Topgun in the Mid-1980s: Building on the Legacy – Part Four
(Sporty F-5E joins on his flight lead seconds after takeoff from NAS Miramar.)
PART 4: The Only Constant Is Change
All organizations either evolve or expire, and NFWS is no exception. In the years and decades after I left, Topgun underwent many changes – some necessitated by the increasing complexity of warfare, while others were simply ideas whose time had come. Here are just a few of the more significant events that have helped keep it effective into the 21st century.
· Fourth generation adversary aircraft
As mentioned, Topgun by the mid 1980s was addressing threat aircraft armed with forward-quarter capable missiles. Around the same time, highly maneuverable “4th generation” fighters were entering service with potentially hostile forces, principally the MiG-29 and Su-27. It was difficult to present a realistic simulation using the F-5 and A-4, so the Navy introduced the F-16N, a version of the impressive USAF fighter. As fourth generation fighters themselves, the F-16s provided a tremendous increase in capability when they taxied to the NFWS flight line in June 1987. Displaying a commendable commitment to the principles of the Ault Report published almost twenty years before, the Navy purchased enough F-16Ns to equip adversary squadrons at bases around the country, providing challenging opponents to F-14s and F/A-18s throughout the Fleet.
· Topgun as Blue Air
From the start, Topgun classes taught students about their own weapons and tactics as well as those used by potential threat forces. But in the air, Topgun instructors flew only as an opposing force, or Red Air. In the 1990s, however, Topgun itself began to operate the same F-14s and F/A-18s as the students flew, which gave instructors the ability to fly alongside the students during training flights. Known as Blue Air, this was how the USAF Fighter Weapons School operated and had been discussed at Topgun for years. Flying as Blue Air allowed instructors to get an better sense of student performance and more insight into problems that needed to be addressed.
· Purpose-built facility, followed by move to NAS Fallon
Within a few years of its launch, Topgun moved from the small borrowed trailer into hangar spaces at Miramar, converting spaces normally used by Fleet squadrons into classrooms and briefing rooms – always on a shoestring budget. Around 1990 the squadron moved into a purpose-built facility on NAS Miramar, with state-of-the-art auditoriums to enhance the learning experience, as well as better spaces for briefing and debriefing. Within a few years, however, the Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) process resulted in Miramar becoming a Marine Corps Air Station, and the Navy Fighter Weapons School moved to NAS Fallon (Nevada) in 1996. The move to Fallon coincided with the establishment of the Naval Strike and Air Warfare Center (NSAWC). NFWS became one of the components of NSAWC, becoming more closely integrated with the Navy’s strike warfare and carrier airborne early warning warfare programs, which are also NSAWC components. The integration of these previously separate training organizations greatly enhances training for all carrier-based aviators.
· Air-to-ground training
With the phasing out of the A-6 Intruder in the 1990s, the F-14 joined the FA/18 in the strike-fighter role, charged with both air-to-air and air-to-ground missions. To support training requirements for both missions, NFWS added air-to-ground to the Topgun class syllabus, which had been strictly air-to-air. The class was lengthened to nine weeks to accommodate this and other additional training. This change ensures that Navy and Marine Corps fighter aircrews receive the best training available for all missions with which they are charged.
This article has covered a partial listing of significant events in Topgun’s more than forty years of training, based on the author’s experience and opinions. Many more developments contributed to the school’s continuing effectiveness. Yet no specific event can compare to the commitment of each individual Topgun instructor to the highest level of professionalism, both on the ground and in the air. This level of commitment was not dictated by the Ault Report, but is found within each instructor, and is both demanded and facilitated by his and her squadronmates.
Much of the material for this article came from the author’s personal experience as a Topgun instructor. The Ault Report is available online and makes great reading. The author also referred to Adam Elder’s article, “Top Gun: 40 Years of Higher Learning,” from the October 2009 issue of San Diego Magazine. The author would like to thank former Topgun instructors Captain John Monroe Smith, USN (Ret.) and Lieutenant Colonel Mike Straight, USAF (Ret.), who reviewed and commented on a draft. Assistance was also provided by Major Patrick Catt, USAF (Ret.), aviation historian and former USAF F-4 and T-38 pilot. This assistance is greatly appreciated. Any errors or omissions, however, are solely the responsibility of the author.
(Adversary squadron VF-126 F-16N in formation with a VF-2 F-14A returns to Miramar following a dogfight training flight above the Pacific.)
(A division of Navy fighters (4 aircraft) brings a lot of firepower to deal with capable threats. Mixing F-14s and F/A-18s was studied.)
(Topgun instructors’ commitment is the common factor in the school’s longevity and continuing success more than 40 years after it started.)