Could You Pass the Navy's TOPGUN Program?


By: Ryan Choate

6 Min Quiz

Image: Yiming Chen / Moment / Getty Images

About This Quiz

Long before Hollywood popularized fighter pilots with the movie "Top Gun," the U.S. military was working on ways to improve aerial combat skills with its pilots. After a less-then-successful initial few years in the Vietnam War in the air, a detailed report was filed by Navy Capt. Frank Ault documenting every aspect of the Navy's air-to-air combat performance from 1965-1968. The most important aspect of the report was the need to improve tactical warfare within its fleet of pilots. One result of the report was the formation of an elite new program that would train the best fighter pilots in the world who would then train their respected base pilots. This program was TOPGUN.

Originally formed in 1969, firmly in the middle of the Vietnam conflict, TOPGUN was a small experimental program formed at Miramar Naval Base in San Diego. The original class of nine graduates would eventually grow in the years following and the positive results were seen immediately in the Vietnam War with an increased kill ratio going from 2 MiG kills for every U.S. plane to 12 MiG kills for every U.S. plane. 

While the popularity and glamorization of the fighter pilot lifestyle can be attributed to its portrayal on the big screen. The TOPGUN program remains in existence and is one of the most successful programs established for fighter pilot training. Now located in the desert of Nevada at Naval Base Fallon, TOPGUN still attracts the top 1% of elite pilots in the world, who spend over 100 hours in the classroom to hone their skills. Whether you are more Maverick than Iceman, you can test your skills with this quiz and see if you can finish at the top of your class!

Which military branch runs the TOPGUN program?

The Navy runs the elite TOPGUN program at an airbase in Fallon, NV. Formerly based in Miramar, CA the program instructs pilots on strike force tactics.


What percentage of Navy pilots attend the TOPGUN program?

The top 1% of Navy pilots are invited to the TOPGUN program. They use the skills they learn in the program to teach other pilots at their respective naval stations.


What year did the TOPGUN program start?

The TOPGUN program was created in 1969. The original intent was to train pilots to become better combat pilots after poor performances were uncovered during the Vietnam War.


What is the official name of the TOPGUN program as referred to by the Navy?

While the moniker TOPGUN doesn't actually stand for anything as an acronym, the program does have a title. It goes by the name Strike Fighter Tactics Instructor Program


How many hours are spent in the classroom and not flying in the TOPGUN program?

Not all of the TOPGUN program is about flying. Over 100 hours are spent in the classroom as opposed to about 25 in the air.


Which fighter jets are used in the Fighter Weapons School?

The McDonnell Douglas F/A-18 has two turbocharged engines. It's capable as a fighter and an attack platform. It has a max speed of mach 1.7 and is so versatile that it's used by both the Navy and the Marine Corps.


Where was the original TOPGUN program located?

TOPGUN's original location was at the Miramar Naval Base in San Diego, CA. It was known as Fightertown, USA. Miramar is now home to the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing, as well as more than 12,200 Marines, sailors and civilians.


Following the implementation of TOPGUN, the U.S increased its aerial combat kill ratio from 2:1 to what?

The birth of the TOPGUN program resulted from the U.S. military's abysmal kill ratio during the beginning of the Vietnam War. The program analyzed the strengths and weaknesses of the MiG and the F-4 and created a new fighting style that helped increase the U.S. kill ratio to 12 Vietnamese MiGs gunned down for every 1 American plane.


What is nickname used for engaging in close air-to-air combat with an enemy aircraft?

A dogfight is an aerial battle between fighter aircraft at close range. It relies on a pilot's skill to maneuver the airplane in order to place it in a prime location for taking advantage of the enemy aircraft.


What was the original aircraft used in the TOPGUN program?

The original plane used in the TOPGUN program was the F-4 Phantom. Experienced pilots determined that while the F-4 wasn't as agile as the Soviet MiG, it was able to climb faster. This led to a change in fighting style.


What was the F4 Phantom originally designed to do?

The F-4 Phantom was originally designed as a long-range bomber and only carried air-to-air missiles. However, after suffering serious losses to Soviet-built MiG fighters they began to carry 20-millimeter cannons for more effective close-range dogfighting.


What is the top flight speed of an F-4 Phantom?

In 1961, an F-4 set the world speed record at 1,604 mph (2581 kph) on a 15-mile circuit. It routinely travels at twice the speed of sound on its missions.


The crew of the F-4 consists of a pilot and who else?

Fighting in an F-4 Phantom was a team effort. That team consisted of a pilot up front and a radar intercept officer (RIO) behind. The RIO's tasks include monitoring weapon status, handling radio and navigation equipment, searching for enemies and mission organization.


What was the name of the long-range missile installed in the F-4 fighter jet?

The Sparrow is a radar-guided air-to-air missile. It's propelled by a rocket motor and has a range of 30 nautical miles.


What was the name of the report filed during the Vietnam War that led to the formation of the TOPGUN program?

The Ault Report, also known as the Air-to-Air Missile System Capability Review, was created by Capt. Frank Ault. After a disappointing start to the air-combat missions during Vietnam, Ault wrote a report listing all of his recommendations for increasing performance, the most pivotal being the start of the TOPGUN program.


What was the name of the Russian-built fighter jet used by the North Vietnamese?

The Vietnamese used both the Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-17 and MiG-21. Both are supersonic jets designed by the Soviets as air-to-air combat fighters and interceptors.


