The Navy’s Strike Fighter Tactics Instructor Course — better known as TOPGUN — has a reputation for producing the best fighter pilots in the world.
The school has been around since 1969 and was made famous by the classic 1986 film of the same name.
Its reputation now precedes it, but TOPGUN’s origin was much more humble. Initially based out of a trailer in the parking lot of what was then Naval Air Station Miramar, Calif., the school became necessary to better train Navy fighter pilots during Vietnam.
“During the Vietnam War, Navy fighter pilots and aircrew were dying at an alarming rate,” explained Navy Cmdr. Dustin Peverill, a 20-year Navy veteran and two-time TOPGUN instructor. “The Navy was losing a lot of airplanes and, more importantly, a lot of aircrew.”
Despite having the technological edge, the Navy was experiencing unacceptable combat losses in Vietnam. In response, the service commissioned an investigation and tasked Navy Capt. Frank Ault to lead the effort. The resulting report, known as the Ault Report, highlighted many performance deficiencies and their root causes, including the need for an advanced course to teach fighter tactics. The result was the Navy Fighter Weapons School, established at Miramar in 1969.
Nicknamed TOPGUN, the school’s mission was — and still is — to train aircrew in all aspects of aerial combat to be carried out with the utmost professionalism. In its early days, its students were trained over the course of four weeks on F-4 Phantom II aircraft to get better at one-on-one aerial combat, also known as dogfighting.
“When TOPGUN graduates began to go back to the fleet in the early 1970s and the air war started back up, the Navy’s kill ratio jumped. TOPGUN worked,” Peverill said. “It validated that the training, the subject-matter expertise and, most importantly, the professionalism that it produced worked in combat and it produced results.”
Training the trainers
TOPGUN produces graduate-level fighter pilots, as well as adversary instructors and air-intercept controllers. After students pass the class, most go back to the fleet’s weapons schools. Some are invited back to become the elite instructors who carry on the school’s tradition of excellence.
“We can’t be everywhere at once, so the idea is that we teach the students here, and they move on and teach what we’ve taught them to the rest of the fleet,” explained Navy Lt. Joe Anderson, a TOPGUN instructor.
“Their job is to make sure that, top to bottom — CO all the way down to the brand new aircrew — are trained in the latest tactics developed by TOPGUN,” Peverill said. “The payback that the fleet gets from a TOPGUN graduate isn’t just an individual investment, it’s a community investment — a Navy investment.”
TOPGUN was one of the first centers for excellence in the Defense Department. Its longstanding reputation for producing results has made it a model for other military units, even within the Navy.
“Every community in naval aviation has its own weapons school, and they’re based on the same principles as TOPGUN,” Peverill said. “They haven’t been around for 52 years, but they’re still working toward that same level of excellence that TOPGUN demands.”
When TOPGUN moved to Naval Air Station Fallon, Nev., in 1996, the Navy integrated it into the newly created Naval Strike and Air Warfare Center. Now known as the Naval Aviation Warfighting Development Center, the command includes TOPGUN, as well as the Carrier Airborne Early Warning Weapons School and the Navy Rotary Wing Weapons School.