TOP GUN: Lights - Camera - Action!

Jamie Chalkley gives an insight into the new Top Gun film, including the aircraft used in the production of Maverick, and how the actors are trained for flying at such high velocity.

AvBuyer  |  07th July 2022
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Tom Cruise flying a fighter jet in Top Gun Maverick


If you’ve not seen the new Top Gun film ‘Maverick’ yet, you are in for a real treat. Especially if you go to an iMax. If you have seen it, then my advice…. see it again. It’s genuinely that good. But in terms of subject matter, what’s it doing here in the ol’ Historic Section of GA Buyer Europe? 

Well, as ever… there’s always some background to find, and I don’t mean the 600 mph background captured on film, I mean some history to scratch the surface off. Actually, regardless of that, this is an aviation publication, and what we’re talking about is possibly the best aviation movie of all time.

So, surely, we should tip our hat to the quite extraordinary effort this film went to in order to land some of the best aviation footage ever captured (Note: the following piece contains no spoilers outside what’s already in the trailers). 

‘CRUISE’ IN A MUSTANG!

We all know Tom Cruise can fly a plane, right? But how about fighter jet trainers such as the L-39? And how about helicopters (that was him flying solo in the last Mission Impossible film!) and how about in this Top Gun treat flying a P-51 Mustang! Not only is that him front and centre in the P1 seat… but that’s his actual plane! 

Originally built in 1944, Tom’s Mustang rolled off the production line in Dallas as an F-6K Mustang; a ready-to-arm reconnaissance variant of the P-51. It’s flying today as one of only two surviving examples of the original F-6K model (of 164 built). It was beautifully restored as a P-51K by ‘Teeters’ workshop at Cal Pacific in California in 1997. A year later it won best P-51 at EAA’s AirVenture Oshkosh show! 

Following production in WWII the aircraft was donated to a Civil Air Patrol Unit (US Air Force Auxiliary). In 1968 it went on display at the Victory Air Museum, Illinois and following its restoration in 1997 it was purchased by Tom in 2001. He has since become a highly respected warbird pilot in the industry. 

FIGHTER WEAPONS SCHOOL

Originally based at the Naval Air Station in Miramar, San Diego, the Fighter Weapons School or ‘Top Gun’ opened its doors in 1969 following a much needed training boost for in-service fighter pilots battling for air dominance in Vietnam. In those days ‘the need for speed’ was delivered by the Douglas A-4 Skyhawk. The Top Gun instructor pitched the student against a Northrop T-38 Talon to simulate combat manoeuvring against Russian Migs. 

The Skyhawk was later replaced with the iconic and game-changing Grumman F-14 Tomcat, A twin-engine, supersonic, swept-wing fighter. And not a small aircraft by any means given it’s 64ft wingspan! By the way, did you know if was flight-tested with the wings in an asymmetric sweep position, and deemed capable to still land back on a carrier in that configuration! Oh to be a test pilot…! 

The Tomcat was later replaced by the McDonnell Douglas F/A-18 Hornet, which evolved to today’s Top Gun trainer; the Boeing F-18E/F Super Hornet. 

TOO CLOSE FOR MISSILES... I'M SWITCHING TO PUNS!

In 1996 the School was merged into the ‘Naval Strike and Air Warfare Center’ at the Naval Air Station in Fallon, Nevada where urban legend has it that if you quote Top Gun during training you get an on-the-spot cash fine. Only a couple of dollars, so it’s more to dissuade than anything else. Remember this is serious business at the end of the day. But it’s not like the original film did any harm with its quote-inspiring dialogue… following its 1986 release, there was a 500 percent increase in applications to join the US Navy's fighter pilot programme! 

"Tom Cruise is an accomplished pilot and  owner of several aircraft. His favourite aircraft is reported to be his P-51 Mustang, an American long-range single-seat fighter dating from World War II.”

LITERALLY TAKING THE ‘G’ OUT OF CGI

It’s not just the aerial sequences that are astonishing in this movie, it’s the fact that ALL of the cockpit shots are real. No CGI was used, and this was something Tom insisted on from the start. For anyone reading this that’s enjoyed some aerobatic flying, you’ll know that even 3G takes some getting used to. In the F-18, the actors and actresses were experiencing up to 9G! 

So how did they find their G-legs and still manage to do their day job… i.e. ‘act’? Tom Cruise himself spearheaded a three-month bootcamp flight-training programme for all the actors and actresses who 

played pilots in the film. They had to take basic orientation training in Cessna 172s before progressing to the Extra 300 to start building up their G tolerance. From there they took to the rear seat of the L-39 fighter jet trainer so they could learn to control their breathing during sustained heavy G maneuvers to fight the onset of G-LOC (g-force induced loss of consciousness). This totally normal body response begins with tunnel vision, then you lose colour in ‘Greyout’ followed by ‘Blackout’ (no sight, but still conscious) and finally G-LOC – where consciousness is lost. And they needed to learn to combat air sickness, which is not just about trying to acclimatise physically in order to prevent it, but how to quickly recover from it and still perform (literally, in the case of the actors!) 

Before finally stepping aboard the two seat F-18 ‘Hornet’ for actual filming, they had to not just take, but actually pass, the US Navy fast jet survival training course which included ejector seat training and underwater escape training. 

On top of all of that, there was a whole bunch of other challenges caused by isolating the actors and actresses from the film crew… and this is, I think, one of the most remarkable feats accomplished in the production, for each actor had to set up and manage their four HD camera systems (as did the pilot up front who likewise had to operate a further two), as well as do sound checks; keep a written record of take numbers, sequences and production notes; be responsible for lighting decisions (aka using the sun to control the right lighting effects); ensure the backdrop was correct and followed continuity (not easy when covering the terrain at 600 mph!); coordinate with other cast members airborne; and still follow a script, nail the lines and deliver on the acting. AND, on top of all of that, do their own makeup and appearance adjustments to ensure that at all times their on-screen continuity i.e. breathing mask in exactly the right place, visor clean, right amount of sweat and have a sick bag to hand!

The whole aerial production is genuinely nothing short of a masterpiece in planning, coordination, and execution. Truly A-MAZING!

CREDITS’ WHERE THEY’RE DUE

Ladies and Gentlemen, aviators and enthusiasts, this is one of those times to trust the hype! Go see this film and see it BIG (iMax it if you can). The aerial sequences are fantastic and if you consider and appreciate the prep and coordination of how they put this whole thing together (under Tom’s unquestionable dedication to nailing this long awaiting sequel), I think you’ll agree they did an exceptional job. 

From Tom’s actual carrier-deck launch off the USS Abraham Lincoln, to the heart-pounding high-G flight through a valley at less than the aircraft’s wingspan off the deck, you really feel like you’re on board with him all the way, and you certainly leave the BIG screen with a BIG grin! 

WANT SOME ACTION YOURSELF?

If after seeing this movie you want to tell someone for real that they can be your wingman anytime… you could try an air-to-air tail chase with Ultimate Warbird Flights. Take to the sky yourself in a two-seat Mustang or Spitfire — you may even get to ”bust the tower!” 

For more info on a need for speed tail chase check out: www.warbirdflights.co.uk

For more info on warbirds and other vintage aircraft check out: www.TASCvintage.com



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