FLYING Contributor: Shoot Top Gun: Maverick Down With Missiles

This veteran pilot says the record-breaking sequel–and its predecessor–failed miserably.

Like most passionate pilots, I’m all for great aerial photography. Aerial photography requires a professional skill set and an innate sense of just how to film a high-speed airplane in-flight. The latest Tom Cruise movie, Top Gun: Maverick, certainly surpasses prior aviation films in that department.  

Unfortunately, the film fails miserably in other departments, as did the original in 1986. Sorry, but I’m going to shoot it down. (Yes, pun intended.) If you haven’t already bought your over-priced bucket of buttered popcorn and contributed to the almost $1 billion dollars of revenue, consider this a spoiler alert. I’ll spare everyone my opinion on the movie storyline itself.  Far be it from me to declare a predictable plot, or to point out an apparent underlying script theme—if it worked then, it will work now.

One of my biggest issues is the portrayal of Navy pilots as cocky, arrogant, and competitively obsessive.

For those not familiar, the Top Gun school at the Naval Air Station Miramar in San Diego moved. As part of a base consolidation effort in 1996, the former version of the Navy Strike Fighter Tactics Instructor Program is now at Naval Air Station Fallon in Nevada. So, strike one that the movie attempts to resurrect a location that no longer exists for Top Gun pilots.

The not-so-underlying inference for both Top Gun movies is that the school is an elite assignment only for the best pilots, when in fact, the primary objective upon its creation in 1969—after the Navy suffered unacceptable losses during a portion of the Vietnam war—was to train instructors using the latest tactical strategies so they could pass these skills on to other fighter pilots. So, strike two, Top Gun wasn’t a training ground for clandestine suicide missions.

Kudos to Lockheed Martin for designing the fictional, hypersonic, “Darkstar”  SR-71/F-35-looking test airplane. But a sophisticated aircraft with one oversized, red, Mach LED display like my alarm clock? And then once Mach 10 is exceeded, the airplane falls apart? 

The film would have us believe that an ejection at that speed is a non-issue. Maverick destroys a multi-million-dollar airplane while demonstrating his endearing quality of insubordination. The redeeming end to this particular scene is the best one-liner of the movie, uttered by a young boy reacting to Maverick’s bruised, battered, and staggered entry into a local diner: “Where am I?” asks Maverick. “Earth,” replies the surprised kid.

Full disclosure, I have no military background other than spending two weeks in Air Force ROTC, but the sortie to destroy a nuclear site buried in mountainous terrain seemed a wee bit implausible despite the impressive performance of an F-18, notwithstanding the political implications of an unprovoked attack. Wouldn’t the G-forces involved be unsustainable? And wouldn’t the capabilities of UAS (unmanned aircraft systems) technology be a more suitable option?

One of my biggest issues is the portrayal of Navy pilots as cocky, arrogant, and competitively obsessive. Having flown with many at the airline, I found almost all of them to be humble, competent, and self-effacing despite the fact they had logged a few hours landing on a rolling postage stamp in the middle of the ocean. Unlike other branches of service, Navy pilots have additional duties while on board the ship, which probably enhanced their leadership skills and easy-going demeanor.

The real Top Gun school promotes camaraderie and support. The training goal certainly isn’t to create rivalry or to reward insubordination, which both movies seem to suggest. Nor was the goal to glorify reckless behavior in a combat environment. My understanding is that an unwritten rule was decreed after the 1986 film that requires Navy pilots to pay a $5 fine for uttering a line from Top Gun.  Based on the current line of “Don’t think—just do,” I’m in favor of increasing the fine to $100.

Moving on to the actual mission, which did include incredible, state-of-the-art aerial scenes, Maverick is shot down. He ejects successfully but is pursued by a menacing, monster helicopter. Just before Maverick’s imminent demise, he is predictably rescued by a missile shot fired by Goose’s son, who is now demonstrating a predisposition for insubordination. My jaw went slack shortly after Goose’s son was shot down, because he is somehow able to eject within meters of Maverick’s touchdown.  

Shortly thereafter, the dynamic duo manages a short trek through the forest in knee-deep snow to the destroyed enemy Air Force Base. A rough calculation of the distance covered by an F-18 using afterburners would seem that such a trek might take slightly longer than a few minutes.

Certainly, most aviators predicted that Maverick would somehow drop himself into an F-14 cockpit again. Fortunately, the old fighter jet was still conveniently plugged into external air despite the US Navy’s attack on the base. Enemy airplanes were incapable of departing the obliterated runway, but despite that minor detail Maverick was able to access a debris-filled taxiway utilizing short-field departure techniques, with the only damage being loss of the nosewheel. Ahhemm…  Gotta admit that the arrival back on the aircraft carrier with an engine failure and missing nose gear was spectacular.

The end of the movie includes the obligatory motorcycle ride down an active taxiway, chasing a departing fighter jet. In my old airline world that performance would be an unauthorized incursion. Just sayin.

Maverick gets the quintessential girl and resumes his love for the P-51. Okay, most of us are aware…and potentially a bit envious…that Tom Cruise flies his own P-51 Mustang. He successfully incorporates the airplane into the script. But wait, how many fighter pilots who have only achieved the rank of Captain can afford a P-51?

I have no reason to believe that Tom Cruise isn’t a competent pilot. It’s obvious that the actor has a passion for airplanes. But knowing that he also has a passion for performing his own stunts, I was hoping that he would have attempted to achieve more realism rather than going Hollywood on the storyline. At the end of the day, it’s about entertainment and generating revenue. I get it.

Some of you might be shaking your heads, resentful that a crotchety, old airline guy that flew wallowing cruise ships with wings has the right to weigh in on an iconic movie sequel. Maybe I have fighter pilot envy. I don’t. But I admire and respect their specialized service to our country. Aerobatics and the need for speed were never my thing. Sorry, but I’ve always been critical of any aviation-related movie that stepped out of bounds. Ask my wife; she finds it painful sitting beside me in a movie theater if an airplane is involved…as she did for this film.

For my entertainment dollars, I’d rather see a sequel to “The Great Waldo Pepper.” Any takers? Mr. Redford?


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