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‘Top Gun’ Memoir Warns American Military Air Superiority Is In Danger


In his engaging and succinct memoir Top Gun: An American Story, Topgun’s original commanding officer Dan Pedersen argues that “what matters is the man, not the machine,” and because of this truism, pilot training will always be far more important than the technology of jet fighters for winning battles in the sky. At present, says Pedersen, “Something is rotten in Washington, and one day, sadly, we will lose a war because of it.”

Pedersen claims that the Navy lacks relatively cheap fighter jets for training such as the old F-14 Tomcats (the “Top Gun” jets in the movie) and others. He cites a price tag for the new F-35 as $330 million per plane. The service can’t buy and maintain a large number of trainers at those prices, he says. As a consequence, much of fighter pilot training must be done on simulators, which, in Pedersen’s view, are an inadequate substitute for real flight time.

More ominously, Pedersen says the Navy has once again been beguiled by the siren song of technological triumphalism and has lost the will to properly instruct pilots in dogfighting techniques. This was precisely the situation during the early years of Vietnam, and it led to devastating American losses, and ultimately to the creation of Topgun, the U.S. Navy Fighter Weapons School (the Navy spells it “Topgun,” without the space between words).

Unfortunately, claims Pedersen, bureaucratic rot and self-destructive rivalry and jealousy have set in in the years since the 1969 founding of that “graduate school for fighter pilots.” Pedersen suggests this is partly due to blowback from the 1986 movie Top Gun, and the lasting cultural cache it bestowed on the U.S. Navy Fighter Weapons School as a result.

Topgun is no longer located at Naval Air Station Miramar (which is now owned by the Marines), but was moved inland in 1996 to Naval Air Station Fallon in Nevada. Although Topgun still operates as an independent command, the school has been largely subsumed within the Navy’s Strike Warfare Center at NAS Fallon.

Failure in Vietnam

Pedersen first flew as a U.S. Navy fighter pilot in 1957. It was an era when the Sparrow and Sidewinder air-to-air missiles rose to dominance as the primary armament for a fighter jet. This was mostly a result of Cold War military doctrine and American military superiority in the air during the past decade.

The Navy fighter jet was reconceived as solely a missile-launching platform. The F-4 Phantom, the Navy’s primary carrier-based fighter during the era, didn’t even have a built-in gun. Combat would be over the horizon. The age of the fighter jock was over.

Of course, that’s not the way it worked out in Vietnam—at all. The Democratic Kennedy and Johnson administrations approached the Vietnam War as a political game. Serving under both presidents, delusional defense secretary Robert McNamara attempted to calibrate escalations and de-escalations of bombings with negotiation results, and put in place restrictive rules of engagement that followed no military logic.

We abandoned dogfight training because of the Navy’s faith in missile technology. Most of our aircrews didn’t know how to fight any other way. Yet our own rules of engagement kept us from using what we were taught. The rules of engagement specifically prohibited firing from beyond visual range. To shoot a missile at an aircraft, a fighter pilot first needed to visually confirm it was a MiG and not a friendly plane. . . . Yet three years along, the training squadron in California was still teaching long-range intercept tactics to the exclusion of everything else. Our training was not applicable to the air war in Vietnam.

In the first three years of the war, the Navy lost 532 aircraft in combat, with 644 aviators killed, missing, or taken as prisoners of war. A 1968 review led by Navy carrier captain Frank Ault recommended, among other changes, the creation of a program like Topgun.

Whiskey 291

Enter 33-year-old lieutenant commander Dan Pedersen. Pedersen was two grades below flag rank, but he was in the right place at the right time and, most importantly, possessed the right experience. For him this was no stepping-stone assignment, but a chance to correct a terrible mistake the Navy was making over and over again.

Pedersen had spent a great deal of the Vietnam War as a fighter pilot at Yankee Station, the Navy’s attack point off the coast of North Vietnam. There he witnessed many of his colleagues get shot down and die or become prisoners of war. He knew of more losses in the Air Force. Pedersen believed he had the solution. In fact, he’d had it since 1959.

In those days, any pilot who was in good with the senior chief in maintenance at an air station could check out a plane to get in extra practice. Pedersen and a small but dedicated group of other pilots used the privilege to fight each other in the air to sort out who was the best of the best. They did the sorting in a restricted airspace off San Diego near San Clemente Island called Whiskey 291.

“What happened in Whiskey 291 stayed in Whiskey 291, unless you met your opponent later and had the chance to talk over drinks,” says Pedersen. “There were no debriefs. No reports. No paper trail at all.”

Pilots from all branches of the service would converge. The first move was inevitably a game of chicken at insane speeds, followed by twisting and turning at near-maximum velocity. Fights were generally conducted without radio contact so no one could be identified and get in trouble.

You had to know the capabilities and limitations of your plane. You had to be good. The fights were over within a few minutes when one pilot or the other gained an advantage that would allow a kill-shot. Then the opposing pilot would wag his wings and both would fly back to their respective homes, often never to learn who the other pilot was.

