The United States Navy Strike Fighter Tactics Instructor program (SFTI program), more popularly known as Top Gun (stylized as TOPGUN), is an American military program that teaches fighter and strike tactics and techniques to selected naval aviators and naval flight officers, who return to their operating units as surrogate instructors.
The program began as the United States Navy Fighter Weapons School, established on 3 March 1969, at the former Naval Air Station Miramar in San Diego, California. In 1996, the school was merged into the Naval Strike and Air Warfare Center at Naval Air Station Fallon, Nevada.
An earlier U.S. Navy air-to-air combat training program, the U.S. Navy Fleet Air Gunnery Units, or FAGU, had provided air combat training for Naval Aviators from the early 1950s until 1960. In June 1956, Fleet Air Gunnery Unit Pacific held Navy Fleet Air Gunnery Meet at NAAS El Centro. In April 1957, Naval Air Weapons Meet 1957 was held at NAAS El Centro. In April 1958, Naval Air Weapons Meet was held at NAAS El Centro. From 30 November to 4 December 1959, the last Naval Air Weapons Meet was held at MCAAS Yuma. Signage called it "Top Gun". Fleet Air Gunnery Unit Pacific and Marine Training Groups were closed, as an economy, and a doctrinal shift, brought on by advances in missile, radar, and fire control technology, contributing to the belief that the era of the classic dogfight was over, leading to their disestablishment and a serious decline in U.S air-to-air combat proficiency that became apparent during the Vietnam War. The pilots who were part of the initial cadre of instructors at Top Gun had experience as students from FAGU.
In 1968, Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) Admiral Thomas Hinman Moorer ordered Captain Frank Ault to research the failings of the U.S. air-to-air missiles used in combat in the skies over North Vietnam. Operation Rolling Thunder, which lasted from 2 March 1965 to 1 November 1968, ultimately saw almost 1,000 U.S. aircraft losses in about one million sorties. Rolling Thunder became the Rorschach test for the Navy and Air Force, which drew nearly opposite conclusions.
The United States Navy Fighter Weapons School was established on 3 March 1969, at Naval Air Station Miramar, California. Placed under the control of the VF-121 "Pacemakers," an F-4 Phantom–equipped Replacement Air Group (RAG) unit, the new school received relatively scant funding and resources. Its staff consisted of eight F-4 Phantom II instructors from VF-121 and one intelligence officer hand-picked by the school's first officer-in-charge, Lieutenant Commander Dan Pedersen, USN. Together, F-4 aviators Darrell Gary, Mel Holmes, Jim Laing, John Nash, Jim Ruliffson, Jerry Sawatzky, J. C. Smith, Steve Smith, as well as Wayne Hildebrand, a naval intelligence officer, built the Naval Fighter Weapons School syllabus from scratch. To support their operations, they borrowed aircraft from its parent unit and other Miramar-based units, such as composite squadron VC-7 and Fighter Squadron VF-126. The school's first headquarters at Miramar was in a stolen modular trailer.
According to the 1973 command history of the Navy Fighter Weapons School, the unit's purpose was to "train fighter air crews at the graduate level in all aspects of fighter weapons systems including tactics, techniques, procedures and doctrine. It serves to build a nucleus of eminently knowledgeable fighter crews to construct, guide, and enhance weapons training cycles and subsequent aircrew performance. This select group acts as the F-4 community’s most operationally orientated weapons specialists. Top Gun's efforts are dedicated to the Navy’s professional fighter crews, past, present and future."
Highly qualified instructors were an essential element of Top Gun's success. Mediocre instructors are unable to hold the attention of talented students. Top Gun instructors were knowledgeable fighter tacticians assigned to one or more specific fields of expertise, such as a particular weapon, threat, or tactic. Every instructor was required to become an expert in effective training techniques. All lectures were given without notes after being screened by a notorious "murder board" of evaluators who would point out ambiguities or flawed concepts in the draft presentation. The curriculum was in a constant state of flux based upon class critiques and integration of developing tactics to use new systems to combat emerging threats. Instructors often spent their first year on the staff learning to be an effective part of the training environment.
