What 'Top Gun' Didn’t Tell You About Naval Aviation

By Danielle DeSimone

When the U.S. Navy purchased its first airplane on May 8, 1911, the world – and aviation – looked very different than it does today. Just a few years later, as the U.S. entered World War I, the Navy only had one operating air station, 54 aircraft and 48 available aviators and students.

Today, U.S. naval aviation is one of the strongest fighting forces in the skies, ensuring freedom of the seas. From fighter jets to reconnaissance helicopters, here’s what “Top Gun” didn’t tell you about naval aviation and Navy and Marine Corps pilots.

1. The U.S. Navy is the second-largest air force in the world.

With approximately 3,700 aircraft, the Navy is the second-largest air force in the world – second only to the U.S. Air Force itself.

Photo credit DVIDS/Spc. 2nd Class Ryan D. McLearnon

The aircraft carrier USS Dwight D. Eisenhower is pictured here underway in the North Arabian Sea in 2013 in support of Operation Enduring Freedom.

2. The Navy was the first to cross the Atlantic Ocean.

Eight years before Charles Lindbergh became famous for flying nonstop from New York to Paris, a crew of U.S. Navy pilots had already made the trek. On May 8, 1919, six pilots in three Curtiss NC-4 flying boats departed from a naval air station in Rockaway Beach, New York, and arrived in Plymouth, England, 24 days later.

Photo credit Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum/Todd Ryan

On May 31, 1919, the U.S. Navy’s NC-4 arrived at Plymouth Harbor, England. It was the first airplane to successfully cross the Atlantic.

Although these pilots’ route included a few stops in Nova Scotia, Newfoundland, the Azores, Portugal and Spain before they reached their final destination, they still went down in history as the first to make the transatlantic journey by air.

3. Naval aviation requires landing aircraft on a moving target.

For the carrier-based pilots of the Navy, landing their aircraft on a nuclear-powered and over 1,000-foot-long ship as it steams at 35 mph is just another day on the job. Arguably, taking off and landing on ships of all sizes while out at sea is what sets naval aviation apart from the U.S. Air Force. For many of these Navy pilots flying fighter jets, helicopters and other aircraft, launching and landing from an aircraft carrier, destroyer or other ship requires a great deal of training, skill and nerve.

Photo credit U.S. Navy/Spc. 3rd Class Cameron Pinske

An aircraft elevator raises two jets aboard the aircraft carrier USS Dwight D. Eisenhower in the Red Sea.

When a fighter jet launches off an aircraft carrier, for example, the plane goes from 0 to 170 mph in approximately 2.5 seconds with the help from a catapult that slings it off the ship. Upon return to the carrier, landing can be even more challenging, as there is very little room for error. Fighter jets must catch the tailhook of their jet on three or four of the arresting gear cable lines, which are stretched across the carrier’s landing strip, in order to successfully and safely land on the aircraft carrier.

U.S. Navy F/A-18 Super Hornets launch and recover aboard the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN 72).

Helicopter pilots and pilots of other Navy aircraft also must execute high-pressure launches and landings off of ships. In fact, Navy helicopters must often land on destroyers or cruisers, which are much smaller than aircraft carriers, with decks that may pitch with the force of the ocean and thus require a great deal of precision.

Photo credit U.S. Navy/Spc. 2nd Class Jacob D. Bergh

A boatswain’s mate airman directs an MH-60S Sea Hawk helicopter onto the amphibious assault ship USS Makin Island in 2021.

Regardless of the type of aircraft they’re operating, naval aviators undergo several hundred hours of intense training in order to fly and safely land while out at sea. They must often execute air operations under extreme circumstances in the middle of the ocean, making these Navy pilots some of the most skilled in the world.

4. Several U.S. presidents were naval aviators.

U.S. Navy Lt. George H.W. Bush received the Distinguished Flying Cross while serving in World War II for his heroic actions during an attack on the Japanese installations on Chi Chi Jima in 1944. | Photo credit Naval History and Heritage Command

During World War II, a young President Gerald Ford was a navigator serving in the Navy as an ensign aboard the USS Monterey, as well as an instructor for the Navy’s aviation cadet training program in North Carolina.

President George H.W. Bush also served in the military during WWII. As a young 18-year-old Navy pilot at the time, Bush was one of the youngest naval aviators to serve during the war. He also was one of the boldest flyers, earning the Distinguished Flying Cross and three Air Medals for some of his missions while flying the TBM Avenger torpedo bomber from the carrier USS San Jacinto.

5. From the Navy to NASA

Even before NASA was established in 1958, the Navy was contributing to atmospheric and high-altitude research that is now a central aspect of NASA’s work. In fact, between 1948-1975, there were specialized Navy squadrons that flew hurricane and typhoon reconnaissance flights to track and obtain information on the storms so as to provide forecasts and warnings to protect the public. Some of these flying missions even involved experiments in trying to weaken and dissipate entire hurricanes by flying directly into the storms and seeding areas with silver iodide, in an attempt to protect coastlines.

Photo credit Naval Aviation News

The VW-4 Super Connie, pictured here in 1955, served not only as an airborne early warning platform on radar barrier patrols, but also as an effective hurricane hunter.

However, with the launch of manned space programs in the 20th century, the Navy’s contributions continued – this time through pilots-turned-astronauts.

American astronaut and aeronautical engineer Neil Armstrong was a naval aviator before he became the first man to ever set food on the moon. Armstrong served in the Navy in the Korean War, during which he flew 78 combat missions. Many Navy pilots have followed in Armstrong’s footsteps and have become astronauts, and today, many current or former Navy pilots are members of NASA crews.

6. Naval aviation has inspired filmmakers for decades – but Top Gun is more than a movie.

From “An Officer and a Gentleman” to “Pearl Harbor,” Hollywood has long been fascinated by the world of naval aviation. Of course, perhaps the most well-known film that features Navy pilots is “Top Gun,” however, TOPGUN, also known as the United States Navy Strike Fighter Tactics Instructor program, is more than a movie – it’s a fighter and strike tactics flight school still attended by naval aviators.

Photo credit DVIDS/Spc. Philip V. Morrill

The F-14B Tomcat, made famous by the 1986 film “Top Gun,” launches off the USS Harry S. Truman in 2004 while conducting operations in Iraq.

For attending trainees, quoting from the popular 90s movie is off-limits. According to Cmdr. Guy “Bus” Snodgrass, a former TOPGUN instructor, trainees who quote the “Top Gun” movie while at TOPGUN are actually fined five dollars for each reference.

“When you get to TOPGUN, because it is such a professional organization and you want to emphasize that you are at the top of your game, that it’s about professionalism, about good leadership, you don’t turn TOPGUN into a joke by referencing the movie,” Snodgrass explained in a 2020 interview.

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