Top Gun: An American Story

This is a powerful insider’s account of an important and uniquely American institution, Top Gun, the U.S. Navy Fighter Weapons School. The author, Captain Dan Pedersen (USN) was the first officer in charge of Top Gun, establishing it with his hand selected eight naval aviators and naval flight officers—the “Bros.”

What makes this an American story is that characteristic of so many successful American innovations, Top Gun was created by personal initiative and vision, not a government, bureaucratic program. It was established to meet a need: better air combat training for naval aviators before they began flying combat over North Vietnam. This would give them the skills to deal with enemy fighters, and save their lives.

In the war’s early years U.S. fighter pilots were barely breaking even against the North Vietnamese, managing an overall kill ratio of about 2.5 to 1. Air combat maneuvering (ACM) or dogfighting, had been forbidden training in the years leading up to Vietnam. Military leaders saw no need for it. It was dangerous, unsafe, and expensive. Slamming on a high G load wore out airframes. Mild maneuvering was all that was required. The newest fighter, the F-4 Phantom, was built as a long-range interceptor and the radar-guided Sparrow missile (AIM-7) was its primary weapon. It was not equipped with a gun, there was no need; the days of the dogfight were over.

The initial Top Gun, established by Pedersen and the Bros in March 1969, was only a detachment, part of VF-121 the Navy squadron that taught new pilots how to fly the F-4. They operated out of a small trailer on the Miramar base. Per the day’s orthodoxy VF-121’s curriculum did not include dogfighting. Pedersen and his Bros wanted to change that and turn the F-4 and its missiles, the Sparrow and Sidewinder, into potent and deadly weapons in an ACM environment. They intensely studied the flight envelopes of aircraft and missiles to come up with a training curriculum. That was the intellectual foundation of Top Gun.While aerodynamics and physics undergird the curriculum, Top Gun’s philosophy was pilot-focused. The Bros believed that the “better pilot will always win.” A core tactic was the ‘Egg’ maneuver – using the vertical, zoom climbing the Phantom getting above the MiG, converting airspeed to altitude. This combined with the standard Navy ‘Loose Deuce’ tactic was a winning combination. As the enemy turned with the wingman, the other Phantom could zoom above and at the top of the ‘egg,’ rudder roll down and into the fight in position for a shot at the MiG. The key ingredient was pilot skill, not technology or rank. Top Gun tactics minimized the standard leader/wingman relationship. Whoever had the advantage in a fight took the lead, even if he was the junior pilot. This inbred aggressiveness, initiative, and versatility, American values.

Pedersen highlights the difference between the Top Gun philosophy of dogfighting and that of the U.S. Air Force. The Air Force’s ‘Fluid Four’ formation was hierarchical and structured, and hung a lot on aircraft performance, not pilot skill. The Air Force’s Major John Boyd was the spokesman for this approach to air warfare. According to Pedersen, Boyd asserted that Phantoms should not fight MiGs because a MiG will always outperform a Phantom throughout the flight envelope. Top Gun’s success is made clear in the remarkable improvement in the kill ratio of Phantoms over MiGs once Top Gun students entered the war.[i]

Pedersen’s work is fast-paced and engaging. It is much more than a discussion of Top Gun. Pedersen’s goal in writings this book is to tell of the naval aviation community, dispel Hollywood mythology, and describe how Top Gun rescued the great legacy of naval fighter aviation from the technology worshipping whiz kids at the Pentagon.

Pederson leverages his own career to put flesh on the story of naval aviation from the 1950s into the 1980s.  Pedersen enlisted in the Navy Reserves in 1954.  He went from an enlisted sailor in the reserves to the command of an aircraft carrier. He started off flying F4D Skyrays, then flew F3H Demons, then the F-  Phantom. He had four carrier cruises, one of which was in Vietnam. He accumulated 6,000 flight hours in 39 different type aircraft and 1,000 carrier landings. Pedersen is much more than a fighter pilot who started Top Gun. He was a leader, a necessary quality to lead in the establishment of an institution like Top Gun. He commanded a squadron, VF-143, an air wing, an oiler, the USS Wichita (AOR-1), and finally the USS Ranger (CV-61). These command tours were not easy. The Vietnam wars mismanagement and ultimate loss, had cast a pallor over the military. This was manifested in racial violence, drugs, and poor discipline. Captain Pedersen also speaks of long-suffering families. They endured the absence of their husband/father on long and frequent deployments, and the hazards of carrier operations and Vietnam combat.

