I was 17-years-old and a junior in high school in the first half of 1986. The United States was at the height of the Cold War. President Ronald Reagan’s strategic plan to improve the capabilities of naval forces, known as the 600-ship Navy, was gaining momentum. And, the nation came together to mourn the loss of Space Shuttle Challenger, mission STS-51-L, as its crew of 7 astronauts perished, including schoolteacher Christa McAuliffe. Being proud to be an American in the strongest, most spirited nation in the world was common back then.
During that same time, while most of my classmates were taking SAT’s and planning their future, I was taking the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB); the test used to determine qualification for enlistment in the United States Armed Forces. Influenced by my uncle, Thomas Aulenbach, a 1963 graduate of the United States Naval Academy, my ambition was to join the United States Navy.
It was a deep sense of pride, and a desire to be part of something greater than myself, that drove me to make the best and most important decision of my life; to join the world’s greatest navy, and to reach out to live my dreams. I entered into a Naval Reserve program known as The Naval Reserve Sea Air Mariner Program (SAM). This program allowed me to be one of very few to ever join the Navy in my junior year of high school, go to basic training in the summer after my junior year, then drill one weekend a month at a local Naval Reserve center during my senior year of high school.
There were a few other things that further stoked my pride and ambitions to join the Navy back in those days. I remember sitting in my recruiter’s office hearing Lee Greenwood’s ‘God Bless the USA,’ which was rapidly becoming the country’s unofficial national anthem. It seemed like it was playing on repeat, ringing in my ears over and over again. Or, maybe it was just a clever recruiting tactic; one that was working. I still get an overwhelming emotional feeling each time I hear it; no different from hearing any other patriotic tune. To this day, that song remains near the top of my list of all-time favorites.
One month before I left for boot camp, on May 16, 1986, the iconic movie, Top Gun, opened in theaters. Starring Tom Cruise, playing the role of Lieutenant Pete ‘Maverick’ Mitchell, Top Gun would become one of the most endearing military movies of all time. From its opening scene (may I opine: The best opening scene to a movie ever!), to it victorious ending, this movie is jam-packed with great action and music.
Top Gun is about the former United States Navy Fighter Weapons School, at what was then called Naval Air Station Miramar, located north of San Diego, California; Fightertown U.S.A. The film glamorizes the life of naval aviators by portraying them as cocky, highly competitive hotshots driven to be the best of the best among all Navy fighter pilots.
* Naval Air Station (NAS) Miramar is now known as Marine Corps Air Station Miramar (MCAS Miramar). The United States Navy Fighter Weapons School (Top Gun) was merged into the Naval Strike and Air Warfare Center at NAS Fallon, Nevada, and is now known as the United States Navy Strike Fighter Tactics Instructor Program (SFTI program). The program is intended to teach fighter and strike tactics and techniques to selected Naval Aviators and Naval Flight Officers who return to their operating units as surrogate instructors.
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Which ‘Top Gun’ Character Are You?
Top Gun puts viewers into the cockpit of an F-14 Tomcat for the thrill and adrenaline rush of flying one of the Navy’s most maneuverable fighter jets. The film has had a cult following in its 30 years since it’s release, and continues to motivate anyone who has been in or around the Navy, particularly those who aspire to become fighter pilots. Last year, it was added to the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry, joining only 675 other films for that designation.
The movie’s music, with songs on the original soundtrack like Danger Zone (Kenny Loggins), Take My Breath Away (Berlin), Mighty Wings (Cheap Trick), and other songs featured in famous scenes, such as Great Balls of Fire and You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin,‘ remain as timeless as the movie itself. When they’re played on the radio, there’s no question that they came from Top Gun.
Related Content: Top Gun at 30: A Retrospective from Two Naval Aviators via War on the Rocks
It was the Navy’s cooperation that put the planes in the picture. The producers paid the military $1.8 million for the use of Miramar Naval Air Station, as well as four aircraft carriers, about two dozen F-14 Tomcats, and a few F-5 Tigers and A-4 Skyhawks; some flown by real-life top-gun pilots. The dogfight scenes were carefully choreographed by experienced military pilots, and a some of the movies most memorable scenes were meticulously researched for their realism and authenticity. The movie’s Navy and Hollywood connection made real history.
