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Ingrained evolution: How TOPGUN keeps its edge

Technology has changed a lot since “Top Gun” the movie introduced the Navy’s elite fighter weapons school to the world in 1986.

Officially called the Strike Fighter Tactics Instructor Course, the real TOPGUN was first established in 1969 to better prepare pilots for combat. It’s adapted to meet the needs of the times since then, but it was always built to handle changes through its instructors.

Navy Lt. Matt Buss, an instructor at the U.S. Navy Strike Fighter Tactics Instructor program known as TOPGUN, demonstrates a flight plan during a briefing at Naval Air Station Fallon in Fallon, Nev., May 11, 2021. (DOD photograph by EJ Hersom)

Unlike the movie, which largely focuses on the students, I’ve learned that the intrigue of TOPGUN isn’t so much about the students — it’s about the instructors who also train relentlessly, study hard and exude professionalism so the Navy can keep its edge.

“A standard day for a TOPGUN instructor is anywhere from 12-16 hours. You’re flying an airplane, you’re studying, you’re teaching, and you’re answering emails from around the fleet,” explained Cmdr. Dustin Peverill, a two-time TOPGUN instructor. “Aviators continually reach back to the schoolhouse to ask questions. Our job is to make sure the fleet is knowledgeable.”

How TOPGUN adapts

When TOPGUN was founded, Navy fighter aircrew flew F-4 Phantom IIs and F-8 Crusaders. The F-14 Tomcat was the premiere fighter used in the 1980s when the “Top Gun” movie was released. Nowadays, that honor goes to the F/A-18 Hornet and F/A-18 Super Hornet, while the F-35 Lightning II has also been incorporated.

As the technology in the newer jets grew more complicated, so, too, did the knowledge required to understand it. That’s why, in the late 2000s, the classes expanded from nine weeks to 13.

Navy Lt. Cmdr. Jimmy Gibbons, an instructor for the U.S. Navy Strike Fighter Tactics Instructor program known as TOPGUN, stages giving a class for a video production at Naval Air Station Fallon in Fallon, Nev., May 13, 2021. (DOD photograph by EJ Hersom)

And it’s not just the students who are studying — it’s the instructors, too.

“Since I was a student almost three years ago, there have been several changes. Software is constantly updated, and new weapons are implemented,” explained Navy Lt. Joe Anderson, a TOPGUN instructor. “Going from the F-18 to the F-35 was a jump in technology in some ways because it’s a dramatic increase, and it does take a lot to keep up with the rapid pace.”

To stay on top of that changing information, each instructor is tasked with becoming an expert in one specific subject.

“TOPGUN instructors have a level of knowledge that’s equivalent to the engineers that build the airplanes and build the weapons system,” Peverill said.

The process

Staff members are handed a specific subject matter — they don’t get to pick it — and what they’re handed mostly depends on timing. As one instructor prepares to rotate out of TOPGUN, a new staff member will overlap his or her tenure, taking over as that subject-matter expert.

A pilot taxis in a fighter jet at Naval Air Station Fallon in Fallon, Nev., May 12, 2021. (DOD photograph by EJ Hersom)

“That way, that institutional knowledge isn’t lost, and there’s a little bit of turnover,” Anderson explained. “[The current instructor] can tell their lessons-learned to the new staff member about their topic, as well as places to go or points of contact if they have questions for engineers, for example.”

The new staff member will research and meet with experts to learn every detail about their subject.

“It’s like studying for finals every day, 12 hours a day, trying to get as smart as you can on that topic,” said Navy Lt. Cmdr. Jimmy Gibbons, TOPGUN training officer.

New staff members’ thoughts and ideas are encouraged to help better develop and execute tactics that will be vital to moving the force forward. Navy Lt. Nikkol Rajkovacz, 29, completed the course in November 2020 and started as a new TOPGUN staff member in February 2021. She was still in the researching phase when we met her.

“It’s a very humbling experience because I’m constantly asked questions, and I feel like I’m still trying to absorb all the material for my particular topic,” she said. “Right now it’s overwhelming, but I’m just believing in the process.”

Navy Lt. Nikkol Rajkovacz, a staff member at the U.S. Navy Strike Fighter Tactics Instructor program known as TOPGUN, provides a video interview at Naval Air Station Fallon in Fallon, Nev., May 11, 2021. (DOD photograph by EJ Hersom)

The ‘Murder Board’

After the research phase, the “murder board” process begins. That’s when the new instructor creates a slide-based lecture from what he or she has learned and practices it on other instructors, who scrutinize every little detail, including the person’s delivery, slide presentation and speaking presence.

“Essentially, what you’ll go through is a set of pre-boards. Generally there are eight,” Gibbons said. “What they’re doing is refining the product so! It has the highest chance of passing.”

The process of fine-tuning the lecture can take up to a year, and it isn’t over until the murder board ó aka, the final lecture — is heard and OK’d by the entire staff. Only then are you cleared to teach that lecture.

“There are 40 staff members in there, each assessing detail on every misstep that you may have, what your slides look like, how many ‘ums’ you say,” Gibbons said. “But what we’re trying to do is deliver a very professional and polished product to the students, as well as to the fleet. Because we give that lecture even outside of that TOPGUN class.”

Several pilots stand around an F-16 Fighting Falcon as another pilot climbs down from the cockpit. The F-16 is used by the U.S. Navy Strike Fighter Tactics Instructor program, also known as TOPGUN, at Naval Air Station Fallon in Fallon, Nev., May 12, 2021. (DOD photograph by EJ Hersom)

Experts in and out of the classroom

That brings us to another aspect of what TOPGUN instructors do: they inform and advise the rest of the Navy, as well as experts in their subject matter industry.

“Part of being a TOPGUN instructor isn’t just flying the airplane; it’s helping to steer acquisitions as well as development of hardware and software, working closely with the engineers and companies that produce the stuff we fly and deploy,” Peverill said.

“We’re responsible for coordinating with outside agencies, in the Navy or Marine Corps, or even across the DOD, to provide our perspectives and be available for them if they have any sort of mission planning they need to execute,” Gibbons said.

This usually comes after a long day of flying, lectures and briefings with students. It’s a lot of effort, but these instructors say the standard of excellence they’re carrying forward is absolutely worth it.

“I got really lucky to stand with a bunch of individuals who are uncommon,” Gibbons said. “The TOPGUN staff is the glory that cannot be replicated anywhere in the DOD. We have a unique situation, and it’s been an honor.”

Navy Lt. Cmdr. Jimmy Gibbons, of the U.S. Navy Strike Fighter Tactics Instructor program known as TOPGUN, climbs into the cockpit of a fighter jet at Naval Air Station Fallon in Fallon, Nev., May 12, 2021. (DOD photograph by EJ Hersom)
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