Topgun: An American Story
By Dan Pedersen
Hachette; hardcover, 320 pages; $28.00
When people think of Top Gun, they instantly think of the classic 1986 movie that starred Tom Cruise.
The title of that movie refers to its setting at the Topgun Navy Fighter School, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary.
Its founder, Dan Pedersen, shares the remarkable inside story of how he and eight other risk-takers revolutionized the art of aerial combat in the incredible new book, Topgun: An American Story.
Pederson entered the United States Navy in 1953. He was the senior officer in the group of nine men who formed the Navy’s legendary Topgun program at Naval Air Station Miramar in March 1969. He served in combat during the Vietnam War, with a flying cruise on USS Hancock (CVA-19) and three on USS Enterprise (CVN-65). He retired as a captain, having accumulated more than 6,000 flight hours and 1,000 carrier landings while flying 39 types of aircraft. He lives with his wife outside San Diego.
Pedersen takes readers on a colorful and thrilling ride that goes from Miramar to Area 51 to the decks of aircraft carriers in war and peace-through a historic moment in air warfare. He helped establish a legacy that was built by him and his “Original Eight,” the best of the best, and that has been carried on for six decades by some of America’s greatest leaders.
Topgun is filled with Pedersen’s stories and they are rich in detail, such as this one, from over Southern California in December 1956, “Sixty-five and sunny; blue skies all the way home. God, how I loved December in California. No snow, no shoveling the walk to the driveway. Just plans for Christmas dinner in the backyard as the last rays of sunlight bathed the L.A. basin in golden hues.
“From the matte gray cockpit of my Lockheed T-33 jet trainer, I looked down at the suburban sprawl born of the postwar housing boom. The orange groves were vanishing, replaced by blocks of little pink houses and picket fences that looked like Legos from my twenty-thousand-foot vantage point.
“I used to shine shoes down there. Lee’s Barbershop in Whittier.
“I shifted my eyes from the scene below to scan the instrument panel of my “T-bird.” Altimeter, heading, airspeed indicator, turn and bank indicator, vertical velocity gauge. I swept them all in a heartbeat, trained to do so by the best pilots in the world until each scan of the dials and gauges was an act of unconscious muscle memory.
“My path to Pensacola began right down there. At Los Alamitos, I enlisted in the U.S. Navy as a seaman recruit. The naval air station was full of World War II vintage aircraft. As an apprentice engine mechanic in a reserve squadron, I worked on the F4U Corsair. When that legendary gull-winged beauty became a relic in the jet age, the unit I was attached to became the first in the reserves to get jets. A young lieutenant helped me to make the transition. He took me flying in his two-seater. Inspired, I applied to the Naval Aviation Cadet program, which sent enlisted men to flight training in Pensacola. With the help of that generous lieutenant, I passed the exams and made the cut. In 1955, I decamped to the famous naval aviation training center on the Florida panhandle.
“Now the long-sought reward was close enough to touch. As long as I kept my grades up, I’d stand an excellent chance of flying jet fighters with gold Navy wings on my chest.
“That morning over the L.A. basin, we whistled through the wild blue in technology that would have dazzled those who flocked to California looking for work two decades before. The age of the Joads and Okies was long gone. The jet age was upon us, and I embraced it with all my heart.
“To the people down below, this may not have meant a thing. They were going about their peaceful lives, caring for family, stressed out over work and the growing traffic. Some would open the Los Angeles Times as they sipped their morning coffee for a keyhole view to the outside world. Eight hundred and ninety-six drunk driving arrests in the county this Christmas season was a headline in the Times that morning. Beside that story, a tiny blurb described how the Japanese were detecting radiation in the atmosphere. That could only mean the Russians had detonated yet another nuclear bomb.
“Vice President Richard Nixon talked of the ten thousand Hungarian refugees the Air Force was flying to the United States for a new lease on life. Victims of Soviet oppression, they’d fought and lost in the Budapest uprising. When Russian armor rolled through their streets, they were lucky to have survived.
“The people below me could not imagine such a life. Living in their orderly tract houses, they enjoyed well-kept lawns, sidewalks full of playing kids, and a sense of peace underwritten by men such as I had come to know in the past year. Home for the holiday, I would soon join them guarding our ramparts in the Cold War. The morning was simply gorgeous. The engine’s whine was like music to me, the soundtrack to my new life. I was entering a profession unlike any I’d ever dreamed of.
“My dad, a veteran of World War II, had served in Europe in the Army Signal Corps, keeping communications flowing between the front lines and headquarters. He came home to Illinois in 1945 to find his job had been filled. Victory in Europe cost him his career, and he found himself forced to start over in middle age with a family depending on him. Never showing us the fear he surely felt, he moved us to California, believing that every problem can be overcome by hard work. He got a job laying pipelines in Palm Springs. After a shift in the sun, which baked his Scandinavian skin to leather, he would come home with twelve-hour days in his eyes. He never complained; he worked and lived for us. His example of resilience instilled in me that same devotion. I was blessed and knew it.
