By Brady Rhoades
Mention Top Gun and most everyone thinks of Tom Cruise. But did you know there’s a real Top Gun program for fighter pilots? It’s safe to say most naval aviators do; most civilians don’t.
Dan Pedersen, 86, a veteran of numerous missions in the Vietnam War, is considered the real life “Godfather of Top Gun,” which he likens to a graduate school for aviators.
In the original Top Gun movie, those guys became the now-iconic and beloved Maverick, Ice Man, Goose and others. After three years of delays due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the long-awaited sequel’s Memorial Day release will mark 36 years since the original movie debuted.
Goose and Maverick fans have been ravenous.
There’s been a buzz about the movie ever since Cruise announced that it was in the works, and Val Kilmer, the original Ice Man, started promoting it.
In “Maverick,” Cruise reprises his role as U.S. Naval aviator Pete “Maverick” Mitchell. The Joseph Kosinski-directed sequel also stars Kilmer, Miles Teller, Jennifer Connelly and Jon Hamm.
One thing seems to be agreed on, however: the film, featuring what Cruise calls unprecedented flying scenes, is best seen on the big screen.
What better film to celebrate open theaters this summer?
In the Dogfighting Business Maverick and company, though based on true fighter pilots, were glitzed up a bit, and that’s just fine. Pedersen credits the 1986 blockbuster film with helping the military.
“The movie was excellent,” he told U.S. Veterans Magazine. “They motivated us and increased recruiting.” But Hollywood is in the storytelling business. Pedersen was in the dogfighting business. When he spearheaded Top Gun, he focused on pilots, in the air, in dogfights. “The only thing they have to rely on is their professional experience and senior guidance,” he said. “The guys that were with me were far more professional and serious,” he said.
Before Top Gun, which formed in 1969 with Pedersen and eight other elite Airmen honing their skills in Miramar, pilots in that war were achieving a 2 to 1 “kill ratio,” meaning they killed two enemies for every one American lost. “Totally unacceptable,” Pedersen said. And the “Godfather of Top Gun” ought to know. He was there when 11 American pilots were killed in 17 days.
Fast forward a couple years into the graduate school crash course for the one percent of elite fighters of that era, and the kill ratio was 24 to one. So, what does it take to be in that one percent? “The guys have got to really love what they’re doing every day…you’ve got to do a lot of air time, and that’s when you get really good and unbeatable.”
Pedersen, who has been married for nearly 30 years after reuniting with his teenage sweetheart, likes to keep things simple. He credits his own success as a pilot to skilled mentorship, some of it from seasoned Word War II veterans. That was a bottom-line principle of Top Gun: teach advanced tactics to young, talented pilots. And pay it forward by, in turn, passing on that knowledge to the next generation.
At the Top of Their Game
The techniques and tactics that Pedersen and others taught in the Top Gun program are still used today, even with vastly more sophisticated technology.
Why has it stood the test of time?
“These are principles that evolved from experience and winning,” Pedersen said. Not to mention, the world’s greatest pilots. The Top Gun program has since moved to Fallon, Nev., and the technology has advanced but one thing hasn’t changed from air warfare in the 20th century to today, according to Pedersen.
“The pilot, the human, will always be the key factor in a win in aero combat,” he explained. Of the current one percent of naval aviators at Fallon, Pedersen said: “You look at these young pilots, and boy are they good.” Great pilots need great planes. Pedersen loved the Grumman F9F-2 aircraft that he flew dozens of missions in during Vietnam. “You could shoot the eyes out of a cat with it,” he said.
The military continues to deploy incredible planes, but two things concern Pedersen:
1) Some of the uber-expensive ones have too many bells and whistles inside the aircraft (He prefers simple and reliable.)
2) The United States needs to produce more to keep up with China, Russia and N. Korea.
“We have these nice, big aircrafts and not enough planes,” he said. “We do not want to be numerically outnumbered… if you get mosquitos in a phone booth, one fly swatter won’t do.”
An American Story
The release of Top Gun 2: Maverick roughly coincides with Pedersen’s release of his national bestselling book, titled Top Gun: An American Story, 50 years after the original Top Gun program was formed. In the 320-pager, Pedersen tells the inside story of how he and eight other risk-takers revolutionized the art of aerial combat. Hachette Books published Top Gun, and it’s an intriguing read.
Following is an excerpt from the promo on the book’s website:
“… the most interesting parts of the book are the discussions on how he became the man assigned to creating the school. Many today can reflect on similar situations with the War on Terror. The bureaucrats and many high-ranking generals thought they knew best until the candid USS Coral Sea Commander Frank Ault spoke out. Already in line for admiral and with nothing to lose the World War II attack pilot put his gripes on paper in 1968 and sent them to the Pentagon. He listed in detail the problems and the solutions with aerial engagement in Vietnam, in what became known as the Ault Report, and recommended the formation of a school specializing in aerial combat.
“Some of the problems included pilots fighting in Vietnam receiving limited training, having faulty Sidewinder and Sparrow missiles and not learning the skills they needed to outmaneuver the enemy. This became abundantly clear with the kill ratios: In World War II, the kill ratio was approximately 14-to-1, during the Korean War about 10-to-1, but in Vietnam — before the Top Gun program — it was as low as 2-to-1.
“Capt. Pedersen (then a lieutenant commander) was the first officer in charge of Top Gun. He was chosen because of his experiences in the air battles over Vietnam where he received first-hand knowledge of the shortcomings of American tactics and equipment. The ‘high tech’ weapons failed about 90 percent of the time, and the latest fighter plane didn’t even have a gun!
American fighter pilots were being shot down by a third-world air force using Soviet aircraft — MiGs. The Navy moved toward radar-guided missiles and aircraft to fire them instead of dogfighting.
“The Top Gun School ended up being very successful. The 2-to-1 ratio changed to a 24-to-1 ratio. It became, and still is, run by people with combat experience. It is obvious that Top Gun saved lives and turned the air war around.”
Pedersen, who calls the original Top Gun pilots “real patriots,” said he is pleased with his legacy in the military, which is chronicled in his book. “Anyone willing to defend their country should have a voice in combat and should have some control over their own destiny,” he said. “I am very proud that my lasting military contribution was Top Gun, where the trainees became unbeatable.”