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Writing 'TOPGUN – The Legacy': An Author’s Perspective

Origins of TOPGUN – The Legacy I had written on TOPGUN earlier in my writing career – first, as a chapter in one of my Osprey Publishing F-4 Phantom II MiG killer books and; second in various magazine articles. As most of you likely are, I was familiar with the School from the 1986 Paramount Top Gun movie. As part of a prior research project I had visited the School in March 1995 when it was still at NAS Miramar. I had also read Robert Wilcox’s excellent history on the founding of TOPGUN, Scream of Eagles. Even so, I had not considered writing anything major of my own on the topic. In 2009, however, I was visiting TOPGUN as part of my research on an F/A-18E/F Super Hornet book and had just finished up an interview with the then-Commanding Officer of TOPGUN, Paul “Dorf” Olin. In our conversations, Paul had mentioned he had recently attended the 40th anniversary celebration of TOPGUN’s 1969 founding and had met several of the original instructors. After talking a while longer, Paul said, “I’m amazed no one has written anything major on TOPGUN since Scream of Eagles.” I thought for a moment and agreed, but didn’t go any further. He then paused, smiled, and said, “You should write that book.” Interesting idea, I thought. I discussed it some with my wife later that evening and decided, why not. A few weeks later I contacted two of the founders whom I had known from prior projects and asked their thoughts – both agreed it would be a good project and more importantly, agreed to help.

At that point, I was off to the races. This was still mid-2009. I had to finish my E/F book first. In the interim, I started collecting articles on the School, locating books that mentioned TOPGUN, and began organizing a very rough outline of what the book might look like. I studied Clashes: Air Combat over North Vietnam, 1965–1972, by Marshall L. Michell III, MiG Killers of Yankee Station, by Michael O'Connor (two excellent books), and reviewed my old copy of the Ault Report and the Red Baron Reports, which outlined each Navy and Air Force MiG engagement in Vietnam. Once I finished my E/F book and sent it to the printer, I took some time down, and then dove in full-speed. I quickly finalized an outline, contacted a number of publishers, and ultimately went with Schiffer Publishing, which had published my E/F book. My next task was to secure Navy support – I contacted CHINFO, outlined my project, advised them of my publisher, and soon marked that task off my list.

The Process While I had a general outline, I really did not have a solid organization for the book. I knew from reading other TOPGUN-related books and articles that I had to devote a portion of the book to set the stage – how did the Navy (and the Air Force) end up in the situation each found themselves in during the Rolling Thunder air campaign from 1965-68? One of the common observations from the publications was the notion that the Navy, like other air forces, had followed the historical cycle of learning tactics, forgetting them, and relearning them in war, often at great cost. But unlike many of these books and articles, I wanted to show that story to the reader. That would take some effort. I designed this portion as Part I, “The Beginning,” and generically broke the section into WWI, interwar, WWII, and Korean War subchapters, and then moved on. I also knew that I’d have to devote a substantial section to the 1960s and especially the Vietnam War. What happened during that war to set the stage for TOPGUN? At a minimum, I understood the need to write about the state of naval aviation and the USAF in the 1960s, commenting on their fighter organization and tactics, but the details weren’t there yet. I also knew there was a need to cover the principle air engagements for each year of the war – that would be critical to show what worked and what didn’t work. Red Baron would help with that aspect. Finally, I knew I needed to address TOPGUN’s founding (which was already covered fairly well), and eventually each of the subsequent decades. Part II would be entitled, “The Making of a Legacy” and tell the story of the 1960s. Unfortunately, as far as the subsequent TOPGUN history from 1970 on, I only had thumbnail sketches based on my review of articles written in The Hook and Association of Naval Aviation’s publications. These articles and entries referenced training programs, key individuals, courses and lectures, issues faced by the School, aircraft flown by the School, and together helped me organize a list of general topics chronologically. This part would be called, “The Legacy Evolves.”

