viewers dismissed Top Gun as “a live action cartoon” for its stereotypical characterizations and innumerable errors. One instructor said of Cruise’s character, “Maverick had the right stuff but with an attitude like that we wouldn’t let him in the back door.”
In 2020 Cruise will reprise his role of 33 years ago as a much older and perhaps wiser aviator in the movie’s sequel, Top Gun: Maverick. Lacking the original’s iconic Tomcats, the new version presumably will rely upon Hornets and—perish the thought—drones.
In 1993 events well north of Miramar spurred the eventual displacement of Topgun from its origins. Marine Corps Air Station El Toro near Los Angeles succumbed to unchecked residential growth that finally forced the 50-year-old facility to close. Amid political bickering and maneuvering over base closures, Congress mandated that the Marines move to Miramar and the Navy move to…Nevada.
NAS Fallon lies in the high desert east of Reno, its remoteness an advantage for low-level tactics training and live-fire exercises. Thus, it was home to the Naval Strike Warfare Center. That was the good news.
The bad news: Institutionally, Topgun was back where it started, a department within a larger organization. And probably nobody who ever lived in San Diego wanted to live in Fallon. The 1996 move was hard on everybody, especially since it occurred in the middle of an NFWS class. Thanks to the leadership of Commander Rolland “Dawg” Thompson, the change was accomplished on schedule and the class finished as slated.
Fallon left much to be desired for Navy families. One instructor confided that when he topped the crest overlooking the base in the distance, his wife had tears in her eyes. She took in the lunar landscape, blurting, “Where are you taking me?”
Housing and schools were an immediate concern, but so was the corporate atmosphere at “Strike U.” Topgunners found a tangible resentment from the attack side of the house, which they attributed to “fighter envy” over the Top Gun movie in particular and aviation lore in general. Some recalled the anachronistic line from the 1991 movie Flight of the Intruder: “Fighter pilots make movies. Attack pilots make history.”
As Dawg Thompson summarized, “It was a circle-the-wagons Alamo environment.” However, Thompson’s position as Naval Strike Warfare Center director of training provided some valuable leverage. In off-base sessions with his staff he asserted that rather than let the attack school absorb Topgun, they would absorb Strike U. “We would go offensive,” he said, “and pick the best Strike U had to offer and put them through the Strike Fighter Training Instructor or the Adversary course.”
Today, Topgun is officially the Strike Fighter Tactics Instructor Program. “Dawg Thompson saved Topgun,” said Dan Pedersen. “I don’t think it would have survived without him.”
By 2017 aerial combat had verged on extinction for decades. The last victory by a U.S. fighter had been over Yugoslavia in 1999; the Navy’s most recent kills were during Desert Storm in 1991. But operations against ISIS put Hornets from the carrier George H.W. Bush in the same airspace with Syrian fighters. On June 18, four F/A-18s clashed with a Sukhoi Su-22. Despite warnings, the Fitter pilot persisted in heading toward friendly forces, prompting Lt. Cmdr. Michael Tremel to shoot a Sidewinder (“I have no idea where it went”) and an AMRAAM that connected. The Syrian ejected safely.
The fight was a Topgun triumph. Tremel, his wingman and the leader of the second two-plane section all wore NFWS patches. The Topgun brand remained center-front.
With half a century of hindsight, Pedersen and the original Topgun “bros” are quick to acknowledge the essential support they received in the early days. Pedersen later commanded a squadron, an air wing, a fleet oiler and the carrier Ranger, spreading the leadership philosophy he developed at Topgun. “We could have crashed anytime, especially if we’d had a fatality,” he said. “But we had wonderful support from higher up. Vice Admirals Bush Bringle and Bob Baldwin at ComAirPac had our back when it would have been easy to starve us by withholding assets. Commanders Hank Halleland and Dick Schulte of VF-121 were marvelous even though we called heavily on them for aircraft and personnel. Commander Ken Wiley of VF-126 let us use his A-4s and TA-4s as adversary aircraft before we got our own. And Commodore Chick Smith breathed new life into Topgun as an independent command.”
As Topgun looks ahead to the next 50 years, brothers of the patch wonder about the future of the school, of fighters and of manned aircraft in general. Pedersen’s upcoming memoir will help keep the original philosophy fresh for new generations: enormously dedicated, hard-working junior officers who spare no effort to excel on the ground and in the air.
Frequent contributor Barrett Tillman has known Topgun staffers since the 1980s, and remains intimately familiar with “the bros.” He recommends for further reading Robert Wilcox’s Scream of Eagles, Dave Baranek’s Topgun Days and Dan Pedersen’s forthcoming Top Gun: An American Story.
This feature appeared in the March 2019 issue of Aviation History. Subscribe here!