Then, there are those scenes that would just never happen. For example, Maverick’s tower fly-by (aka buzzing the tower). This became the symbolic statement by Maverick of his commitment to being a, well, maverick. But, doing this is not recommended. You’ll lose your wings, get a boot permanently stuck up your posterior, and you’ll certainly find yourself flying a desk until your court-martial. So, the answer will ALWAYS be, “negative ghost rider, the pattern is full.”
Soon after the movie came out, there was a boost in Navy recruitment. Although Pentagon regulations prohibited the Navy from promoting the movie in its recruitment efforts, Navy recruiters could be found setting up recruiting tables in many of the theaters where the movie was being shown. In 1987, the Navy cleverly released a Top Gun-themed recruitment commercial with “Danger Zone”-sounding music to continue the successful recruiting trend.
In addition to its excellent music and its action-packed scenes, the movie’s dialogue is immortal. Comical, hard-hitting and full of power and meaning, Top Gun is full of unforgettable lines, like these:
“Son, your ego is writing checks your body can’t cash.” ~ Captain Tom “Stinger” Jordan
“Top Gun rules of engagement are written for your safety and for that of your team. They are not flexible, nor am I” ~ CDR Mike “Viper” Metcalf (Commander, U.S. Navy Fighter Weapons School – Top Gun)
“A good pilot is compelled to evaluate what’s happened, so he can apply what he’s learned” ~ Viper
These, and many other lines, certainly capture the strict discipline and protocol that you would expect from the military. And, then there are lines that you might use at work just to annoy your co-workers, such as the infamous, “I feel the need … the need for speed.” Or, there are lines like the ones listed below that are suited for everyday use and have particular meaning (click on image to be taken to larger image via its web link ):
Out of the movie also comes leadership wisdom. Top Gun is referenced often when discussing leadership and team dynamics; a sort of leadership ethos. This was extensively explored by Bob Jennings and J. Israel Thompson in a series of posts that were written as fictional “interviews” with key characters from the movie. Links to each of those posts are listed below:
- Laid-back leadership on the California coast, with Commander Mike “Viper” Metcalf, Commander, US Navy Fighter Weapons School (#1, posted Mon 4 May 2015)
- The case for being a no-nonsense, hard-ass leader, with Commander Tom “Stinger” Jardian, USS Enterprise CAG (#2, posted Tue 5 May 2015)
- Influencing leadership from the outside, with Ms Charlotte “Charlie” Blackwood, US Navy Aviation Warfare Analyst (#3, posted Wed 6 May 2015)
- Leadership considerations for the Boss’ right hand, with Lt Commander Rick “Jester” Heatherly, Executive Officer, US Navy Fighter Weapons School (#4, posted Thu 7 May 2015)
- Exerting leadership as a peer, with Lieutenant Tom “Iceman” Kazansky, US Navy fighter pilot (#5, posted Fri 8 May 2015)
- Learning to Lead yourself, with Lieutenant Peter “Maverick” Mitchell, US Navy fighter pilot (#6, posted Mon 11 May 2015)
- Leadership thoughts from beyond the grave, with Lieutenant JG Nick “Goose” Brady, deceased US Navy Radar Intercept Officer (#7, posted Tue 12 May 2015)
Often in the movie, however, there are those times when a butt-chewing was necessary. The fine art of delivering corrective action is sometimes garnished with some colorful language. As the movie evolves, you notice Viper’s style becomes the textbook example of how to deliver negative feedback. There is, obviously, a right way and a wrong way.
‘Top Gun’ still soars at 30, while shooting for that sequel, which will again star Tom Cruise. And, although the F-14 Tomcat is no longer part of the Navy’s arsenal, and pilots are becoming more like gamers sitting in sophisticated theater-like consoles flying drones (unmanned aerial vehicles), no one has lost that loving feeling for Top Gun. It’s popularity continues to fly high after 30 years. For some of us, it will never get old. In fact, Top Gun Day is celebrated every year on May 13th. Why do they celebrate it on that day, when the movie was released on May 16? Good question. Here is your answer.
If you haven’t had the opportunity to see the movie, I highly recommend it. If you have, I would be surprised if you don’t feel the same way I do every time it comes on television, or when Kenny Loggins comes on the radio with “Danger Zone.” It’s a movie where the pilots and the viewer are both on the edge of their seat experiencing the exhilaration of life as a naval aviator. One thing is certain, the movie puts into perspective our need to call the ball; to know, and be absolutely certain, that we are on the correct approach path to catching the wire in life, career, business, etc. If we are gliding off the path, we need to know how to correct our approach. This is the lesson … the moral of the story … that Top Gun provides.