The Navy Fighter Weapons School—better known as TOPGUN—celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. To commemorate the occasion, various festivities were recently held in San Diego, not far from the nearby Miramar air base where it all began in early 1969. The four-day affair featuring numerous social events, a day of unclassified briefings, and (of course) a golf tournament, was well attended by current and former TOPGUN staff. The culminating Saturday night banquet aboard the USS Midway Museum additionally welcomed all NFWS graduates throughout the years and was quite an affair.
For me, the occasion proved a wonderful opportunity to catch up with old “bros,” as instructors are known—regardless of gender or ethnicity, and the briefs provided deeper insight into the institution’s storied history as well as challenges faced by the current staff. Having retired two years ago and a bit out of touch with the staff since, it was good to be back—however briefly.
But throughout the weekend I found myself wondering what it was that allowed TOPGUN not merely to persist for a half century but to thrive. What are the keys to its success? Why do young fleet pilots compete for the few coveted instructor slots, knowing if selected they will work harder than during any other assignment they may have throughout their naval careers? And why do those same individuals later travel from points all over the globe to attend events such as this one, greeting one another with bear hugs like long lost family members?
The reason is that TOPGUN is no ordinary institution. How the school was formed, the impact it has had and continues to have on Naval Aviation, and the people who go there to instruct all combine to make TOPGUN special (…in a good way). Consider this:
Forged in Fire
The NFWS was not the brainchild of some think tank or ivy league collegiate study. It was not Congressionally directed or adapted from someone else’s “best practices.” TOPGUN came about because the Navy was frankly getting its butt kicked in the skies over Southeast Asia.
Since the dawn of aerial combat, American forces have traditionally enjoyed a significant air-to-air kill advantage over its adversaries—routinely exceeding 10 enemy aircraft downed for every friendly fighter lost. But throughout the early- to mid-1960s, the combination of over-reliance on beyond-visual-range missiles, a lack of focus on aerial combat within the visual arena, and the premier US fighter of the era (the F-4 Phantom II) being designed without a cannon—which is often the primary weapon employed in a close-in dogfight—all conspired against that advantage. Through early 1969 the kill ratio over Vietnam stood below 2:1.
To address this tragic and costly problem, the highest-ranking officer in the US Navy, the Chief of Naval Operations, directed an investigation into how the maritime service fell into this predicament and—more importantly—the steps needed to get out of it. The resulting “Report of the Air-to-Air Missile System Capability Review,” commonly known as the Ault Report after its author, Captain Frank Ault, addressed holistic issues throughout the entire air combat system from the aircraft, to the weapons systems, to training and logistics.
The most far-reaching recommendation of the report, however, came under the “Aircrew Training” section. On page 37, Captain Ault advised the CNO to immediately establish an “advanced fighter weapons school” within the F-4 fleet replacement training squadron at Miramar. The CNO agreed, and what would soon become known as TOPGUN was born.
These auspicious beginnings are not lost on the current TOPGUN staff five decades later. In a time when reliance on stealth seems to rule, training budgets are allocated to the fight of the past 20 years (that is, supporting ground forces in irregular operations), and the premier US fighter of the era (the F-35 Lightning II) again lacks an internal gun, TOPGUN is as relevant today as ever. Perhaps even more so.
Indians, not Chiefs
The original TOPGUN cadre consisted of a handful of combat-experienced junior officers who were sufficiently seasoned to know what needed to get done and how to do it, but not so senior as to worry about protecting careers while doing so. The original bros “borrowed,” bartered, and otherwise negotiated to get whatever was needed to launch the TOPGUN course, including a condemned trailer where classes were first held. Their methods are legendary and ensured the school’s success in early 1969.
TOPGUN has been run by fleet-experienced lieutenants since and remains so to this day. While methods may change, the original spirit remains, and a certain level of creative license is routinely employed to get things done—a credit to the staff, to be sure.
Despite support by the CNO, the early TOPGUN staff routinely lacked sufficient resources to fully execute the course. Fleet squadron commanders only reluctantly excused their best aircrews for the five-week syllabus and often rejected the teachings they later brought back to the squadrons. Adversary aircraft were difficult to come by, training budgets were tight, the opportunity to develop tactics was rare, and resistance within the parochial fighter community was persistent.
And yet, TOPGUN managed to not simply overcome these challenges but to create the gold standard for tactics that eventually spawned an entirely new way of implementing, funding, and tracking aerial tactics training throughout Naval Aviation. That system persists today.