There are hidden gems in the book:  the Top Gun and Israeli Air Force connection, an assessment of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, behind the scenes of the movie Top Gun; and his take on the move of the real Top Gun out of Miramar to Fallon, Nevada.

This is a powerfully insightful look at the unique world of naval fighter aviation and Top Gun from the years when peace reigned in the late 1950s through the 1980s. It is a first-person account and personal. Pedersen knows personally of the sacrifices in one’s personal life that are too often the fallout from a career in naval aviation.

It is an easy straight-forward read, action-filled and authentic. Pedersen is an operator, not an academic, although his story will stand up to academic scrutiny. For the straight scoop on these topics, get the book, read it and consider yourself enlightened.             

[i] One writer notes that the Navy’s kill ratio improved from slightly over 2 to I (two MiGs for every U.S. fighter) to 11.5 to 1 in 1972 while the USAF’s stayed essentially the same at a little better than 2 to 1.  Major Michael W. Ford,  “Air to Air Combat Effectiveness of Single-Role and Multi-Role Fighter Forces,” Thesis, U.S. Army Command and General Staff, Ft. Leavenworth, KS, 1994,  59. 

Top Gun: An American Story 
By Dan Pedersen, Hachette Books, New York, NY, (2019).

Reviewed by Fred H. Allison, U.S. Marine Corps History Division.
Click here to buy Top Gun: An American Story now!

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  1. Reply

    A key component of the success of the Top Gun training regime is, and has been, the training ranges and instrumentation that has undergirded what the aircrews accomplish in the air.
    At various times since its inception, this instrumentation has seen growth from a 4 aircraft – 2 missile simulation system, through 8 aircraft -4/8 simulations, to 36 aircraft – 50 simulations + A/G & G/A & EW to 100 aircraft – 100 simulation + A/G & G/A & EW (Red Flag).
    From 1976 – 2009 I was privileged to have had hands on software contributions in each of these generations, and have recently authored a short history of these remarkable systems as I recall from my experience and observations.
    I offer my history here as a supplement to Capt. Pedersen’s fine account of Top Gun:

  2. Reply

    NAS Cecil Field in Jacksonville Florida trained their pilots on various ranges on the east coast during the 90’s. Lockheed Martin was the co. that providing that service for the navy. We could track the events on live time for the navy pilots as they went up against A 4 Skyhawks w/ instructor pilots as the adversary and flying against the Navy and Marine trainees In FA 18 Hornets. Tracking pods were hung under the wings for tracking purposes during each event. We facilitated the events for pilots to review when they returned to base. I was a small segment of this family of technicians. This came to an end in July of 99 when our president at the time signed off on military base closures which Cecil Field was one of. We accomplished our task for the Navy though. Tom Cruise did not depict the true sense of events in the movie, “Top Gun.” Thank you Capt Pedersen in this successful achievement.

  3. Tom Wayne


    Capt. Dan Pedersen,

    We met at NAF El Centro’s open house airshow last March, standing in front of a C-47 from the Palm Springs Air Museum. You were gracious about spending a few minutes with me and answering my question about our USS Ranger liberty port call at Vancouver, BC. Thanks!

    You informed me that you had a book coming out titled “Topgun, An American Story”. You asked me to read it and reply with my opinion. I did not have your contact information, so I’m using this venue with the terrific folks at the Naval Historical Foundation to make good on my promise. I hope this comment finds its way to your e-files.

    “Timing is everything.” You hit the target with this book scoring a 50-year anniversary grand slam. Thanks for describing our “shared residence” in the “margin” with the general public. They need to know.

    Warm regards,
    CDR Tom “Duke” Wayne, USNR-Retired
    Former VF-1 RIO
    Topgun class 81-6
    4812 Lucy Lane
    Langley, WA 98260

    P.S., just in case no-one has pointed this out to you, check page 223, paragraph 2, sentence 2. Someone honked up the description of the F-14’s wing sweep geometry. Perhaps you can get it corrected for the next edition.
    Also, I’m looking forward to your next book. You have a lot more stories to share.

  4. Reply

    Captain Dan Patterson was my first captain on board the USS Ranger CV 61. Boy the knights in Subic Bay. I am a quartermaster a navigator and worked with him on the navigation bridge. Is at Sea cabin was right behind the bridge. He would come out from time to time and asked me when I was going to knock out my opponent in my next bout. There was a lot of betting going on. Man those were the good old days

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