What was the name of the maneuver that helped the F-4 Phantom take advantage of the MiG’s weakness?

Navy pilots learned that the F-4 wasn't being out-gunned. It was being out-maneuvered. They had to find the MiG's weak areas. They discovered that while they couldn't keep up with most maneuvers, the F-4 could climb faster. TOPGUN instructors taught their pilots to climb to the top of the imaginary egg and then dive down and under the MiG's blind spot.


Where was the MiG’s blind spot?

The U.S. Navy acquired some MiGs in order to seek out its weak areas. One startling find they made was that the MiG had a blind spot under its nose. This discovery allowed the Navy to develop tactics to overtake the enemy aircraft.


Which Naval officer was tapped with the responsibility of creating the TOPGUN school?

VF-121 Lt. Cmdr. Dan “Yank” Pedersen was given the task of creating the TOPGUN school. Eight men (four pilots and four Radar Intercept Officers), along with Pedersen, gathered intelligence and aircraft, and devised an operating procedure that endures to this day.


What’s the fine for quoting the movie “Top Gun” while attending or teaching at the actual TOPGUN Flight School?

While the movie "Top Gun" was great advertisement for the military program, the heads of the school have had it with the movie's quotes. Every time an instructor says a line from the movie, he or she is charged $5.


Who is the first female to graduate from the TOPGUN school?

Becky Calder entered the Naval Academy in 1994. The then-deputy commandant of midshipmen Charles Bolden suggested that she would make a great fighter pilot. The Department of Defense had just amended its policy prohibiting women from serving in combat positions in 1993.


Out of which war was the TOPGUN Academy created?

The U.S. military struggled to combat with the Vietnamese MiG fighter pilots. The F-4 was designed for long-range missiles, but the Vietnamese continuously engaged U.S. fighter pilots in up-close dogfights, forcing the Navy to change the way it trained its pilots.


How long is the current TOPGUN program?

The TOPGUN program is currently 9 weeks long. During this time teachers and students spend more than 100 hours in the classroom and 25 hours in the air engaging in combat missions against other aircraft.


Where is the current TOPGUN location?

Naval Air Station Fallon, or NAS Fallon, is the Navy’s premier tactical air warfare training center. It is home to the Fighting Saints of VFC-13, the Desert Outlaws of Strike Fighter Wing Pacific and the Naval Strike Air Warfare Center (which includes the TOPGUN program).


The original home of TOPGUN, Miramar Naval Base, had what nickname?

The Navy occupied Miramar for over 50 years training fighter pilots and instructors. A fitting name for a town that housed F-14 squadrons and the TOPGUN program.


Navy fighter pilots are often staged on aircraft carriers. How long is the average runway length on an aircraft carrier?

The average length of the runway on an aircraft carrier is 300 feet. In order to take off on such a short runway, four steam-powered catapults are used to thrust a 48,000-pound aircraft from zero to 165 miles per hour in two seconds. Upon landing, the pilot snags a cable to arrest its forward movement.


How old was the youngest TOPGUN graduate?

Kaiden Lambert was a 7-year-old boy from Neenah, Wis., who came to the Naval Strike and Air Warfare Center (NSAWC) as a part of the Make a Wish foundation. He was awarded with an honorary graduation from TOPGUN.


What is the nickname given to the first graduating class of the TOPGUN program?

Aptly named since these nine graduates flew the F-4 Phantom, the first graduates of the TOPGUN program were a proven success. They went back to their squadrons upon graduation and shared the newfound knowledge with fellow pilots.


How many areas did the Ault Report identify as needing improvement with regard to aerial combat?

The Ault Report identified 242 areas as needing improvement. The most important was the recommendation to retrain pilots in a way that would allow them to be successful fighting against MiG pilots. This recommendation led to the formation of the TOPGUN program.


Which aircraft does the Navy TOPGUN program have in common with its Air Force counterpart?

The F-35 Lightning II is the next generation fighter to support the US Navy, Air Force and the Marine Corps. It is designed to perform ground-attack and air-superiority missions.


Every good lead pilot needs backup. What's the name given to the secondary plane on a sortie mission?

The wingman is a pilot who supports another in a potentially dangerous flying environment. The wingman was originally the pilot flying beside and slightly behind the lead plane, however with the changes made to flying formations, the wingman now takes other positions.


Every fighter pilot receives a nickname. What is this better known as?

Fighter pilot call signs are given at naming ceremonies. They are usually based on how the pilot performs certain maneuvers, a play on the pilot's name, the pilot's personality or just the whims of the other pilots. Usually, once a pilot flies with a call sign in combat they keep it for their career.


How many G-Forces do fighter pilots need to endure in training?

A person sitting or standing experiences 1 G-Force. At 9 G-Forces (the maximum modern fighters experience in training), a 200-pound person feels as though they weigh 1,800 pounds. These extreme forces can cause “G-induced Loss of Consciousness,” or G-LOC.


How big was the first TOPGUN graduating class?

These 9 pilots were tasked with going back to their units and teaching the techniques they learned to their fellow pilots. Lt. Jerome Eugene Beaulier and Lt. Stephen John Barkley made the first kill following the TOPGUN program.


Who was the top ace American airman in the Vietnam War, with 6 credited MiG kills?

Charles B. DeBellevue had a total of six kills and was one of only five American aviators to achieve ace status in Vietnam. DeBellevue flew in a F-4 Phantom II.


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