Now based in the Nevada desert east of Reno and as one of many departments of a larger air warfare organization, the NFWS continues to battle for training dollars and resources. With limited budgets and few training assets on the flight line, sadly this is one aspect of the storied institution that has not changed over the five decades since its inception. Fortunately, America loves an underdog, especially one that continually finds a way to win despite circumstances.
Apart from the continuous struggle for resources, another burden that unites all TOPGUN instructors is the onerous process of subject mastery.
The NFWS established itself as the authority on aerial tactics when the doors first opened. As such, instructors—then and now—expend hundreds of hours researching their assigned subjects learning theory, tactics, technical details, and all matters related to their topic. The result is they intimately understand the subject as well as they will ever know anything in their lifetimes. Possibly as well as they know themselves.
This expertise is then distilled into a lecture to eventually be presented to students. But before new bros stands in front of a class of students for the first time, they must first survive the aptly-named ‘murderboard’ process.
At the NFWS, it is not enough to simply gather an extraordinary amount of knowledge on a given subject. To effectively instruct to the TOPGUN standard, bros must also remove all distractions from the presentation. Nothing is allowed to detract from learning: what instructors wear, how they stand, eye contact, voice control, hand gestures, speech, how pointers are used, how the presentation is advanced with the mouse—every nuance is fair game and painstakingly critiqued for hours (and hours) on end. Only when the subject is truly mastered, and the presentation virtually perfect, will a bro be permitted to instruct a class.
The result is truly a spectacle to behold. When I attended the course in early 2000, one of the Marine instructors on the staff provided his lecture to our class just one day after completing the murderboard process. His presentation was so flawless, so free of distractions, that I found myself distracted waiting for him to make a mistake. He never did. Today that “old bro” is a two-star major general. When you learn to master a subject, yourself, and let’s not forget flying—you create the conditions for success in just about anything else you’ll ever do.
The murderboard process changes you forever and creates a common bond with those who have similarly endured it.
The NFWS may not have lasted long had it not been for one simple fact: it worked. Within a year of turning out its first class, TOPGUN graduates took their newfound expertise back to their squadrons—and more importantly, the skies over Vietnam—where the results spoke for themselves. The Navy’s A/A kill ratio immediately surged, surpassing historic levels. The TOPGUN hangar soon became adorned with numerous silhouettes of downed enemy aircraft by TOPGUN graduates. For their part, North Vietnamese pilots quickly learned to avoid skirmishes with the white Phantoms (Navy aircraft) and instead engage the olive drab ones (Air Force)—a fact not lost on the sister service.
TOPGUN instructors and graduates have been at the forefront of every armed conflict in the half-century since, from operations off Libya to the Persian Gulf, Kosovo, and everywhere in between. It is no surprise that the Navy’s first downing of an enemy aircraft in over 20 years came by the hands of an old bro. The NFWS as made a measurable and indisputable difference in Naval Aviation’s lethality and effectiveness.
There’s no question the 1986 Hollywood blockbuster Top Gun put Naval Aviation on the map. Recruiting offices were swamped after the film’s release and I read an enterprising Air Force recruiter even set up a table outside a movie theater once. And for good reason—who didn’t want to be the suave ‘Maverick’, feeling the need for speed, vanquishing the enemy, and getting the girl?!
But beyond the masculine bravado, what the movie did was accurately depict Naval Aviation in its purest form: F-14 Tomcats mixing it up with A-4 Skyhawks and F-5 Tiger II’s over the Nevada desert and the Pacific Ocean. Viewers experienced a fighter pilot’s highest highs and lowest lows, so commonly understood by those who live it for real. Top Gun is a feel-good story anyone can enjoy. And despite having to pay a self-imposed $5 fine for quoting the movie, ask any TOPGUN instructor in private and he’ll surely tell you he’s seen the film dozens of times.
I am exceedingly fortunate to count myself among the ranks of former TOPGUN instructors. I recall leaving Fallon in late 2002 following a two-and-a-half-year tour there with an immense sense of pride and accomplishment. The assignment unquestionably remains the highwater mark of my 25-year naval career and I have never given (nor regarded) a PowerPoint presentation in quite the way since.
As I reflect on the camaraderie and shared bonds so evident at the recent 50th TOPGUN Anniversary celebration, I think I finally understand: the Navy… scratch that, the nation needed TOPGUN in 1969 (and still does today). Back then we needed young men and women who knew how to get things done and were willing to do whatever it took to do it, regardless of the methods. We needed people who worked tirelessly to get the right answers, to get the right results. (And we still do today.)
Thank God for TOPGUN. May it last another 50 years….