It's hard to read Dan Pedersen's Topgun and not think of Tom Cruise, rock-'n'-rolling through the California mountains in the similarly named motion picture of 23 years ago. (A sequel is planned for next year.) And about that name: to my surprise, and I suspect to the surprise most of the movie's fans, it seems that "Topgun" is properly spelled as a single word. The author is gracious about the two-word version. "I guess it looks better that way on movie posters," he concedes, "--or on the cover of a book like this one." Indeed it does.
Now in his eighties and living not far from Topgun's former base near San Diego, Capt. Pedersen writes, "I still look up like a kid whenever I hear an airplane passing overhead. Sometimes it'll be a pair of Super Hornets smoking over the desert." The McDonnell Douglas F-18 Hornet was the successor to the twin-tail, twin-jet Grumman F-14 Tomcat fighter featured in the 1986 film. It's the primary fighter at Topgun, which the U.S. Navy prefers to call the Strike Fighter Tactics Instructor program, and which has since moved inland to less pretty surroundings at Fallon, Nevada.
"Watching them thunder past," he says of the Hornets, "... I still get the electrified thrill I got the first time I lit the afterburner ... and blasted off North Island's runway to find myself two minutes later at fifty thousand feet. There is no other rush like it.... It fills you with a sense of rapture that only exists out there on the razor's edge."
Topgun was born in 1968, to lessen the terrible price American airmen were paying as they flew against some of the best-defended targets in the world. The Navy alone lost 644 aviators over North Vietnam, killed, captured (the late Sen. John McCain among them), or simply and awfully vanished, never to be seen again. The job of finding a solution was given to nine junior officers, commanded by then-Lt. Cmdr. Dan Pedersen, six-foot-three and "the Hollywood image of a fighter pilot," as one of his comrades recalls, "seldom appearing with his Ray-Ban sunglasses." (He has since given the shades to his granddaughter, but he wore them all through his Navy career and beyond.)
The Navy had just acquired the McDonnell-Douglas F-4 Phantom, and the Topgun's job was to train up a generation of men who could "fly the Phantom day or night, in any weather, anywhere in the world, from the pitching decks of aircraft carriers" -- and come back alive. To the frustration of the men who would have to fly it in combat, the original Phantom had no guns. It was armed only with Sidewinder and Sparrow missiles that too often missed or malfunctioned, and anyhow were intended for targets 10 miles distant. The "rules of engagement" obliged the Americans to be close enough for a positive identification of the crude but agile (and cannon-equipped) Russian fighters flown by North Vietnam. In a dogfight, the MiG-17's cannon gave it the edge unless the man in the Phantom was very good indeed.
Topgun gave him those skills, and as its graduates percolated through the Navy, its claimed kill ratio went from little more than break-even to almost 12 to 1.
The book is a double biography, of the Topgun program and of Dan Pedersen, who entered the Navy as an enlisted sailor and rose to command the USS Ranger, an angled-deck supercarrier that appeared in the Tom Cruise movie and other Hollywood spectaculars. Between times, he twice went to war, in 1967 against North Vietnam, and in 1973 against the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos. During his second tour, "the Americans were turning out the lights" and abandoning South Vietnam. "The country was poorly led and bitterly divided," he writes of the United States. "A good portion of the public simply hated the military."
American officers change jobs at bewildering speed, and Topgun, with 42 commanders in 50 years, is no exception. For most of that half-century, Capt. Pedersen must tell its story at second hand. But he was on hand when Topgun veterans critiqued the Navy's next-generation fighter, the Grumman F-14 Tomcat. The first question they asked was, "Where's the gun?"
The F-14 was a giant. Going into combat, it weighed 30 tons, about the same as the famed B-17 heavy bomber of the Second World War. Its wings were nearly straight for takeoff and slow flight, then moved back against its body as it accelerated to speeds beyond Mach 2, 1,500 mph at high altitude. It could climb straight up, allowing one member of a "Loose Deuce" flight to engage the enemy while the other executed an "egg," curving up and over, to fall upon the opponent from out of the sun.
With its missiles, the Tomcat could kill at a distance of 100 miles. And it did finally get a gun, a six-barreled cannon that could spit out 675 shells in seven seconds.
Seven seconds? "Dogfights were over in a hurry," the author explains of how he and eight other junior officers crafted the Topgun curriculum. "The critical momoment was the Merge, when two jets passed a few hundred yards apart.... The elapsed time from Merge to kill was thirty to forty-five seconds. Everything you knew had to come together in that vanishing moment of life or death."
Capt. Pedersen still rates the F-14 as a superlative air-superiority fighter. Alas, the U.S. phased it out in 2006, and the only air force equipped today with Tomcats is the Islamic Republic of Iran, which bought them before the 1978 revolution. While the U.S. has let "the new and expensive drive out the affordable and reliable," he writes, "the Iranians are having a laugh, I'm sure, still flying one of the best fighter aircraft ever built to serve the U.S. Navy."
He gracefully concedes that this may just be an old guy talking. It is concessions like this that make his book a wonderful read -- that, and his passionate love of flying. "The catapult fires," he recalls of the sendoff from an aircraft carrier, "and the shuttle rushes in its track toward the bow. I go from zero to 150 miles an hour in two seconds flat.
"God, I miss it."
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