United States Navy Strike Fighter Tactics Instructor program

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The patch awarded to NFWS graduates

The United States Navy Strike Fighter Tactics Instructor program (SFTI program), more popularly known as TOPGUN, teaches fighter and strike tactics and techniques to selected naval aviators and naval flight officers, who return to their operating units as surrogate instructors. It began as the United States Navy Fighter Weapons School, established on 3 March 1969, at the former Naval Air Station Miramar in San Diego, California.[1][2] In 1996, the school was merged into the Naval Strike and Air Warfare Center at Naval Air Station Fallon, Nevada.[3]



In 1968, Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) Admiral Thomas Hinman Moorer ordered Captain Frank Ault to research the failings of the U.S. air-to-air missiles used in combat in the skies over North Vietnam.[4][5] Operation Rolling Thunder, which lasted from 2 March 1965 to 1 November 1968, ultimately saw almost 1,000 U.S. aircraft losses in about one million sorties.[6] Rolling Thunder became the Rorschach test for the Navy and Air Force, which drew nearly opposite conclusions.[7]

Fighter Weapons School

The United States Navy Fighter Weapons School was established on 3 March 1969, at Naval Air Station Miramar, California. Placed under the control of the VF-121 "Pacemakers," an F-4 Phantom–equipped Replacement Air Group (RAG) unit, the new school received relatively scant funding and resources. Its staff consisted of eight F-4 Phantom II instructors from VF-121 and one intelligence officer hand-picked by the school's first officer-in-charge, Lieutenant Commander Dan Pedersen, USN.[8] Together, F-4 aviators Darrell Gary, Mel Holmes, Jim Laing, John Nash, Jim Ruliffson, Jerry Sawatzky, J. C. Smith, Steve Smith, as well as Wayne Hildebrand, a naval intelligence officer, built the Naval Fighter Weapons School syllabus from scratch. To support their operations, they borrowed aircraft from its parent unit and other Miramar-based units, such as composite squadron VC-7 and Fighter Squadron VF-126. The school's first headquarters at Miramar was in a stolen modular trailer.[9]

According to the 1973 command history of the Navy Fighter Weapons School, the unit's purpose was to "train fighter air crews at the graduate level in all aspects of fighter weapons systems including tactics, techniques, procedures and doctrine. It serves to build a nucleus of eminently knowledgeable fighter crews to construct, guide, and enhance weapons training cycles and subsequent aircrew performance. This select group acts as the F-4 community’s most operationally orientated weapons specialists. TOPGUN's efforts are dedicated to the Navy’s professional fighter crews, past, present and future."[10]

Highly qualified instructors were an essential element of TOPGUN's success. Mediocre instructors are unable to hold the attention of talented students. TOPGUN instructors were knowledgeable fighter tacticians assigned to one or more specific fields of expertise, such as a particular weapon, threat, or tactic. Every instructor was required to become an expert in effective training techniques. All lectures were given without notes after being screened by a notorious "murder board" of evaluators who would point out ambiguities or flawed concepts in the draft presentation. The curriculum was in a constant state of flux based upon class critiques and integration of developing tactics to use new systems to combat emerging threats. Instructors often spent their first year on the staff learning to be an effective part of the training environment.[11]

TOPGUN initially operated the Douglas A-4 Skyhawk and borrowed USAF Northrop T-38 Talons to simulate the flying characteristics of the MiG-17 and MiG-21, respectively. The school also used Marine-crewed Grumman A-6 Intruders and USAF Convair F-106 Delta Dart aircraft when available. Later adversary aircraft included the IAI Kfir and General Dynamics F-16 Fighting Falcon; and the T-38 was replaced by the Northrop F-5E and F-5F Tiger II.[11]

In addition to maneuvering skill, knowledge of weapons systems was recognized as important. Weapons system knowledge was determined as a common thread among the 4 percent of World War II pilots who accounted for 40 percent of the enemy aircraft destroyed. The complexity of modern weapons systems requires careful study to achieve design potential.[11]

The British writer Rowland White claimed that the early school was influenced by a group of a dozen flying instructors from the British Fleet Air Arm who were assigned to Miramar as exchange pilots and served as instructors in VF-121.[12][13] A British newspaper, The Daily Telegraph, declared in a 2009 headline, "American Top Gun Fighter Pilot Academy Set Up by British."[14] However, the British naval pilots mentioned in the article confirmed that the claim was false and that they had no role in creating the curriculum and no access to the classified programs that the TOPGUN instructors participated in to refine it.[15] An earlier U.S. Navy air-to-air combat training program, the U.S. Navy Fleet Air Gunnery Units, or FAGU, had provided air combat training for Naval Aviators from the early 1950s until 1960. But a doctrinal shift, brought on by advances in missile, radar, and fire control technology, contributed to the belief that the era of the classic dogfight was over, leading to their disestablishment and a serious decline in U.S air-to-air combat proficiency that became apparent during the Vietnam War.[16][17] The pilots who were part of the initial cadre of instructors at TOPGUN had experience as students from FAGU.[17]

