At the height of the Vietnam War, an iconic aviation training school was founded by the US Navy. Its first official name was the Navy Fighter Weapons School. But most people know it best as Topgun.
Despite its reputation today, the origins of this elite institution were humble and born out of failure.
The F-4 Phantom II and the death of dogfighting
In the 1950s, the US Navy requested a new two-seat, high-altitude interceptor fighter-bomber. In 1960, McDonnell Aircraft delivered the F-4 Phantom II. Stuffed with the latest technology and capable of carrying 18,000 pounds of munitions, the F-4 was a revolutionary aircraft built for the missile age. As such, it lacked one critical attribute – a gun.
Operation Rolling Thunder
In 1965, the United States Navy and Air Force launched a sustained bombing campaign against targets in North Vietnam named Operation Rolling Thunder. The F-4 operated over Vietnam with the US Navy, Air Force and the Marine Corps, and was responsible for the greater part of 100,000 sorties.
The dawn of the missile age had supposedly put an end to dogfighting, which had been all but phased out of pilot training in the United States. But the experiences of the F-4 pilots over Vietnam revealed that this had been premature.
Over Vietnam, the F-4 was confronted by the highly manoeuvrable MiG-17. Strict rules of engagement, aimed at preventing escalation, demanded that pilots visually identify their foe. As a result, F-4 pilots found themselves drawn into low-level turning encounters that resembled the dogfights of World War Two.
The F-4 carried beyond-visual-range AIM-7 Sparrow and short-range AIM-9 Sidewinder missiles. But the missiles performed badly. Between 1965 and 1968, the AIM-7s hit their marks just eight per cent of the time, while the AIM-9s had a success rate of just 15 per cent.
In an attempt to rectify the situation, F-4s were fitted with pod-mounted guns. But the loss rate remained high – in 1965, US Navy pilots registered a kill ratio of just 2:1. This compared with kill ratios of around 14:1 during World War Two.
The Ault Report
In 1968, the commander of the USS Coral Sea aircraft carrier, Frank Ault, drew up a report on the situation. The former World War Two pilot identified 242 problem areas with deployment of the F-4, ranging from faults in its Sparrow and Sidewinder missiles to the poor aerial combat skills of its pilots.
Among Ault’s many recommendations was the creation of a new school specialising in aerial combat.
Topgun is born
Responsibility for the creation of the new school fell to Lieutenant Commander Dan “Yank” Pedersen, who was based at Naval Air Station Miramar, near San Diego.
Pedersen and his team of instructors initially received little in the way of funding and set up in a metal container. They studied captured MiG-17 and MiG-21 jets in a top-secret desert location and set about pushing the F-4 to its limits as they formulated their syllabus.
Candidates for the school were drawn from the best pilots in the navy. The theory was that these graduates would return to their units and pass on what they had learned. But Pedersen’s team struggled at first to persuade captains to part with their pilots to participate in a course that no one had heard of.
As the reputation of the school grew, however, pilots competed against one another to secure a place. The Topgun patch became a badge of honour.
The new school gets results
When the bombing campaign against North Vietnam resumed in 1972 following a four-year pause, the impact of Topgun was immediately apparent. The kill ratio of the US Navy pilots jumped to 12:1, with the vast majority of kills earned by Topgun graduates. The success prompted the Air Force to set up its own air combat school, Red Flag, in 1975.
Topgun hits the big screen
In 1986, Hollywood turned its attention to the flyboys of Miramar with the release of Top Gun. The work hard, play hard lifestyle of Maverick et al, wasn’t a million miles from the real-life experiences of the early Topgun pilots, who enjoyed a regular routine of beach parties and rowdy bars when they weren’t flying.
Topgun, or the Navy Strike Fighter Tactics Instructor programme as it is known today, continues to deliver a 12-week course to the top one per cent of the US Navy’s pilots. In 1996 it was relocated from its home at Miramar to Naval Air Station Fallon in Nevada.
Davies, Peter E. (2012) USAF F-4 Phantom II MiG Killers 1965-68 London: Bloomsbury Publishing
Elder, Adam (October, 2009) Topgun: Forty Years of Higher Learning Retrieved August 2018