From a young age, Navy Lt. Cmdr. James “Brolemic” Gibbons knew he wanted to be a fighter pilot. As a TOPGUN instructor, he and his colleagues spend their days flying at 700 miles per hour while practicing aerial combat, much like the fictional pilots onscreen in the famed 1986 movie of the same name.
During the filming of the forthcoming sequel “Top Gun: Maverick,” Gibbons was impressed not just with Tom Cruise’s professionalism but also with his ability to do something critically important for his own profession — teach others.
“He was teaching many of the actors in a similar fashion to how we as TOPGUN instructors teach students,” said Gibbons, who flew both cameras and actors in the backseat of his F/A-18 Super Hornet for the film.
In the film, Cruise stars as Capt. Pete “Maverick” Mitchell, a test pilot and flight instructor. Originally scheduled for debut in the summer of 2020, the film was delayed several times due to the pandemic and is now scheduled for release on Nov. 19.
Made ubiquitous in popular culture after the original film, TOPGUN pilots routinely say the days are never spent racing motorcycles and playing shirtless volleyball with Kenny Loggins’ “Danger Zone” on repeat. TOPGUN Commanding Officer Cmdr. Dustin “Perv” Peverill says the professionalism required to fly at this level isn’t what gets media attention.
Far from the glamour of Hollywood, Naval Fighter Weapons School (TOPGUN) is located at Naval Air Station, Fallon, a small desert town an hour east of Reno, Nevada.
At Fallon, the days are long and the pace is grueling. The first brief often begins at 0500 and the last event of the day typically wraps up just before midnight.
Similar to professional athletes, high-profile investors, and corporate elites, Peverill says the pilots of TOPGUN strive to perform at the most elite levels, becoming masters of their craft.
“And they want to do that because they’re driven. They have the drive to succeed and some talent to go along with it.”
Both Gibbons and Peverill say TOPGUN’s 52-year legacy is built upon one foundation — hard work. The school was founded during the Vietnam War when Navy fighter pilots were being shot down at an alarming rate, losing one aircraft for every two North Vietnamese aircraft they shot down.
“While we had a technological advantage over the Vietnamese, there was a lack of understanding on how to employ your aircraft and your weapons. And due to that, we lost a lot of aviators during that war — 816 to be exact,” Gibbons said.
In 1968, naval aviator Capt. Frank Ault produced an advanced impact study imploring the Navy to train aircrew, rather than putting more money into advanced technology. Ault’s analysis became the genesis of the premiere school for aerial combat. The following year, the Navy had 32 MIG kills, with 30 from TOPGUN graduates.
Today, Perevill said TOPGUN continues to train aircrew to fly these war machines to the limits of their capabilities.
“You know, the weapons are no good if the human beings don’t understand how to use them properly,” he said.
Each year the school has three, 12-week-long classes with an average of 20 students per class — nine to 12 aircrews, meaning pilots (think Maverick) and weapon system officers (think Goose), and an additional four to six adversary students and airborne intercept control students.
Graduates stay on staff at Fallon or head to one of two other schools located at NAS Oceana, Virginia Beach, or NAS Lemoore, California, where they will serve as strike fighter tactics instructors (SFTI), teaching fleet aircrew specialty warfighting tactics. Adversary and airborne intercept students go back to their squadrons and ships where they serve as subject matter experts.
TOPGUN Instructor Lt. Graham “BONES” Stapleton said the course is both a marathon and a sprint in terms of pace.
“You’re kind of running. It’s an absolute marathon that you’re running pretty damn fast.”
Just like in the movie, the TOPGUN debrief is famous for being meticulously tedious, and according to Gibbons and Stapleton, it can be one of the most stressful parts of the student’s experience.
“Can I pull out the mistakes that I made in the flight? And then can I teach those mistakes and understand conceptually how I can get better?” Stapleton said.
A typical day for students involves practicing your brief, briefing, flying, and debriefing. Early the next morning, it’s time to wake up and do it all again.
“And then before you go to bed that night, you lie awake thinking, ‘How can I get better? How can I improve my performance in the aircraft?’ So it’s a constant,” Stapleton said.
Stapleton says that one of the more important points that TOPGUN instructors drive home is how to teach.
“Our ability to draw all the lessons from our mistakes, our successes, and our failures, and learn from those lessons is incredibly important to not only make the instructors better but to make the students better,” he said.
Gibbons says that success as a TOPGUN student isn’t just about performance in the aircraft.
“It’s a level of execution that proves humble, credible, and approachable. The bar is about how you perform in the aircraft, how humble you are as a teacher, and how approachable you are — meaning people would want to come to you for information.”
At the end of 12 weeks, each graduate is proud of what they’ve learned and is eager to teach. Gibbons said that it’s important to get them out in the fleet, to have them serve as teachers, and to continue that investment in TOPGUN as an entity.
While students often miss the best flying of their career after they leave, the turnover creates a natural cycle that keeps the institution fresh.
“It’s important to have new blood coming from the fleet to become instructors because they provide a brand-new perspective. I think that’s what keeps TOPGUN very dynamic,” Gibbons said.
Both Gibbons and Stapleton say the impact TOPGUN graduates have on the next generation of naval aviators is powerful.
“You have the ability to show up to a squadron and not only teach but influence the next generation of pilots,” Stapleton said.
They added that they will see the movie when it hits theaters later this year. In the meantime, you can find them working hard, studying, and pulling Gs over the skies of Nevada.
Lt. Cmdr. James Gibbons
Alma Mater: U.S. Merchant Marine Academy
Hometown: Reno, Nevada
FA-18 E/F: 932.6 hours
FA-18 A-D: 142.9 hours
F-16 A/B: 142.0 hours
Traps (Carrier arrested landings): 345
Why I wanted to be a pilot: “My dad was a fighter pilot, but he was just an Air Force guy,” Gibbons said with a laugh. His father flew in Vietnam and the Persian Gulf War. But what Gibbons remembers most powerfully was his exchange tour flying Hornets with the Navy when he was 5 years old.
“I watched him fly out of Fallon and I remember watching him taking off and going out to the range.” Gibbons says he was hooked. In the early 2000s, his father served as a member of Congress and he was asked to come back to Fallon, where he flew once more. “Yeah, so I got to watch him twice, kind of solidified my career path,” Gibbons said.
Lt. Graham Stapleton
Alma Mater: University of Illinois, Champaign Urbana
Hometown: Chicago, Illinois
FA-18 E/F: 1069.6 hours
FA-18 A-D: 55.5 hours
F-16 A/B: 58.8 hours
Traps (Carrier arrested landings): 339
Why I wanted to be a pilot: At the age of 2, Stapleton was wearing a flight suit. His father was a pilot and both grandfathers were pilots, one in World War II and the other in the Korean War. “So I just grew up in a family that was very centered around aviation, and everyone was either a fighter pilot or a bomber pilot,” he said. “I had a love for it early on.”