U.S. Navy Fleet Air Gunnery Unit aircraft from Naval Air Facility El Centro in the late 1950s

During the halt in the bombing campaign against North Vietnam (in force from 1968 until the early 1970s), TOPGUN established itself as a center of excellence in fighter doctrine, tactics, and training. By the time aerial activity over the North resumed, most Navy squadrons had a TOPGUN graduate. According to the USN, the results were dramatic. The Navy kill-to-loss ratio against the North Vietnamese Air Force (NVAF) MiGs soared from 2.42:1 to 12.5:1,[11] while the Air Force, which had not implemented a similar training program, actually had its kill ratio worsen for a time after the resumption of bombing, according to Benjamin Lambeth's The Transformation of American Airpower. On 28 March 1970, Lieutenant Jerry Beaulier, a graduate of TOPGUN's first class, scored the first kill of a North Vietnamese MiG since September 1968.[18]

Transfer to NSAWC

In 1996, the transfer of NAS Miramar to the Marine Corps was coupled with the incorporation of TOPGUN into the Naval Strike and Air Warfare Center (NSAWC) at NAS Fallon, Nevada.[3]

In 2011, the TOPGUN program was inducted into the International Air & Space Hall of Fame at the San Diego Air & Space Museum.[19]

Popular culture

TOPGUN first appeared onscreen in the 1980 science fiction film The Final Countdown, which starred Kirk Douglas and Martin Sheen.[20]

The school was made famous by the 1986 film Top Gun starring Tom Cruise.[21] According to former TOPGUN instructor Guy Snodgrass, referencing Top Gun while at the school incurs an immediate $5 cash fine.[22]

See also


Inline citations

  1. ^ Michel 2007, p. 186
  2. ^ Senior Chief Deputy Stuart H. Swett (5 July 1994). "Resolution Number R-284202" (PDF). San Diego City Council. Archived from the original (PDF) on 11 August 2018. Retrieved 11 August 2018. [...] on March 1, 1943, the area near Miramar Naval Air Station was commissioned the Marine Corps Air Base, Kearney Mesa, San Diego.
  3. ^ a b Perry, Tony (1 June 1996). "San Diego bids farewell to Top Guns". Eugene Register-Guard. {Los Angeles Times}. p. 3A.
  4. ^ Michel 2007, pp. 185–186
  5. ^ Linder, Bruce (2001). San Diego's Navy. Annapolis, Maryland: Naval Institute Press. p. 156. ISBN 1-55750-531-4.
  6. ^ Michel 2007, p. 149
  7. ^ Michel 2007, p. 181
  8. ^ Michel 2007, p. 187
  9. ^ Pedersen, Topgun: An American Story, p. 110
  10. ^ Navy Fighter Weapons School, 1973 Command History, Naval Air Station Miramar, March 1, 1974
  11. ^ a b c d Winnefeld, James A. (1986). "Topgun Getting it Right". Proceedings. United States Naval Institute. 112 (10): 141–146.
  12. ^ "Top Gun Heroes Based on Brit Flying Aces". Sky News. 25 March 2009. Retrieved on 25 March 2009.
  13. ^ "Top Gun's British inspiration". BBC Today. 24 March 2009. Retrieved on 25 March 2009.
  14. ^ "American Top Gun fighter pilot academy set up by British". Archived from the original on 12 January 2022.
  15. ^ Pedersen, Topgun: An American Story, p. 234
  16. ^ Fleet Air Gunnery Unit (FAGU) | A-4 Skyhawk Association. A4skyhawk.org. Retrieved on 24 May 2014.
  17. ^ a b Robert K. Wilcox. Scream of Eagles. ISBN 0-7434-9724-4
  18. ^ Grossnick, Roy A.; Evans, Mark (2016). United States Naval Aviation, 1910-2010 (PDF). Naval History and Heritage Command. p. 380. ISBN 9780945274759.Public Domain This article incorporates text from this source, which is in the public domain.
  19. ^ Sprekelmeyer, Linda, editor. These We Honor: The International Aerospace Hall of Fame. Donning Co. Publishers, 2006. ISBN 978-1-57864-397-4.
  20. ^ Blakemore, Erin (26 May 2022). "'Top Gun' Is Back. But Is the Elite Navy Fighter Pilot School Really Like the Movies?". Smithsonian Magazine. Archived from the original on 26 May 2022. Retrieved 7 June 2022.
  21. ^ Waxman, Olivia B. "The Real Military Program That Inspired Top Gun Just Turned 50. Here's How Being a Navy Pilot Has Changed Since Then". Time. Archived from the original on 16 May 2022.
  22. ^ Pickrell, Ryan (16 September 2020). "Former US Navy fighter pilot explains why TOPGUN fines aviators $5 each time they quote the iconic 1986 film 'Top Gun' starring Tom Cruise". Business Insider. Retrieved 12 June 2022.

General references

External links