I know that all of my pilot chums reading this over their toast and marmalade are already spluttering, why have they asked a former RAF Tornado navigator, a mere back-seat driver, to write about Top Gun? I guess it’s because we navigators clearly have better communication skills than the “stick-monkeys” I used to sit behind in a jet fighter and order around the skies.
Moreover, I’ve been lucky enough to have a blast — just once — around California in the star of the new film, the F/A-18 Hornet, flown by an actual US Navy pilot. Perhaps most importantly, I’ve been to Friday afternoon happy hour a couple of times at the Officers’ Club at Naval Air Station Miramar, the home of the original Top Gun school. So I’ve spent time drinking with the crews and singing all the old songs. I can still belt out a decent rendition of “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’” if the need arises.
I loved the first Top Gun and I’ve seen it at least a dozen times. Most fast-jet aircrew have. In 1987, not long after the film came out, I was a young, enthusiastic trainee navigator. A large group from the RAF’s “Nav school” headed into Doncaster to watch it. To say we were enthralled is an understatement. Even to young student flyers used to thrashing around the skies at a relatively sedate 300mph, it was incredible to watch Tom Cruise and his fellow aviators’ exploits in their F-14 Tomcat fighters. To live and breathe their experiences of combat, love, life and death. Most of us watching agog would later fly our own jets into battle at 700mph-plus. A number — like me — were shot down over Iraq during the Gulf War. Not all of those friends survived.
That first Top Gun was riddled with aviation errors. From some toe-curlingly awful airborne dialogue to real technical stinkers. My personal favorite came during the ejection sequence when the young Maverick’s back-seater Goose (spoiler alert) is killed. A panicked radio call goes out, “Mav’s in trouble. He’s in a flat spin and headed out to sea.” In reality, if a jet is in a flat spin it is no longer a flying machine — it’s a large lump of metal and it’s plummeting straight down. Fast.
But while some aviators expressed concerns at the first film’s errors, the director Tony Scott rightly said, “I don’t make movies for fighter pilots, I make movies for moviegoers.” That seems perfectly reasonable.
So if the first Top Gun was both brilliant and littered with errors, how does this latest version measure up?
Watching Top Gun: Maverick on the big screen (an absolute must), I witnessed some of the most astonishing, technically beautiful, awe-inspiring flying sequences ever filmed. They are simply breathtaking.
Needless to say, there is still some wonderfully corny, totally unrealistic dialogue. And there are, as in the first film, many dodgy depictions of flying, combat and military life.
In an early scene, we see the now Captain Pete “Maverick” Mitchell (Cruise) in his incredible man cave surrounded by motorbikes, memorabilia and his very own Second World War P-51 Mustang.
Even to young student flyers used to thrashing around the skies at a relatively sedate 300mph, it was incredible to watch Tom Cruise.
A top US Navy captain probably earns about $200,000 a year. Never mind the antique motorbikes, that P-51 alone would probably set him back just under $4 million. So unless Mav is selling secrets to the Russians, this scene raises a serious financial question. Though interestingly, Cruise actually owns a vintage Mustang and took some of the cast flying in it before filming started. Apparently, many were airsick.
Obviously the US Navy didn’t let Hollywood actors borrow their multimillion-dollar F/A-18 Hornets to make a movie. Training a fast-jet pilot can take three to five years. So whenever we see an actor “flying” the jet from the front seat in the airborne sequences, they are actually sitting in the rear, weapon systems officer’s cockpit (the “navigator” in old RAF terms) of the two-seat version of the F/A-18. A US Navy pilot is at the controls up front. So if you know what to look for, some of the actors’ hand positions are slightly awry, especially when they launch from the carrier.
In the film, some of the briefings are held in the massive hangar on the aircraft carrier with countless arbitrary members of the ship’s crew listening in. This is unrealistic. They have secure briefing rooms and only those directly involved in a mission attend.
Cruise actually owns a vintage Mustang and took some of the cast flying in it before filming started.
An aircraft engine fire results in an astonishing sequence of diving, turning and rolling. While an engine fire can be concerning, completing a series of harsh, aerobatic maneuvers isn’t going to help. And performing a high-speed, low-level flyby of the tower in a damaged jet really isn’t the done thing.
Maverick begins a dogfight training exercise by blasting up from a low level beneath two trainees and through a tiny gap between their jets, causing them to flip on their wings, yelling an anguished: “What the hell?!” Perhaps the most dodgy scene, widely shown on the film’s trailer. In the best-case scenario, this terminally stupid maneuver would be a monumental breach of flying regulations resulting in serious disciplinary action and possible dismissal. More likely, it would have resulted in a catastrophic mid-air collision, the destruction of three jets worth about $190 million, and the deaths of all aircrew. But it did look amazing on the big screen. The boringly simple fact is that in combat (or, indeed, in much regular operational training) you would rarely have friendly aircraft flying feet apart; it is tactically unsound and offers minimal purpose. Some of the sequences look as though the crews are training to join the Red Arrows, not fly a complex mission into enemy territory. But to be fair, the audience in my screening whooped and cheered through most of them.
And opposing aircraft in any sort of combat these days would rarely meet up in the same piece of sky to dogfight where you can “see the whites of your opponents’ eyes”. Air-to-air missiles would be fired using radar technology about 20 miles before you ever saw an enemy aircraft. And even in close combat, the film’s fanciful depictions of dogfights often resemble a well-constructed aerial ballet. Which, of course, is exactly what they were because having a single jet flying across the screen alone, blasting off missiles every now and then wouldn’t make for much of a Hollywood blockbuster.
I guess this all sounds like nitpicking? Not at all! It’s a fantastic film and I could relate to many of the scenes. Without giving too much away, the death of a comrade (I have experienced many) is a devastating experience and I have placed my own hand on a number of friends’ coffins.
And in my somewhat limited experience, the reactions, terror and exhilaration of being shot at by enemy missiles are well portrayed and relatively realistic. As is being shot down, ejecting and finding oneself in enemy territory.
Maverick/Tom Cruise himself is the most unbelievable aspect of the movie. Presuming he was in his mid to late twenties in the first film, he has to be in his early sixties in this one. And here’s the rub. I’m happy to suppress my belief that Maverick is 63ish; Hollywood makeup and lighting can sort that out. But Tom Cruise is only a year older than me and he looks amazing. He still sports a luxurious head of dark hair, he still has a sharp jawline and taut skin. Most annoyingly, he still fits into his 36-year-old uniform.
In the new film, that incredible scene from the original Top Gun, where shirtless crews play volleyball on the beach, is recreated. This time, they are playing American football and 36 years on, the shirtless and body-hairless Mav/Tom still looks ripped with not an ounce of spare flesh on his muscled frame. Completely unrealistic in my opinion.
My flying kit is in the loft and I dusted it all off to compare John Nichol, 58, to Tom Cruise, 59. First, my hair is somewhat more patchy, my skin certainly more saggy and my jawline rather more floppy. As to fitting into my uniform? Sadly that would, literally, be a very real stretch that even the Hollywood film experts couldn’t fix.
And as for me and my aging RAF chums playing near-naked footie on the beach? I suspect that may result in a call to wildlife experts reporting a tragic case of beached whales.
John Nichol is a former R.A.F. Tornado navigator who was shot down and captured during the Gulf War in 1991. His latest book, Tornado: In the Eye of the Storm, tells the story of the Tornado aircrew and their families during that war and is out now in paperback