The Navy’s Elite TOPGUN Flight School Started in a Parking Lot Trailer

May 16, 2022Matt Fratus
Top Gun

TOPGUN certainly had modest beginnings, but it transformed into a school responsible for producing the best naval aviators in the world. Composite by Coffee or Die Magazine.

The best fighter pilot training course in the world, made famous by the 1986 movie Top Gun, was started inside a trailer docked in a California parking lot. 

No, seriously. 

Although officially named the US Navy’s Strike Fighter Tactics Instructor Course, the glamorous TOPGUN schoolhouse was created to increase the survivability of fighter aircraft during the Vietnam War. 

A TOPGUN exhibit inside the USS Midway Museum in San Diego, California, describes the early years of the school. Photo by Matt Fratus/Coffee or Die Magazine.

“During the Vietnam War, Navy fighter pilots and aircrew were dying at an alarming rate,” Navy Cmdr. Dustin Peverill, a 20-year Navy veteran and TOPGUN instructor, told the Department of Defense. “The Navy was losing a lot of airplanes and, more importantly, a lot of aircrew.”

In 1968, US Navy aircrews flying missions over Vietnam had an air combat kill-to-loss ratio of 2:1. Capt. Frank Ault led an investigation into why the Navy was suffering such high casualties. In his report he recommended creating a graduate-level flight program to train fleet fighter pilots in advanced air combat tactics.

In response, the US Navy developed the Navy Fighter Weapons School at Naval Air Station Miramar in California a year later.

“The four-week course started with a team of instructors covering US and Soviet aircraft types, weapons systems, and fighter training tactics in a 50-foot-long metal trailer at NAS Miramar,” according to an exhibit inside the USS Midway Museum in San Diego, California.

A TOPGUN adversary instructor patch adorns the flight suit of Navy Lt. Joe Anderson of the US Navy Strike Fighter Tactics Instructor program at Naval Air Station Fallon in Fallon, Nevada, May 11, 2021. DOD photo by EJ Hersom.

Capt. Dan Pedersen, often considered the “Godfather of TOPGUN,” served as the program’s first instructor. He recruited eight other pilots to set the standard for future generations of naval aviators.

“MiGs [Soviet planes] had a better turn rate, so it could get around you and shoot you down,” Pedersen told Time magazine in 2019. “Phantoms had great power, so we could out-fly the MiGs in terms of speed. So we decided to go straight up, go above them and fly down to a perfect position behind the MiG, and go for a tail shot. Then with tactics like that, we were getting 24 of the enemies for every one of us.”

Pedersen said the movie Top Gun was about 55% positive. He praised the film’s cinematography, saying it was some of the best footage of tactical airplanes ever captured, but he was concerned about how the film might impact the general public’s perception of the pilots. Pedersen believed Top Gun failed to acknowledge the high stakes pilots faced during Vietnam. 

A formation of US Navy Grumman F-14A Tomcats of Fighter Squadron 51 (VF-51) “Screaming Eagles” and VF-111 “Sundowners,” and Northrop F-5E/F Tiger IIs of the Navy Fighter Weapons School. These units represented a vital part of the US Navy’s participation in the 1986 film Top Gun, providing the aerial dogfighting sequences that were its defining trademark. Note the fictitious markings on the tail of at least one of the F-14s. Wikimedia Commons photo.

“We actually worked seven days a week probably, starting at 4:30 in the morning,” Pedersen said. “On Fridays, I let the youngest guys who lived in La Jolla out early, so they could party — that’s what young guys are supposed to do — but most of us never got home during the week. I spent many nights sleeping in my car.”

In the early days of TOPGUN, after-action reviews and debriefs were challenging to record during training exercises. 

“Prior to each engagement, pilots made brief notes about their airspeed, altitude, and heading on ‘kneeboards,’” according to an exhibit at the USS Midway Museum. “Additional notes might be made as they returned to base, but to a large extent, the pilots relied on their own perspectives and memories for the review.”

The archaic methods for recording performances resulted in highly subjective interpretations of the exercise results. It spawned a common phrase heard at the schoolhouse: “The first pilot to the chalkboard wins the fight.”

“TOPGUN Class No. 1 graduates Lt. Steve Barkley and Lt. (j.g) Jerry Beaulier after a MiG kill in 1970.” Photo by Matt Fratus/Coffee or Die Magazine.

The TOPGUN school also teaches advisory instructors and air-to-air-intercept controllers.

​​“Their job is to make sure that, top to bottom — CO all the way down to the brand new aircrew — are trained in the latest tactics developed by TOPGUN,” Peverill told the DOD. “The payback that the fleet gets from a TOPGUN graduate isn’t just an individual investment, it’s a community investment – a Navy investment.”

Perhaps the most outrageous anecdote about the relationship between the school and the movie was revealed by former TOPGUN instructor Cmdr. Guy “Bus” Snodgrass in his book TOPGUN’s Top 10: Leadership Lessons From the Cockpit. Apparently, if any of the students are overheard quoting the movie, they are fined $5. 

To which we’d say, “Negative, Ghost Rider,” because that’s a price worth paying.

Read Next: Air Force Hijacks ‘Top Gun: Maverick’ To Recruit Future Fighter Pilots

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.

More from Coffee or Die Magazine
Dear Jack: I'm Retiring From The Military — Help!

In this installment of “Dear Jack,” Marine veteran Jack Mandaville helps a career service member figure out life after retirement.

March 31, 2023Jack Mandaville
navy chaplains suicide prevention
US Navy Deploys More Chaplains For Suicide Prevention

Growing mental health distress in the ranks carries such grave implications that the U.S. chief of n...

March 31, 2023Associated Press
ukraine lessons learned
Opinion & Essay
Nolan Peterson: Lessons From Russia's Invasion of Ukraine

After living in and reporting from Ukraine the last nine years, conflict journalist Nolan Peterson h...

March 30, 2023Nolan Peterson
black hawk crash kentucky
9 Killed In Army Black Hawk Helicopter Crash In Kentucky

Nondice Thurman, a spokesperson for Fort Campbell, said Thursday morning that the deaths happened the previous night in southwestern Kentucky during a routine training mission.

March 30, 2023Associated Press
richard stayskal act military medical malpractice
DOD Denies Most Stayskal Act Malpractice Claims

Master Sgt. Richard Stayskal was diagnosed with lung cancer long after military doctors missed a tum...

March 29, 2023Maggie BenZvi
ukrainian wounded soldiers
‘On Tour In Hell’: Wounded Ukrainian Soldiers Evacuated

With bandaged heads and splinted limbs, the wounded soldiers are stretchered into the waiting medica...

March 27, 2023Associated Press
US oil mission
US Launches Airstrikes in Syria After Drone Kills US Worker

While it’s not the first time the U.S. and Iran have traded airstrikes in Syria, the attack and the ...

March 24, 2023Associated Press
The Gift jason dunham
‘The Gift’ Explores the Life and Legacy of Medal of Honor Recipient Jason Dunham

"The Gift" tells the story of the first Marine to receive the Medal of Honor after the Vietnam War. ...

March 24, 2023Mac Caltrider
  • About Us
  • Privacy Policy
  • Careers
Contact Us
  • Request a Correction
  • Write for Us
  • General Inquiries
© 2023 Coffee or Die Magazine. All Rights Reserved