Pedersen adapted this experience for the Topgun curriculum. A second element was the in-depth analysis of the capabilities of the F-4 Phantom. Pedersen recruited instructors who used the “murder board” method for developing their curriculum, mercilessly grilling one another as they worked through their proposed lectures. The technical minded spent days talking to F-4 engineers at McDonald Douglas to learn not only the Phantom’s official specs, but what its real tolerances and capabilities might be.

The result was the development of the signature Topgun “yo-yo” or “egg” maneuver. It was simple and effective. While MiGs had a shorter turning radius, the F-4 Phantom could climb vertically at a rate no MiG could match. Pedersen and his team determined that the best move when encountering a MiG was to go vertical like a rocket, thus avoiding the MiG’s cannon, then to take the plane into a controlled stall, flip the nose, and head back down seeking to get a good shot for the air-to-air missiles.

How did Pedersen and his instructors know these tactics would work? They tried them against real MiGs. Pedersen finagled access to two ultra-secret captured MiGs the Air Force kept in Area 51 in New Mexico. He and his instructors flew them, and flew against them, repeatedly. Later, as an amazing graduation present, the original Topgun class was clandestinely taken to Area 51, where they got to fight against the MiGs themselves.

Reestablishing U.S. Air Superiority

Navy pilots who completed Topgun and rejoined their unit slowly but surely began to win in real-life combat. By the end of the Vietnam War, the overall shoot-down ratio was 24-1 in America’s favor. Topgun trained pilots, and those to whom they passed on their knowledge, were perhaps the major factor in reestablishing U.S. air superiority.

With Topgun an unqualified success, Pedersen moved on to command an air wing on a carrier, then to captaining an oil resupply tanker, and finally to skippering the aircraft carrier USS Ranger. In 1982, however, his career hit a brick wall. Paul Trerice, a midshipman who had been frequently in and out of the Ranger’s brig, collapsed and died during a punitive run while on a Subic Bay layover. The young man had repeated behavior issues and trouble with drug addiction.

Still, Trerice’s father understandably demanded that the Navy get to the bottom of his son’s death. He called the media, and the matter blew up in newspapers nationwide. It is difficult for a contemporary reviewer to put what happened in the matter in perspective just by reading through archived newspaper stories. My gut feeling is that, while what happened to Trerice was tragic, it was not deliberate or even necessarily preventable, given the disciplinary demands of the Navy.

Furthermore, this was the era when President Reagan’s secretary of the Navy John Lehman was rebuilding a 600-ship Navy and once again challenging the Soviet Union on the seas. Given the liberal bent of the era’s journalists, the political toes that were being stepped on, and the constant attacks on Reagan and the Reagan presidency by the media at the time, it is not surprising that The New York Times was lying in wait for something like Trerice’s death to use as a bludgeon against Lehman and the Navy.

Pedersen was cleared of criminal wrong doing in Trerice’s death but was given a nonpunitive letter of caution on the matter. But the Navy’s political opponents had his name and a grudge to settle. When the promotion lists came up the next year, Pedersen was informed Senate opposition was too great, and he was never going to make admiral. In the Navy, it is up or out, so in 1983 Pedersen left the Navy after 29 years.

Man, Not the Machine

Pedersen describes his semi-forced retirement philosophically. After two failed marriages while in service, it allowed him to reconnect with his high school flame, and this led to a successful third marriage. It also allowed him to get closer with his grown children. But the lost time proved mostly impossible to regain.

One night I was aboard ship, ready to take my first ship command, when I got a phone call. Somehow my eight-year-old son had found my direct number. . . ‘Please, Dad. Come back… everyone else has a dad home with them. I don’t.’ . . .

I have one regret in my twenty-nine-year career: It was brutal on my family.

The words are affecting because for the most part Pedersen avoids maudlin dwelling on his own psychological sacrifice. This is likely due to the ministrations of ghostwriter coauthor John R. Bruning, Jr., himself a capable military historian.

There is also a fascinating sidebar history of Pedersen’s Israeli pilot friends and Topgun trainees during the Yom Kippur War, and a moving recollection of airlifting thousands of Vietnamese boat people onto American ships after Vietnam was lost. There’s even a bit on the movie. Throughout, Pedersen sticks doggedly to his theme of explaining the purpose of the American jet fighter, and the American jet fighter pilot by telling his own story.

What matters is the man, not the machine. . . A good pilot should have a strong family background with a patriotic mindset and a self-starting work ethic. He should believe in something greater than himself while remaining self-reliant and confident without being overbearing. (Some ego is necessary—I wouldn’t want a soul filled with doubt flying my wing.) An athletic background helps, because when properly coached at the right age, youngsters learn trust, teamwork, and goal setting. They’ll need all those things in the air.

Pedersen speaks glowingly of the exploits of his compatriots and fellow instructors. His reticence to toot his own horn, however, while refreshing, leaves us to intuit how dangerous, cool, and legendary the personal exploits Pedersen recounts might have been viewed by others. Perhaps historians will one day fill in that portion of the story of the original Topgun.