You’ve Seen “Top Gun.” But What’s the Real TOPGUN Program Like?

The summer’s big movie blockbuster is “Top Gun: Maverick,” which already has sold well over $1 billion in theater tickets worldwide, and seems to show no signs of slowing down, according to Variety. The film stars Tom Cruise as an older, somewhat wiser version of the brash Navy pilot Pete “Maverick” Mitchell, the character he portrayed in the 1986 hit “Top Gun.”

Though both “Top Gun” films are fictional, they’re inspired by a real-life military aviation program, the U.S. Navy Fighter Weapons School, aka TOPGUN. The real TOPGUN, which the Navy started in 1969 in order to reduce combat losses in Vietnam, originally was based at what was then known as Naval Air Station Miramar in California, the setting for the first “Top Gun” film. That location is now a Marine Corps air base, and since the mid-1990s, TOPGUN has been located at Naval Air Station Fallon, Nevada.

While the location, the aircraft and the technology have changed over the years, the mission is essentially the same. TOPGUN aims to elevate the games of elite Navy fighter pilots, so they can go out as teachers and pass along state-of-the-art skills and knowledge to other Navy aviators, thus raising everyone else’s tactical performance, according to the U.S. Department of Defense’s website about the program.

“The best way to describe the ultimate purpose of TOPGUN is to ensure that Naval aviation is trained and ready, and has the tactics required to win in combat against any adversary, at any time,” explains Commander Christopher “Pops” Papaioanu, a veteran Navy pilot and TOPGUN alumnus who served as the school’s commanding officer in 2018-19.

To achieve that purpose, students at TOPGUN take one of three courses, according to Papaioanu. In addition to the strike fighter tactics instructors (SFTIs) course, the one that’s depicted in the movies, there are two nine-week courses. In the first, some TOPGUN pilots learn to replicate the capacity and tactics used by other countries, so they can play the part of enemy fliers more realistically in Navy training exercises. In the second, students learn (via simulators) how to operate their sensors and provide the SFTIs with situational awareness to help guide their decision-making.

Graduates often go on to become instructors at the Navy’s weapons schools, but they also help develop operational testing for new aircraft under development by putting them into tactical scenarios that show whether a fighter jet is capable of what it’s supposed to do. And some are offered a chance to become instructors at TOPGUN itself.

What It Takes to Join TOPGUN

In the 13-weeklong fighter tactics instructors’ course, the pilots go through a demanding regimen of classroom instruction and studying, continually analyzing what they do in the air. Those who go on to become TOPGUN instructors have an even more grueling requirement. After researching some aviation topic with the goal of becoming a subject area expert, they’re required to go through what’s called the “murder board,” and give a three-hour lecture completely from memory. Between flying, studying and teaching, an instructor could be putting in a 12- to 16-hour day.

That intellectual rigor is one of the reasons that flying skill is only one of the requirements for making TOPGUN.

“We’re looking for three things,” Papaioanu says. “The first one is passion. They have to be passionate about being good in the airplane, they have to be passionate about instructing, they have to be passionate about doing this job.”

The second most important qualification is having the right personality. While Hollywood might make brash overconfidence seem like a prerequisite, TOPGUN actually is looking for the opposite sort of temperament. “If they come in confident, overconfident and cocky, that’s not like a personality that you can make better, right?” Papaioanu says. Instead, the program favors “somebody who is humble, who can go do an event, makes a big comeback, recognize that they’ve made some mistakes, and be willing to critique themselves or allow us as instructors to make them better.”

Sheer talent as a pilot actually ranks third, according to Papaioanu. “The way we look at it is if they’ve got the passion and they’ve got the ability, we’re going to make them better.”

“TOPGUN pushed me to expand the envelope of my abilities, resulting in a much higher level of competence after departing the staff as an instructor,” explains Guy M. Snodgrass, via email. He’s a 2006 TOPGUN graduate who became an instructor at the school for three years and wrote a 2020 book, “TOPGUN’S Top 10: Leadership Lessons from the Cockpit,” about what he learned at TOPGUN that is transferrable to other endeavors.

“This constant demand for excellence spanned all phases of flight: preparation, effective flight briefing, mission execution and debriefing,” says Snodgrass, who now is CEO of Defense Analytics, a national security and foreign policy advisory firm. “The secret to TOPGUN’s success is unrelentingly high standards and the opportunity to gain experience at elite levels of training. The first time you rip around at 500 feet [152 meters] pulling 7 Gs is an eye-opening experience. But when you can operate at such a high level for several years, the ability to perform becomes second nature.”

In addition to improving his performance as a pilot by refining his skills and reducing imperfections, Snodgrass notes that the training also pushed him to do things that he hadn’t done before, to become more creative and a better problem-solver.

“TOPGUN is an immersive program,” he explains. “You’re going full tilt from day one. This means you’re stretching your abilities across each and every event, AND you’re being presented with unique experiences and opportunities along the way. Because the program maintains a high bar, students (and instructors) get the best of both worlds – personal and professional growth at an accelerated pace.”

No One Ever Beats Their Instructor

When Snodgrass was under consideration to become an instructor at TOPGUN, part of the evaluation was to take a “rush ride,” a series of simulated dogfights, in which he had to go up against his own TOPGUN instructor. In his book, Snodgrass recalls the rush ride as a humbling experience, in which his opponent outmaneuvered him and actually shot him down with a simulated missile in the second of three sets.

The dejected Snodgrass met with his instructor, analyzed his defeats and outlined needed areas of improvement on a whiteboard. Afterward, he was surprised when his instructor told him that he’d done a nice job — no one ever beats their instructor, he explained — and invited him to stay and become an instructor himself. What he didn’t realize was that he wasn’t just being evaluated on his flying abilities, but on his character — specifically, how he would stay committed to learning and improving.

“Every TOPGUN instructor performs a rush ride to test their abilities before the staff votes on whether to accept them as a new member,” Snodgrass explains. “The type of flight may vary — dogfighting, air-to-ground bombing, large scale battles — but the overall process remains the same. How does a potential instructor carry themself? Do they have the talent, passion and personality to succeed?”

Snodgrass recalls having to absorb a daunting amount of information at TOPGUN. “This is part of the course design: adding stress beyond simple flight execution,” he says. “Teaching students how to prioritize the most critical and time-sensitive tasks over those less important. As I relate in my book, I’ve found this characteristic to be instrumental to long-term success, whether you’re in uniform, in a corporate office or any day-to-day job.”

The Real TOPGUN Versus the Movie Version

Movies inevitably embellish real life experiences for dramatic purposes. Even so Snodgrass notes that in many ways, the “Top Gun” films actually got a lot of things right about the program and the experience of participating in it. He was impressed with the flight footage, which Papaioanu notes was performed by actual Navy pilots.

Beyond that, “the real TOPGUN has a tremendous amount of camaraderie and esprit de corps, which also shines through in the movies,” the former Navy pilot says.

But Snodgrass concurs with Papaioanu that Hollywood takes license in playing up the characters’ egos and craving for competition, which doesn’t really fit the TOPGUN reality.

“Being a part of an elite military unit like TOPGUN is a genuine team sport,” Snodgrass explains. “Points aren’t awarded and rankings don’t exist. Instead, it’s about iron sharpening iron. Setting the conditions where everyone is allowed to achieve their fullest potential. Yes, it’s a competitive lifestyle but not one underpinned by people undercutting each other. Rather, it’s about performing to the best of your abilities, then learning how to stretch those abilities a little bit further each and every day.”

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