Topgun in the Mid-1980s: Building on the Legacy – Part One

(F-5F, F-5E, and A-4 provided a wide range of threats to challenge Navy fighter pilots and RIOs.)

Have you ever wondered how the Navy’s Topgun program became a world-renowned center of excellence in the serious business of air combat? Or how it remains effective? Former Topgun Instructor Dave “Bio” Baranek provides an insider view of Topgun, focusing on the program’s evolution during its second decade.

PART 1: The Need for Topgun

More than forty years ago, the US Navy did something unusual for a large organization that revered its traditions. The Navy admitted that it had a serious problem and took dramatic action to remedy the situation. The actions quickly proved to be effective and formed the basis for a program that has lasted decades – yet with clear lineage to a program set up in the time of Apollo space missions and Elvis Presley’s first comeback tour. That program is known as Topgun. I was a Topgun instructor from 1984 to 1987, and will present my opinions on how decisions made during my tenure built on Topgun’s legacy and strengthened the organization for the future.

The need for Topgun had become clear in the early years of the Vietnam War. One measure of the combat performance of fighter aircraft is kill ratio. In World War II the U.S. Navy’s kill ratio was 14:1, meaning we destroyed fourteen enemy planes for each Navy aircraft we lost. In the Korean War, American jets had a 12:1 kill ratio over enemy fighters. Some inaccuracy is understandable, caused by the stress and confusion of combat, yet the ratio provides a rough indicator of effectiveness.

During the first few years of aerial combat in Vietnam, from the Navy’s first MiG kills in 1965 until the bombing halt of 1968, the Navy’s kill ratio was around 2.5:1. This was doubly disappointing when it is remembered that the Navy was flying the modern F-4 Phantom II and F-8 Crusader, while the North Vietnamese air force was comprised mostly of obsolescent Soviet MiG-17s, with the MiG-21 introduced in late 1965.

The Navy ordered a comprehensive study of tactical aircraft, radars, and missiles, as well as the training and tactics of Navy aircrews. The resultant study was officially titled the Air-to-Air Missile System Capability Review. But it has become known as the “Ault Report,” named for the leader of the study team, Captain Frank Ault, a World War II veteran Navy pilot and aircraft carrier commanding officer.

The report found that poor missile performance was a major factor in the low kill ratio. Almost 600 air-to-air missiles were fired by the Navy and Air Force in about 360 engagements between June 1965 and September 1968, and the probability of a kill worked out to be about one kill for every ten missiles fired. Reasons included flaws in the missiles themselves, but the Ault Report also addressed several shortcomings in aircrew training. These included:

•      Aircrews did not recognize when they were “in the envelope” for launching missiles;

•      There was no instrumented range to support accurate debrief of close-in maneuvering “dogfight” training;

•      The Navy needed a core of instructors to consolidate, coordinate, and promulgate doctrine and tactics for fighter employment.

Some of these needs could be addressed by modifying the program of instruction at the training squadrons where fighter pilots and radar intercept officers (RIOs, the second crewmen in a two-seat fighter) became qualified on the jet they would fly in combat, known as the replacement air group or RAG. But to properly address many of the issues would require a dedicated weapons school. The Navy had operated a similar organization before, called the Fleet Air Gunnery Unit, but it was disbanded in 1960.

In re-establishing a dedicated fighter weapons school, the Navy started modestly. The task was assigned to the F-4 RAG at Naval Air Station (NAS) Miramar in San Diego, which was Fighter Squadron 121 (VF-121). With virtually no funding or official support, nine pilot and RIO instructors commandeered a trailer to use as an office and classroom, and went to work. Using the Ault Report as their mandate, they mustered their tenacity and ingenuity, gathered intelligence on enemy aircraft, and explored the limits of the F-4 Phantom. They studied engineering information and flew dogfights on training ranges, challenging other Navy and Marine Corps fighters, some Air Force, and even some actual MiGs operated by the US from a super-secret base in the remote Nevada desert. When they were ready, these intrepid instructors prepared lesson plans, practiced their lectures, and opened the door for the first class in March 1969. In a grainy old photograph, you can read the crude sign above that trailer: “TOPGUN.”

Topgun was not an overnight sensation. There were dozens of F-4 and F-8 squadrons in the Navy and Marine Corps at bases around the country. With routine training and preparations for combat deployments to Vietnam, it was a lot to ask them to send their best pilot (and RIO for the F-4) to Miramar for four weeks. The promise was that these already-skilled aircrew would return to their squadrons even better aviators, with tools to pass along their new knowledge to their squadronmates. After the first few classes, however, the value of Topgun training was becoming apparent – demonstrated in training dogfights and discussed over cold beers in officers clubs. When aerial combat resumed over North Vietnam in 1972, Topgun graduates scored the majority of the Navy’s MiG kills. The new training program was here to stay. It was commissioned as a stand-alone squadron in July 1972: the Navy Fighter Weapons School (NFWS). But the name Topgun stuck.

(The original Topgun trailer. (US Navy photo))

(An F-4 Phantom in formation with a Topgun instructor for RTB (return to base) following a training flight.)

Coming up: PART 2 – Topgun’s Early Years: the Foundation.

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Dave "Bio" Baranek

Dave is from Florida and attended Georgia Tech. He entered the Navy in 1979. Shortly after joining his first squadron he received the callsign "Bio," which many of his former squadronmates still call him. He was a Topgun air-to-air combat instructor in 1985, he had the unusual experience of flying aerial sequences used in the film "Top Gun," He also served as a dialogue advisor on the project, and took some of the few available photographs of the movie's black F-5 fighters in flight. He enjoyed a successful and satisfying 20-year career in the Navy, starting with assignments to F-14 Tomcat squadrons and the elite Topgun training program, and later assignment to the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the US 7th Fleet. At one point, he commanded an F-14 Tomcat fighter squadron. http://www.topgunbio.com/

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