USA: Book cover. Mediadrumimages/DJZimmerman/Motorbooks

By Alex Jones


TOPGUN, the US Navy’s world-famous fighter unit which inspired one of the eighties most beloved films, turns FIFTY this year and is celebrated in a new book which is sure to take your breath away.

“I feel the need—the need for speed!”

The exploits of Maverick (Tom Cruise), Iceman (Val Kilmer), Charlie (Kelly McGillis) and Goose (Anthony Edwards) was a staple of many childhoods with the elite fighter pilot blockbuster making over £275million worldwide at the box office.

USA: Since the release of the 1986, many teenagers have dreamt of taking to the skies. Mediadrumimages/DJZimmerman/USAirForce

But although the film is a scintillating adrenaline-filled and emotionally-charged rollercoaster, which inspired multiple generations to take to the skies, the history of the ‘Topgun’ military school stretches back way beyond the movie’s 1986 release date.

Stunning photos show the Grumman F-14 Tomcat military jet fighter, one of the stars of the Top Gun franchise, silhouetted against a setting sun; an American ace taking off in an A4 Skyhawk in 1965 to fight in the Vietnam War, the conflict which spawned the Topgun programme; and diligent US servicemen prepping one of their fighters during the Second World War.

The photos are included in Dwight Jon Zimmerman’s new book Top Gun: 50 Years of Naval Air Superiority, a highly illustrated and in-depth look at the Navy’s famous fighter unit, including its history, technology, and culture.

USA: The crowded flight deck of the USS Essex showing her squadrons of F6F Hellcat fighters and SBD scout bombers duting World War Two. Note the folded wings, a space-saving feature given the flight deck and hangar constraints on the aircraft carrier. Mediadrumimages/DJZimmerman/USNavy

“Whether you spell it ‘Topgun’ (the Navy program) or Top Gun (the 1986 movie), the image evoked by the term is the same: that of elite US Navy fighter pilots—the best of the best,” said award-wining author Zimmerman.

“Top Gun, the blockbuster movie that starred Tom Cruise, Kelly McGillis, and Val Kilmer—along with, of course, the F-14 Tomcat— exposed the wider public to the United States Navy Strike Fighter Tactics Instructor program.

“The effect was sudden: every young male, athletic or not, who left the theatre wanted to be a Navy pilot. And the Navy was there to take them, having set up mobile recruitment stations outside nearby to sign them up right then and there.

USA: A Wildcat being lifted by elevator from the hangar deck to the flight deck in preparation for aerial operations. Zimmerman’s book explores the rich history of American fighter pilots, as well as the film and the 1969 military school. Mediadrumimages/DJZimmerman/USNavy

“And while there was a natural dropoff over the years, just the mention of the name “Topgun” is enough to catch the attention of young men everywhere.”

Nowadays, the US Navy has an uneasy relationship with the film. Whilst appreciating its recruiting power, it also realises the action-thriller over glorifies the life of an elite fighter pilot and the amount of work and dedication involved in becoming the ‘best of the best’.

In fact, rumours suggest that at Topgun, the military school in California, a $5 fine is levied on any staff member who quotes the movie.

It’s important to remember that the origins of the Top Gun story start nearly twenty years before the film’s release however.

Originally called the United States Navy Fighter Weapons School, it was founded after a 1968 study determined that U.S. pilots needed better training, with the intention of changing the way those pilots flew and fought. During the worst days of the Vietnam War, US fighter pilots were managing to down two enemy fighters for every casualty but following the formation of the ‘Topgun’ program, that ratio soared to 24:1.

USA: Gervais Raoul Lufbery was one of America’s great aces in the war. As with so many of his contemporaries,
he did not survive it. Mediadrumimages/DJZimmerman/LibraryofCongress

But Zimmerman is keen to show that the story of the United States’ greatest fighter pilots actually starts over a century ago.

“In 2019, the Topgun program will celebrate its fiftieth anniversary,” he said.

“But the history of Topguns—fighter pilots who are the best of the best— has its origin in 1914 over the skies of Western Europe during World War I.

“In that conflict, brave men flew their flimsy fabric-and-wood aircraft and duelled like aerial knights.

“Their exploits seized the world’s attention, a hold on the imagination that has never let up.

“The postwar decades saw changes to the aircraft, going from two wings to one, from fragile fabric and wood to sturdy metal, from an open cockpit to an enclosed one.

“They could fly faster and higher and with an ever-deadlier arsenal, but one thing remained the same: all were flown by the best men— and now women as well— the USA had to offer.”

USA: Elite: Captain Joseph P. McConnell, USAF, the ace of aces in the Korean War in the cockpit of his F-86 Sabre, “Beauteous Butch II,” based on his wife’s nickname. His
sixteen victories are indicated by the stars painted on his plane’s fuselage. He was another inspiration for the Topgun program instructors. Mediadrumimages/DJZimmerman/USAirForce

The days of the glamourous aviator-donning ace might soon be a relic of the past however, Zimmerman warns.

“The world is changing: drone technology has brought what once seemed impossible to reality,” he continued.

“The time will come when fighter pilots as we know them will no longer fly.

“For this reason, it is even more important to celebrate the rich history of Topguns, those fighter pilots from both the US Navy and the US Air Force, and their many contributions to history and fiction, from their beginnings in World War I to present day.

“We should understand what it takes to be a Topgun. No single book can tell their story, but before the living chapter of their history closes, let us pause to remember and honour those brave men and women who earned the silver and gold wings on their chest, those who flew, fought, and, in too many cases, died, in the defence of our ideals.”

Top Gun: Maverick, the long-awaited sequel to the 1986 Oscar-winning hit, is due for release next summer and will feature Tom Cruise and Val Kilmer amongst its star-studded cast list.


Dwight Jon Zimmerman’s Top Gun: 50 Years of Naval Air Superiority, published by Motorbooks earlier this month, is available here.