I taught at TOPGUN, and the flying and dogfighting seen in the 'Top Gun' movies are pretty darn realistic

I taught at TOPGUN, and the flying and dogfighting seen in the 'Top Gun' movies are pretty darn realistic
  • Guy Snodgrass is a former TOPGUN instructor and naval aviator who's written two books.

  • He said the movies do a great job capturing what it's like to fly sorties and train in jets.

  • But they don't always show the hard work that goes into actually teaching at TOPGUN.

This as-told-to essay is based on a conversation with Guy Snodgrass, a former TOPGUN instructor and retired naval aviator who was also Communications Director and Chief Speechwriter for Secretary of Defense James Mattis. It's been edited for length and clarity.

With the original "Top Gun" film from 1986 and 2022's "Maverick" sequel, Hollywood and the producers did a phenomenal job. They worked in collaboration with the United States Navy, and all the flight scenes you see in both movies are pretty darn realistic.

When the pilots were ripping through canyons in "Maverick" to practice low-level flying and then popping up to release ordnance on target, all of those are things that we would train to do and would do in similar circumstances. Of course, everything else has quite a bit of Hollywood magic sprinkled on it. You don't typically have a lot of love interests going on at TOPGUN. You're not out on the beach playing football.

There are also a lot of liberties taken with the scenes of fights breaking out, too, like people getting in each other's faces and yelling and screaming. There's just not a lot of room for that in today's military; it's a very professional environment. There are disagreements, but you work through it as professionals.

As for which film is better at capturing TOPGUN, I suspect it would be a generational question. If you ask someone who was flying in the 1970s and 1980s, they might say the original is better because that was their time. Plus, the original has the F-14 Tomcat, and there's a lot of nostalgia for that jet.

The second movie was great with the flight scenes, the camaraderie, and how they approached the mission. There's still that Hollywood magic, like Capt. Pete "Maverick" Mitchell, who has been around for decades, being able to fly an F-14 against a Russian fifth-generation fighter and prevail. On that level, a fifth-generation fighter like Russia's Su-57 is going to smoke the F-14 every single day and twice on Sunday.

But the person in the cockpit is the key element, and that's what we really focus on at TOPGUN.

Becoming a TOPGUN instructor

Guy Snodgrass flying
Snodgrass said the application process is fairly straightforward but highly selective.Guy Snodgrass

I think in a lot of cases throughout my career, I was always attracted to trying to do the toughest things. And one of the pathways I could take after my time as a Navy fighter pilot was to go through TOPGUN.

That's the path I wanted to pursue, so I could try and reach that pinnacle of fighter pilots in naval aviation.

But the most demanding part of being a TOPGUN instructor for me wasn't the actual flying, like you see in "Top Gun" and "Top Gun: Maverick," but the lecture process as an instructor.

Getting into TOPGUN is fairly straightforward. You've accumulated a body of work over your time in a flight squadron. You put in your application, you get letters of recommendations from pilots you've actively flown with, and typically your commanding officer from your unit will provide an independent evaluation.

When I was an instructor, I saw the other side of this. Once you have all the applications, maybe 30 people for eight spots, there's this cascade — we call it the waterfall — in how people get chosen. You go through all 30 individuals and determine who are the few, usually maybe four or five, that we want to stay as instructors. The remainder of the pool can now be picked by other schools, so it kind of cascades down from TOPGUN.

In my case, I was selected to be an instructor. I went through the course, which today takes about 12 weeks, and at the conclusion of that, I was selected.

A day in the life at TOPGUN

Guy Snodgrass pic
The daily schedule is hectic, but debriefs after flights are the best time to learn and grow.Guy Snodgrass

You're typically an instructor at TOPGUN for two-and-a-half, maybe three years. You're flying every single day, Monday through Friday, and in many cases, twice a day. We'd get up early, around 4:30am, for our first brief at base around 5:30am to 6:00am. You have some time to relax, grab your gear, get into the cockpit, and then there's a 30-minute period to get the jet started and get all the systems online and ready for take off.

Depending on how dynamic your mission is — meaning how aggressive and fast you're flying — you'll likely be airborne for about an hour, doing basic flight maneuvers and the dogfighting you see in the "Top Gun" movies. A longer flying mission might be about an hour and a half.

You might be dogfighting against an instructor or using the gun on the plane to strafe the target on the ground or drop bombs from high or low altitude, putting what you learn in the classroom towards practical application.

Then you're becoming an expert in air-to-ground delivery and doing multiplane exercises, flying with one other plane to start and then you extend outwards with three other planes for pretty involved missions, dodging simulated surface-to-air missiles, fighting your way in and dropping weapons, then fighting your way out.

Back on the ground, you get out of your gear, get some downtime, and then start the debrief. The debriefs are epic because they typically last anywhere from three-and-a-half to five hours.

These sessions can go for a very long time because you're learning lessons from what you just flew. We would always say that the debrief is the most important because that's where you're learning your lessons and able to call them out in a real, tangible way so that you can apply them moving forward.

After debrief, you'll probably have an hour break and then do another flight and repeat the cycle. You typically head home around 10:00 pm, maybe 10:30 pm.

What they don't show in the movies

Guy Snodgrass pic
Both "Top Gun" movies have their Hollywood magic, but they're surprisingly realistic. Guy Snodgrass

As an instructor, you go through the entirety of the process, and after everyone else finishes training and graduates, you stay and become a subject matter expert for some element of teachings at TOPGUN. Mine was air-to-air mission planning, so being in charge of long-range aerial combat.

Then you have six months to prepare, study, and practice to give this lecture on your area. You get eight practice lessons to receive feedback. In my case, it was a four-and-a-half hour long lecture, hundreds of presentation slides, and it had to be completely from memory. They don't let you look at your slides, and you can't use notes.

That's the biggest thing, the most demanding part for me wasn't the actual flying, but the lecture process and being able to do it completely from memory. But once I passed that, I was a fully qualified instructor and continued to learn and instruct throughout the remainder of my time.

Guy Snodgrass pic
Teaching and leading your subject matter area lecture is the most difficult part, Snodgrass said.Guy Snodgrass

The most rewarding part of being a TOPGUN instructor was the personal relationships you form with the people around you, who are also dedicated to trying to achieve their best potential. There's a competitive air because everyone wants to try to be the best, but mostly there's camaraderie.

I also got to meet these students as they came through, interacting with the future of naval aviation, future leaders who are going to continue to grow for the remainder of their career and assume positions of greater authority. As an instructor, you're having a real direct influence and ability there.

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