The Interviews & Research & Organization As I reviewed the collected articles and books I began preparing a list of questions – one set oriented to current/former instructors; one for former graduates who were not instructors; and a third for current/former TOPGUN Commanding Officers. Each set of questions shared common inquiries, asking about major issues while at the school, impressions of the curriculum, the courses taught, adversary aircraft flown. But as expected, each also posed questions specifically tailored to each grouping. For the former staff and COs, I tried to end the interview with the question, “describe TOPGUN in three words.” At this point, I was ready to start the deep research. Although some interviews were conducted in 2011, my real push began in 2012-13. The first heavy batch was conducted in San Diego, including Dan Pedersen, Darrell Gary, Mel Holmes, Jim Laing, Steve Smith, Ron “Mugs” McKeown, Monroe “Hawk” Smith, Jack Ensch, Rick Ludwig, Rich Reddit, and T.R. Swartz. Most of these interviews ran three hours. Following these meetings, all of which were recorded and transcribed, a long series of phone-based interviews began, which lasted until the end of the project, literally until the final draft was submitted. A number of interviews occurred during my numerous visits (eight in all) to TOPGUN in Fallon. Two of these trips involved visiting the School for an entire week, resulting in close to 30 interviews on each occasion. Most of interviews were handled similar to a legal deposition, and as a result, it was an exhausting week. Other trips followed to NAS Lemoore and Elgin AFB, where dozens more Strike Fighter Tactics Instructors (SFTIs) were interviewed. And as you would expect, each interview led to three or four new individuals to add to the “must talk to” list. One of my most productive trips was the 2019 TOPGUN 50th Anniversary event in San Diego. It was an honor to be included in the event, especially the former instructor meeting. Through this event, I connected with dozens of instructors and cemented a chain of contacts that would thereafter help me navigate the many and complex issues of the 1990s. But most helpful was the instructor panel – two instructors from each decade spoke over the course of three hours, sharing highlights of the School’s history and offering “behind the scenes” insights. My fear going into the meeting was that it would reveal I had not gathered the whole TOPGUN story. Instead, it confirmed that I had indeed gathered all of the significant events of the history; what a confidence builder. By the end of the project, I had amassed close to 450 interviews, with roughly 95 percent transcribed in a deposition-like booklet.

It was literally thousands of pages of materials, and eventually the transcripts would be organized by decade and placed in banker boxes (there would be 22 such boxes of interviews). The interviews were fun. Most all were extremely helpful and friendly and enthusiastic about the project. Some went over and above. At least a dozen of the interviews lasted over ten hours – usually spread over several days – and many were supplemented with a second interview and/or subsequent email follow-ups. The hardest part of my research was gathering documents. As you might guess, many were classified and unavailable. Nevertheless, I did obtain hundreds of pages of non-classified documents from the National Archives, Naval Historical Center, and TOPGUN itself, which helped confirm oral recollections, added statistical data at times, and filled gaps in information. What was troubling, though, was the discovery that many of TOPGUN’s documents from 1969-1996 (when it was located at NAS Miramar) were lost or misplaced in the 1996 move to Fallon. Despite numerous attempts to look for documents in TOPGUN’s vault (by TOPGUN’s Intelligence Officers), most could not be located. Thus, creating a full list of all instructors, a full course history, or even yearly statistics, was difficult and often incomplete. Even so, with TOPGUN’s help I was finally able to piece together a list of courses and a near-accurate list of former instructors and their tour dates. Some information, such as the courses offered in TOPSCOPE – the School’s program aimed at Radar Intercept Officers (RIOs) and addressing the Outer Air Battle – as well as the Senior Officer Course, Fleet Air Superiority Training (FAST), and Overland Air Superiority Training (OAST), was just not to be found and had to be constructed piecemeal from interviewee recollections. As I mentioned, I began the book research phase with a very general outline. As more and more interviews took place, I tweaked the outline, adding events in their proper time-slot and making notes on what further matters needed follow-up. But as the actual writing process neared, especially the portions of the book dealing with TOPGUN post-1970, it became clear that I needed a method of presentation to best tell the story. I considered chronological and individual viewpoint, but eventually settled on a combination of chronological order and subject matter groupings. As far as individual viewpoint, the fact that most instructors’ tours were only three years meant that no one person had familiarity with the entire history. Moreover, most instructors went on to many different jobs in the Navy and post-Navy and as a result, many were only knowledgeable about their time as a student or their brief time on Staff. While some instructors did two instructor tours and others returned as a commanding officer, those individuals were rare. Given this situation, from what perspective should the story be told? In the end, I chose to tell the story from the perspective the TOPGUN Staff as an entity. I then used the individual stories to add character, color, and a personal touch, as well as story credibility. I think it worked. Speaking of credibility, having never served in the Navy or attended TOPGUN, I was continually worried about my credibility as a storyteller. To give the book credence, I decided to do two things. First, I used the interviewees’ own words to tell the story. Having me describe a matter is nice; but reading the words of those who were truly there is a whole different matter. Second, I relied heavily on endnotes to document the story. Interviews were referenced so that the reader knows who said what or what documents were referenced. Some endnotes were simply background so as to make the text more readable. The book closed with over 4,000 endnotes. It now serves as a historical reference for tomorrow’s TOPGUN to better understand its past. And to add to that, the bibliography lists all documents, books, and articles reviewed and cited in the book – 18 pages overall. I ended up with six banker boxes of reports, thesis papers, and articles on TOPGUN and air combat, plus four bookcases of TOPGUN-related documents and books.

