Need for Speed: The Most Iconic Jets and Planes of ‘Top Gun’

May 27, 2022Matt Fratus
F-18 Super Hornet

A US Navy F/A-18E Super Hornet aircraft assigned to Strike Fighter Squadron 14 sits, tied down, on the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz while underway in the North Arabian Sea on Dec. 18, 2009. Wikimedia Commons photo.

Top Gun: Maverick has taken audiences by storm as crowds of Americans piled into movie theaters this week to see the year’s best action movie. Tom Cruise’s follow-up to the 1986 action classic Top Gun features a fleet of iconic jets. Unless you’re a pilot, it might be difficult to keep all the amazing aircraft straight, so we compiled a list of the aircraft used in Top Gun and Top Gun: Maverick.


Top Gun
An F/A-18 Super Hornet is one of several planes featured in Top Gun: Maverick. Wikimedia Commons photo.

The F/A-18 Super Hornet was specifically designed to launch from aircraft carriers. These planes became the first aircraft in the US military’s arsenal designed to carry out both air-to-air and air-to-ground missions. After the Vietnam War, the US Navy began the development of a low-cost, multimission jet fighter. The F-16 Falcon was one of the initial designs before the F/A-18 Super Hornets entered service in 1983. A few years later, the Hornets were flying combat missions from the USS Coral Sea in support of Operation El Dorado Canyon. The combat flights were airstrikes against Libya in response to terrorist attacks committed under Moammar Gadhafi.

The night-attack capability arrived in 1998 in a two-seater aircraft. The upgraded Hornets flew combat missions in Operation Desert Fox — a strike mission against Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction facilities — and saw action again during the Global War on Terror.


Top Gun P-51
P-51 Mustangs gained notoriety during World War II as escorts of bomber aircraft and for aerial combat over Europe. Wikimedia Commons photo.

The P-51 Mustang is the oldest aircraft on this list. It’s also one of the most revered. The P-51 transformed the air force potential of the US military in World War II. These fighter planes shot down some 5,000 German aircraft over Europe and reigned supreme as bomber escorts flying over Japanese-controlled islands in the Pacific. P-51s could carry 1,000 pounds of bombs and rockets and had six .50-caliber machine guns on their wings.

The planes were so effective that President Harry S. Truman dubbed them “the most aerodynamically perfect pursuit plane in existence.”

The P-51 retired from the US military in 1957. Notably, the last P-51 combat missions were flown by the Dominican air force in 1984.


Top Gun
Three “MiG-28” jets fly off the coast near San Diego. Photo courtesy of Fandom.

MiGs are a family of Russian aircraft, but in Top Gun, Maverick and Iceman take on the fictional MiG-28. The film used repainted F-5s to stand in for the fake model of MiG.

“MiG aircraft derived its name from the two chief engineers who headed a Soviet design bureau of the same name, Artem Mikoyan and Mikhail Gurevich,” Russia Beyond reports. “The two prodigies of aircraft design met in the Polikarpov Design Bureau in Moscow and worked together to found their design bureau, which was named the ‘Mikoyan-Gurevich’ design bureau.”

The MiG-15 reportedly “shocked and stunned” US forces with its lone 37mm cannon and twin 23mm cannons in the Korean War. Dogfights between the United Nations and North Korean allies were so frequent that allied pilots nicknamed the northwest region of North Korea “MiG Alley.” Marine Maj. John Bolt was the only naval jet ace of the Korean War to shoot down six MiG-15s. Notably, future astronauts John Glenn and Wally Schirra each downed a MiG in aerial combat.

Variations of Russian MiGs remain in the air forces of the Soviet Union, China, North Korea, and 41 other countries today.


The Sukhoi (Su-57) Felon is Russia’s premier stealth jet fighter. Wikimedia Commons photo.

The Sukhoi (Su-57) Felon is Russia’s premier stealth jet fighter. Russia’s Su-57 and China’s J-20 are two adversarial jet fighters that contend with American firepower. The Su-57 has a single 30mm auto-cannon, 12 hardpoints where weapon systems can be mounted, and a slew of other missiles, including air-to-air, air-to-surface, anti-ship, and anti-radiation missiles. These jet fighters also have modern avionics with multifunctional integrated radio-electronic systems, an active electronically scanned radar that can track 60 targets and shoot 16 at once. The aircraft also features an electro-optical targeting system used to support aerial combat.

“Russia’s first 5th generation fighter is often compared to America’s F-22 and F-35 in discussion, despite the Su-57’s comparably tiny total numbers (only a dozen or so Su-57s even exist),” Alex Hollings writes. “Russia has begun serial production of the fighter, however, so it stands to reason that Moscow will eventually have a respectable fleet of stealth jets.”


An air-to-air, right-side view of a Fighter Squadron 111 F-14 Tomcat aircraft assigned to the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson, visible below. Wikimedia Commons photo.

The F-14 Tomcat program began in 1968 in response to the Soviet Union’s capabilities and advancements with long-range bomber aircraft. These fleet defense fighter jets featured AIM-54 Phoenix air-to-air missiles, which enabled the Tomcats to engage multiple enemy aircraft more than 90 miles away.

The first flight occurred in December 1970. The Tomcats feature a rotary cannon for dogfighting and can conduct bombing runs, which caused pilots to begin referring to the aircraft as “Bombcat.”

In August 1981, the F-14 saw combat action, successfully downing two Libyan Su-22 fighters over the Gulf of Sidra. The jet fighter was also used in the Gulf War, the Balkans, and the Global War on Terror. The US military retired the aircraft in 2006.

Read Next: ‘Top Gun: Maverick’ — Why You Need To See the Year’s Best Action Movie in Theaters

Matt Fratus
Matt Fratus

Matt Fratus is a history staff writer for Coffee or Die. He prides himself on uncovering the most fascinating tales of history by sharing them through any means of engaging storytelling. He writes for his micro-blog @LateNightHistory on Instagram, where he shares the story behind the image. He is also the host of the Late Night History podcast. When not writing about history, Matt enjoys volunteering for One More Wave and rooting for Boston sports teams.

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