Topgun in the Mid-1980s: Building on the Legacy – Part Five
PART 5: Supplemental Notes
Donald E. Auten’s Roger Ball! The Odyssey of John Monroe “Hawk” Smith, Navy Fighter Pilot, tells the story of an influential figure in Topgun and the Navy fighter community and provide additional information on topics covered in this article. Robert K. Wilcox’s Scream of Eagles is an exciting and detailed description of the Navy’s fighter experience in Vietnam and the founding of Topgun. The author’s book Topgun Days provides details on F-14 Tomcat operations in the early 1980s, going through the Topgun class as a student, and returning as an instructor.
Dogfighting and Missiles: The Rocky Start
By the mid-1960s, the dogfight was considered a dying art due to the advent of air-to-air missiles, and was not emphasized in training American fighter aircrews. In the real world, however, factors such as rules of engagement that required US aircrews to visually identify targets meant that American pilots often found themselves engaged in a tight-turning fight with maneuverable enemy MiGs. In these dynamic engagements, early air-to-air missiles revealed flaws that had not been exposed in testing, such as poor performance against maneuvering targets. In addition, all air-to-air missiles have a maximum range and minimum range, and the cockpit displays were not accurate, especially at low altitude, where many dogfights took place. Pilots thus had to estimate when they were in a favorable missile launch position, but had not been well-trained to do so. These conditions caused many of the missile failures: they were launched when they had little chance of hitting the target. Improving missiles and improving training would both contribute to improving missile success rate.
Fighter Generations and Air-to-Air Missile Evolution
The “generation” system is an unofficial means of broadly categorizing jet fighters based on performance, maneuverability, avionics, and other considerations. First generation includes the earliest types up to the 1950s, while second generation includes aircraft such as the F-8 Crusader, most of the USAF “Century Series,” and most MiG-21 variants. Third generation fighters include the F-4 Phantom II and MiG-23. Fourth generation fighters include the F-14, F-15, F-16, and F/A-18, as well as the MiG-29 and Su-27/Su-30/Su-35. The F-22 Raptor and F-35 Lightning are fifth generation American fighters, while the Russian T-50 and Chinese J-20 also display the stealth and high maneuverability characteristic of Gen 5.
NFWS has operated a variety of aircraft since its inception, based on airframe availability and budgetary considerations. As of summer 2013, NFWS was flying F/A-18s and F-16s in the Topgun class. They are supplemented by Navy Reserve squadron VFC-13 flying F-5s.
Until the 1980s, most threat fighters used guns and/or the AA-2 Atoll missile, which was equipped with an IR-seeker that was limited to rear-hemisphere attacks. When the MiG-23 was introduced in 1970, it could launch its radar-guided AA-7 missiles in head-on attacks with the proper conditions, although the radar and missile had significant limitations.
When the F-14 entered the Fleet in 1974 it brought the AIM-54 Phoenix missile, an aircraft/missile combination that had true forward quarter capability in addition to long range. At the time, however, it was not planned to use AIM-54s against tactical targets on power projection/strike escort missions, which is the framework for the Topgun class. They were instead reserved to defend the carrier from Soviet bomber raids. This mind-set changed by the late 1980s for a variety of reasons, including the performance of threat missiles such as the AA-10C Alamo, which in many scenarios could out-perform the AIM-7 Sparrow.
(The Topgun patch.)
(F-14 Tomcats carried the long-range AIM-54 Phoenix, but for many years it was not planned for use in tactical scenarios.)