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

PART 2: Topgun’s Early Years: the Foundation

(Navy Fighter Weapons School F-5E Tiger II gets close for a photo.)

When considering why Topgun flourished, much credit must go to the enduring culture established by the earliest instructors and handed down to their successors. They met the essential requirements for  a “school”: obtain accurate intelligence and develop effective tactics. The following items, on the other hand, were matters of choice that became part of the standards that defined Topgun.

·      Instructors had to be skilled aviators

Topgun instructors taught tactics, and then went out and flew as challenging opponents in aircraft that were in many ways inferior to those flown by the students. This emphasized Topgun’s philosophy that aircrew skill and training can overcome deficiencies in aircraft and weapons. In the early years, Topgun used the A-4 Skyhawk and T-38 Talon to simulate the MiG-17 and MiG-21, respectively. The T-38 was replaced by the more capable F-5E and F-5F Tiger II. Through careful maneuvering by instructor pilots, the A-4 and F-5 could be used to simulate many types of aircraft in many scenarios, except for extremes of performance.

·      Aerial engagements were debriefed objectively

Fighter pilots and RIOs arrived at Topgun confident of their skills, imagining themselves to be the best who ever strapped on a jet fighter. So when a young crew in an F-4J Phantom was “shot” by an instructor in a TA-4 Skyhawk, the event would have to be debriefed thoughtfully to prevent alienating the students. In addition to the maneuvers, instructors debriefed the physics, tactics, environment, and other factors that affected engagements, emphasizing learning points rather than keeping score. This greatly reduced the “ego factor.” Instructors were also responsible for reconstructing flights accurately and in detail, a task that was aided by instrumented ranges developed as recommended in the Ault report.

·      Instructors had exceptional technical knowledge

In addition to stick-and-rudder prowess, each instructor also had to become an expert on at least one assigned subject. One was the expert on infrared-guided missiles, another would have division tactics (flights involving four friendly fighters), and so on. They lectured before groups of aviators who asked challenging questions, and helped define the combat tactics for Navy and Marine Corps fighters. To meet their responsibilities, instructors focused on the most detailed intelligence available and sometimes attended specialized training.

·      Lectures adhered to high presentation standards

Instead of the flight suits usually worn around the squadron, instructors wore uniforms when presenting lectures. When writing on the board, handwriting and diagrams had to be neat. If using a pointer (pre-laser-pointer), the instructor held it with both hands for accuracy and control. These and dozens of other guidelines were explicitly stated and were checked in the challenging “murder board” lecture vetting process. These standards resulted in disciplined, professional lectures so students could focus on the material.

·      The objective was to produce eminently qualified squadron training officers

Any aircrew would improve following weeks of intense flying, but the point of Topgun from the beginning was to develop pilots and RIOs who could return to their squadrons and pass along their knowledge to others. Besides fighter tactics and weapons – for both American and threat systems – Topgun presented lectures on “teaching and learning” and “briefing and debriefing” to give students the tools they needed to be good training officers.

·      Adversary instructor program

After a few years of Topgun, the Navy decided that more would be better. It established adversary squadrons at bases around the country to support all tactical air squadrons. Topgun was the lead for adversary standardization, helping to ensure uniform high quality throughout the fleet.

These aspects of Topgun helped ensure that it survived as an organization while the Navy changed. It started on a shoestring and continued to run that way for several years – for example, lack of personnel was a huge issue that wasn’t truly rectified until the squadron performed a Navy manpower study and went from a complement of 70 enlisted  personnel to 130, and also doubled the number of officers. The final MiG kills of the Vietnam War occurred roughly three years after the first Topgun class. The F-4 and F-8 gave way to the F-14 Tomcat starting in the mid-1970s. The F/A-18 entered Fleet service in 1983. Despite these profound changes, Topgun stayed true to its original mission and culture, and its reputation grew.

(F-5E leads two A-4 Skyhawks. Proving that aircrew training is very important to fighter success, when flown by Topgun instructors these aircraft often dominated supposedly superior designs.)

(Topgun instructors were skilled aviators and experts at reconstructing complex dogfights.)


Up Next: PART 3: Critical Decisions and Events of the Mid-1980s

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.

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