Hits and misses from Top Gun: Maverick

Let’s clear up a few things right off the bat.

First off, there is no Top Gun trophy. Secondly, the United States Navy Fighter Weapons School is known as TOPGUN – one word, not two.

Third, the engagements depicted in the 1986 blockbuster – in which F-14 Tomcats tangled with adversary A-4 Skyhawks – typically would happen at considerable distances. Still within visual range, but they wouldn’t look like the jets were flying in close formation during a national day parade.

Rear Admiral ‘Pete’ Pettigrew (the technical advisor on the first movie), had told director Tony Scott and producers Jerry Bruckheimer and Don Simpson that the training sequences didn’t look realistic because the jets were too close to one another.

“Well, Mom and Pop from Oklahoma wouldn’t know,” was the typical reply from the Hollywood execs, according to Pettigrew (callsign ‘Viper’ – for real).

But that didn’t stop Top Gun from becoming a cultural icon and a runaway hit. When it came out, I thought it was the best thing since sliced bread.

The aerial photography was groundbreaking, the pace, unrelenting. The air-to-air dialogue was more visceral and realistic, and gave birth to a slew of quotable lines. What was refreshing was there was no superfluous dialogue to explain what ‘RIO’, ‘bogey’, or ‘closure’ meant. They trusted that audiences would somehow figure it out.

But still, these artistic licences and minor ‘inaccuracies’ rankled some, and so, it was with some trepidation that I walked into the IMAX theatre in Bandar Utama, Selangor last Sunday to catch Top Gun: Maverick. And yes, I kept reminding myself that this was not a documentary.

Here’s a rundown of some of the hits and misses in Top Gun: Maverick – from an avgeek’s perspective.

They corrected the typo in the TOPGUN preamble. The first one had read ‘… to insure that the handful of men… ’. It now reads ‘… to ensure…’.

Actual HUD (head-up display) symbology on the Super Hornet was used. In the first movie, it was a computer-generated graphics that was overlaid on the target aircraft. Still no Sidewinder ‘growl’. Sad.

The aerial sequences, in fighter pilot vernacular, are Sierra Hotel (Google it). Some of the shots, like the decoy flares being ejected during the SAM scene, and the vapes billowing from the leading-edge root extensions (LERX) of four Super Hornets transiting low and fast over Indian country, were simply breathtaking.

The crews’ radio callouts, like “Fight’s on!”, “Tally two”, “Smoke in the air!”, and the ATFLIR targeting pod lasing code of “1688” were right on the money. But some of the on-ground dialogue were hokey, at times cringey.

The air-to-air dialogue wasn’t as compelling as the first. In Top Gun, Commander David Baranek, callsign ‘Bio’, contributed extensively to the air-to-air dialogue, lending an air of gritty realism to the dogfighting scenes. When you hear Goose telling Maverick to “Watch the mountains!”, that came from ‘Bio’.

The Northrop Grumman E-2D Hawkeye airborne early warning and control aircraft that coordinated the strike package and provided an ‘air picture’ added a nice touch of realism.

The low-level tactics – from ‘pops’ to 100ft ingress, Hornet hi-pops, full-burner, 7½ G climbs, inverted pulls while slewing an IR sensor pod in the dive, loosing (CORRECT) an LGB (laser-guided bomb) in a high-G pull-off and egressing – are all part of a naval aviator’s bag of tricks, and were captured beautifully in the film.

The flight helmet graphics were a letdown. In the movie, the pilots and weapons systems officers (WSOs or ‘Whizzos’) came from active US Navy squadrons like VFA-41 ‘The Black Aces’, VFA-151 ‘Vigilantes’ and VFA-143 ‘The World Famous Pukin’ Dogs’. The actual squadron graphics on some of these helmets are quite stunning. The movie’s prop department thought they could do better. Sadly, they fell short off the mark.

Helmet gripe No. 2 – No JHMCS (Joint Helmet Mounted Cueing System). This helmet feeds the tactical and targeting information directly onto the wearer’s visor – allowing him to have eyes on the target at all times, and making the acquisition, tracking and prosecution of the target way easier. Former VFA-41 skipper Commander Doug Fravour, callsign ‘Sex’, once described it as “Wearing a Mercedes on your head”.

Helmet gripe No. 3 – Clear visors on the HGU-55/68 helmets. During daytime ops, pilots prefer dark tinted (or ‘smoked’) visors. Some use the yellow, hi-contrast lenses. These days, they prefer the Iridium 4.0 reflective visors – available in Gold, Ruby, Sapphire, Silver and Emerald at US$157.19 (excluding shipping) a pop. The only reason the producers opted for clear visors is because you wouldn’t be able to see Tom Cruise’s squinty eyes, otherwise.

Mission planning requires a huge suspension of disbelief. The Navy has a fleet of electronic attack squadrons flying the E/A-18G Growler that can carry up to five AN/ALQ-99 jammer pods, plus two AN/ALQ-218 detection pods on the wingtips. In a real-world scenario, the Growlers would have been sent up to jam the surface-to-air missile (SAM) radars, clearing a path for Maverick and his team. But that would have been too easy, and there would have been no SAM furball. Also, they could have used the F-35 or B-2 to drop a ‘bunker buster’ on the target. But that would have turned Top Gun: Maverick into an air force movie.

Maverick is a Captain, with the rank of O-6 in the Navy. Yet he can afford to own a North American P-51K Mustang. Right.

Maverick ‘mansplains’. Imagine telling TOPGUN graduates – typically with more than 1,500 fast jet hours already under their belts – the effects of high Gs on the human body, and on the airframe. Like they had just walked into basic flight training.

All this doesn’t detract from the fact that this is a fantastic movie. It pays homage to, and complements the first one beautifully. If you are planning to catch it though, do yourself a favour and watch it on IMAX. Just remember, it’s not a documentary.

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