“There was a difference, though. I loved every second in the cockpit. This wasn’t work; it was freedom. Every flight pushed our personal boundaries and revealed that we were capable of more. With each test, we grew as aviators and young men. Along the way, achievement became a drug. I couldn’t wait for the next jump forward toward a fleet assignment. From the tie-cutting ceremony after I soloed to the first time I landed aboard an aircraft carrier, it was a journey marked with memorable moments. A year at Pensacola gave me a sense of identity and purpose that I never felt back home.”
During the Vietnam War, when American fighter jets were being downed at an unprecedented rate the U.S. Navy turned to a young lieutenant commander, Pedersen, to figure out a way to reverse their dark fortune.
On a shoestring budget and with little support, Pedersen picked eight of the finest pilots to help train a new generation to bend jets like the F-4 Phantom to their will and learn how to dogfight all over again.
What resulted was nothing short of a revolution, one that took young American pilots from the crucible of combat training in the California desert to the blistering skies of Vietnam, in the process raising America’s Navy combat kill ratio from two enemy planes downed for every American plane lost to more than 22 to 1.
In an entry from Miramar in 1969, Pedersen writes, “The famous movie that borrowed our name – and we all still love it – might make you suspect that we were a self-obsessed bunch, that it must have been a constant battle of egos between the students and even the instructors inside that stolen trailer and on our training flights out of Miramar. Television shows like Baa Baa Black Sheep, with its over-the-top portrayal of Major Gregory ‘Pappy’ Boyington and Marine Fighter Squadron 214 as a gang of misfits, created that sense too.
“Speaking for the Original Bros, I’ll say that for six and a half days a week, we were scholars, even monks. No PhD in astrophysics ever worked harder to understand the facts of the physical universe than we did at Topgun ahead of the arrival of our first class of students in early 1969. Our mission was to master the full combat capability of our airplane and its weapons and turn around the air war. As skipper I set the tone and made decisions. But the Topgun instructors emerged as the intellectual drivers of out attempt to redefine the flight envelopes of the F4 Phantom and its missiles. That was our most important work, and the foundation of the Topgun legacy.
“Pilots were dying because our missiles were not designed to operate in a dynamic, high-G, high-angular-rate environment. That’s a technical way of saying that an air-to-air brawl moves so fast that a fighter pilot should never trust a missile to win it for him. Certainly, the pilot had to be smarter than the missile.It was simply a killing tool, like a throwing knife. But a man must know how to use it perfectly, every time.
“One thing we saw was that our missiles were taking a beating day and night aboard ship. Carrier ordnance personnel had to manhandle those heavy things, and they got knocked around. Whenever a pilot landed with his missiles still aboard, the weapons absorbed a stiff, debilitating concussion. You have to know your weapon and its limitations as surely as you do your airplane. So we went to school on them to uncover every shortfall. There were many shortfalls and some very technical solutions.
“The forward thinkers in Washington who had eulogized the day of the dogfight knew nothing of what it was like to be part of an alpha strike arriving over Hanoi. They couldn’t picture thirty Navy planes inbound, with sometimes fifteen enemy SAMs rising toward you. They couldn’t see the crowd of unidentifiable radar and visual contacts in the sky swelling and commingling as MiGs reached altitude and approached us, or the surprise of an Air Force formation arriving unannounced over the target, right when things were getting sporty. The ever-present AAA and even small-arms fire made for a chaotic dynamic as you rolled along at six-hundred knots.
“As I’ve perhaps belabored, the rules of engagement required us to make visual identifications of targets before firing. Telling friend from foe meant getting close enough practically to see him through your windscreen. Good luck with that. By the time you got within recognition distance of a MiG closing head-on with you, your advanced radar-guided missile was about as useful as a fence post strapped to your wing. In the first three years of the war, our pilots had fired nearly six hundred missiles at enemy planes, scoring a kill on about sixty. If you’re keeping score, that’s one in ten. More often than not, those agile little MiGs, having ducked our first swing, would be on our tails showering us with explosive cannon shells sooner than our wingmen could shout, ‘Bandit on your six – break right!’ Something had gone wrong. It was our job to follow Captain Frank Ault’s suggestion and solve the problem from the ground up.”
Not only known as an icon of America’s military dominance immortalized by Hollywood, Topgun was seen as a vital institution that would shape the nation’s military strategy for generations to come.
Topgun is the perfect book as we head into Memorial Day, a heartfelt and personal testimony to patriotism, sacrifice, and American innovation and daring. These are the stories we need now to be reminded why the United States is the best nation on Earth.