Writing the Book While I continued to tweak my outline I as worked through new documents and additional interviews, the actual writing process did not begin until January 2016. For this book, unlike some of my earlier ones, I wrote it in chapter order. Part I, “The Beginning,” took two years. I recall at some point in 2018 thinking to myself, all of this work and I have not even yet spoke of Vietnam or TOPGUN. I was a little worried. The next part of the book, that covering the 1960s and the Vietnam air war, took another year. Thus, by the time of the 50th Anniversary event in May 2019, I had just begun my work on the 1970s and early 1980s. I finished the 1980s in July 2019 and began what was undoubtedly the longer and most difficult chapter of the book – the 1990s. That work lasted until roughly late January 2020, although edits continued into March. The 2000s and 2010s were written between January and May 2020, while edits of prior chapters filtered in and changes were made. A couple of interest points on writing and editing. First, as I love music, I created a decade-oriented playlist to play as background music while I wrote each chapter starting with the 1960s. It helped create a mood allowing me to travel back in time to those eras. Think of the Vietnam War air battles the next time you hear “Mr. Tambourine Man” or “Bad Moon Rising.” Second, to help with accuracy, I enlisted the help of at least ten former TOPGUN instructors from each decade to review and edit their decade. What a huge help! For the 1990s, there must have been at least 40 former instructors combing through the text. There were also numerous reviewers for the 2000s. In the end, these reviewers helped tighten up the product and helped ensure that most of the big events were captured as accurately as possible. And to make matters better, the book was reviewed by several former TOPGUN COs.

The Title Sometimes the name of a book jumps out at you – sometimes it takes a lot of thought. TOPGUN – The Legacy was the former. It quickly became apparent during my initial book interviews that the School had not only left an incredible impression on its attendees (in particular, its former instructors), but it also had created a drive in each of those individuals to never harm the School and to always honor those who came before them. Phrases such as, “We stand on the shoulders of giants,” “never do any harm to TOPGUN,” and “the legacy” were commonplace with former instructors. To me, the book provided that link, a reinforcement to all, of what that legacy was and how it came about. So the title was one of the easiest parts of this entire project.

What I Learned Beyond the workings of the School, the numerous existential threats, the curriculum and programs offered, and the planes flown as adversary, perhaps the biggest lesson learned for me was the “culture” of TOPGUN – what made the School so special and what allowed it to persevere for over 50 years. In the end, it is the Staff’s dedication to the School and their quest for excellence that drives TOPGUN forward and that maintains the culture of excellence as the Staff personnel change. When TOPGUN was being formed, the founders worried excessively about their credibility as instructors. Recall they were all Lieutenants, except for Dan Pedersen and J.C. Smith, who were Lieutenant Commanders. This quest for credence drove the initial cadre to deep dive into their assigned subject matter areas and to develop an expertise on their topic rivaled by none. Then, to go even further, they practiced their lectures (what is now called the Murder Board process) to fellow instructors, VX-4 personnel, and others from the fighter community and industry. These efforts by the founders set the standard for those who followed, leading to the rigorous Murder Board process used today and the Standardization Board, which is used to vet new ideas and new tactics. These mechanisms, coupled with the culture of open and rank-less discussion, has carried TOPGUN’s culture of excellent over its entire organizational life. Writing TOPGUN – The Legacy was a monumental task. It was considerably more work than I initially envisioned and certainly took longer. But it was the most fun I have ever had as a writer. Most TOPGUN graduates and nearly all former TOPGUN instructors will tell you that their experience at the Schoolhouse marked the pinnacle of their career. I can agree with that statement.

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