Top Gun initially operated the Douglas A-4 Skyhawk and borrowed USAF Northrop T-38 Talons to simulate the flying characteristics of the MiG-17 and MiG-21, respectively. The school also used Marine-crewed Grumman A-6 Intruders and USAF Convair F-106 Delta Dart aircraft when available. Later adversary aircraft included the IAI Kfir and General Dynamics F-16 Fighting Falcon; and the T-38 was replaced by the Northrop F-5E and F-5F Tiger II.
In addition to maneuvering skill, knowledge of weapons systems was recognized as important. Weapons system knowledge was determined as a common thread among the 4 percent of World War II pilots who accounted for 40 percent of the enemy aircraft destroyed. The complexity of modern weapons systems requires careful study to achieve design potential.
The British writer Rowland White claimed that the early school was influenced by a group of a dozen flying instructors from the British Fleet Air Arm who were assigned to Miramar as exchange pilots and served as instructors in VF-121. A British newspaper, The Daily Telegraph, declared in a 2009 headline, "American Top Gun Fighter Pilot Academy Set Up by British." However, the British naval pilots mentioned in the article confirmed that the claim was false and that they had no role in creating the curriculum and no access to the classified programs that the Top Gun instructors participated in to refine it.
During the halt in the bombing campaign against North Vietnam (in force from 1968 until the early 1970s), Top Gun established itself as a center of excellence in fighter doctrine, tactics, and training. By the time aerial activity over the North resumed, most Navy squadrons had a Top Gun graduate. According to the USN, the results were dramatic. The Navy kill-to-loss ratio against the North Vietnamese Air Force (NVAF) MiGs soared from 2.42:1 to 12.5:1, while the Air Force, which had not implemented a similar training program, actually had its kill ratio worsen for a time after the resumption of bombing, according to Benjamin Lambeth's The Transformation of American Airpower. On 28 March 1970, Lieutenant Jerry Beaulier, a graduate of Top Gun's first class, scored the first kill of a North Vietnamese MiG since September 1968.
In 1996, the transfer of NAS Miramar to the Marine Corps was coupled with the incorporation of Top Gun into the Naval Strike and Air Warfare Center (NSAWC) at NAS Fallon, Nevada. In 2016, NSAWC was rebranded as the Naval Aviation Warfighting Development Center (NAWDC), where Top Gun remains a department alongside graduate-level Weapons Schools for other Naval Aviation platforms.
In 2011, the Top Gun program was inducted into the International Air & Space Hall of Fame at the San Diego Air & Space Museum.
The school was made famous by the 1986 film Top Gun and its sequel Top Gun: Maverick, starring Tom Cruise. Referencing Top Gun while at the school incurs an immediate $5 cash fine, as it is seen as conflicting with the institute's atmosphere of professionalism.
[...] on March 1, 1943, the area near Miramar Naval Air Station was commissioned the Marine Corps Air Base, Kearney Mesa, San Diego.
Because Fleet Air Gunnery Unit Pacific is being moved before July 1 to MCAAS YUMA , the annual Naval Air Weapons meet will be held this year in October at ...
Later, after a tour or so in squadrons, and if the pilots were well qualified, they could receive orders to attend FAGUPAC (Fleet Air Gunnery Unit, Pacific). This Navy training unit, then located at NAS, El Centro, Calif. (later at MCAF, Yuma, Ariz.), had the sole mission of training experienced pilots to become weapons delivery experts...By now you will have noticed that MTG and FAGU have been referred to in the past tense. Unfortunately, they are no longer around...The reason the MTGs (Marine Training Groups) are not around today is economy. After the Korean war the large influx of pilots into the Marine Corps slowed. (Major, United States Marine Corps)