Top Gun

10 Things to Know About the Real Top Gun School

The real highway through the danger zone.

BY Rick Bursky
Sep.14,2019 / UPDATED ON MAY.22,2021

How could you watch Top Gun and not imagine yourself flying upside down at 407 mph screaming, “Goose, where is he?!” And today, women can have that same dream because women now go through Top Gun. But now there’s a new Top Gun movie, Top Gun Maverick. Unfortunately, the global pandemic shut down movie theaters and caused movies to abort takeoff and idle on the runway. Hopefully, now that the world is getting back to normal, Maverick will kick the tires and light fires and we’ll all be in the theaters imagining ourselves as Top Gun heroes. But before you zip up your flight suit here are eleven things you might want to know about the real Top Gun school.

1. Top Gun was the Navy Fighter Weapons School but no more. It’s called United States Navy Strike Fighter Tactics Instructor program (SFTI program). It used to be just about shooting down other fighters, dogfighting; now it’s as much about dropping bombs.

2. There are four classes taught each year. Each class lasts nine weeks. In the ‘70s the course was four weeks long; in the ‘80s, five weeks. 

3. Students spend eighty hours in classroom lectures.

4. Students make twenty-five flights.

5. All “students” are not pilots. Some of the students are Weapons Systems Officers (WSO), the person in the back seat. The pilot flies the plane. The WSO fights the plane. Top Gun also trains four to six Air Intercept Controllers in each class. They are completely integrated into the course. These "AIC" students, some of whom are E-2C/D Hawkeye Naval Flight Officers, go back to their Carrier Air Wings after graduation and are given the responsibility of training all the air controllers in the art of air intercept control. 

6. The Navy’s only Vietnam War fighter ace, Randall Harold "Duke" Cunningham (along with his WSO William P. "Irish" Driscoll) became a Top Gun instructor and commander of Fighter Squadron 126 (VF-126), a shore-based adversary squadron. After the Navy, Cunningham became a republican congressman from California but was sent to prison after pleading guilty to bribery, fraud, and tax evasion.

7. The movie Top Gun misrepresented the purpose of the school. It’s not to train better warriors, it’s to train the aircrews to return to their squadrons to be instructors. When a pilot or WSO completes the Top Gun course he/she will return as a Training Officer carrying the latest tactical doctrine back to their operational squadron. 

8. In the movie, all the pilots competed for a Top Gun trophy. In reality, there is no trophy, never was.

9. The first woman to graduate Top Gun was Becky Calder in 2004. She was also a graduate of the United States Naval Academy. 

10. The youngest person to graduate Top Gun was seven years old, Kaiden Lambert, from Neenah, Wis., who came to the Naval Strike and Air Warfare Center (NSAWC) as a part of the Make a Wish foundation. 

The first Top Gun movie saw Navy recruiting booths in movie theaters and the Navy said they saw a 500 percent increase in people wanting to be Naval Aviators. Let’s see if this new Top Gun movies does the same thing. Though I suspect, either way, Top Gun students are still going to be tearing up the sky over California. 

Goose, are you still with me? I feel the need for speed …  

Oh, to take a look at the trailer for the new Top Gun movie. Just click here.

Keywords: Top GunNSAWCTom CruiseTop Gun 2Duke Cunninghammavericktop gun trailerTop Gun: Maverick
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