The Real Top Gun: KBR Pilots Separate Fact from Fiction
29 Jul 2022
When the original Top Gun was released in theatres on May 16, 1986, Tim Morey was within a year of graduating from the State University of New York Maritime College. As a Naval Reserve Officers' Training Corps (NROTC) Midshipman, who had flown in an F-18 as part of that program, his future was already laid out.
“I had selected aviation as my warfare specialty,” said Morey, who is now the Sr. Director of KBR’s Armament Test and Evaluation Operating Unit. “After my flight in the FA-18, my sights were set on fighters. Top Gun only strengthened my decision to fly fighters off of carriers, and eventually selected to fly F-14s after flight school.”
Tom Phelan, Director of KBR’s Air Vehicle Operating Unit, was in Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California, at the time, seven hours up the Pacific coast from where the movie was shot in San Diego.
“I was in about eight years at that point and had already done two deployments,” said Phelan. “It was cool to see because nobody really knows how the Navy operates, especially on aircraft carriers. The public doesn’t get to see that type of stuff.”
Roger Cordell, Director of KBR’s Navy Programs Operating Unit, was a sophomore at Louisiana State University, studying for finals at his parents’ house when the film premiered.
“I wanted to fly long before Top Gun came out,” said Cordell, who already attended one section of Officer Candidate School (OCS) with the Marine Corps by that time. “It’s the only movie that I have ever been to see by myself. I went to the very first matinee of the very first show.”
“I came out full of adrenaline. It was validation. It was the closest I had been to being in a tactical jet – and the excitement in the cockpit turns out to be real.”
Much was made about the authenticity of Top Gun when it came out. A celebration of American military exceptionalism mixed with a meditation on grief and loss (and for roughly two minutes, a tangent on the virtues of beach volleyball), the movie was a worldwide success. The film made $357.3 million at the box office propelling Tom Cruise, its young star, to a level of celebrity that he maintains to this day.
Cruise used that star power to shepherd the long-delayed sequel back to the big screens this summer with Top Gun: Maverick. Much like the original film, Maverick took great pains to depict accuracy in the cockpit. According to the MilitaryTimes, “the cast filmed the flight scenes in the seats of real fighter jets. The actors went through an intense training program and an adjustment period before they could begin shooting.”
But were they successful? A team of KBR test pilots, former fighter pilots and trainers weighed in.
Fact: G-LOC and Gravitational Forces on Pilots
For more than 50 years, KBR has operated and maintained the Brooks centrifuge in San Antonio, Texas – a human-rated centrifuge where fast-jet pilots come to train. The centrifuge simulates gravitational forces (G-forces), providing flight environment training for hundreds of U.S. Air Force, U.S. Navy, U.S. Marine Corps and allied fast-jet aircrew annually.
As depicted in Maverick, Gs are measured by multiples of the gravitational pull on earth – 1 G is normal gravity, 2 Gs are twice the normal gravity, etc. If you take a half-full cup of water and spin it sideways, around your body, it’s the centrifugal force that keeps the water in the glass. KBR’s centrifuge uses the same approach. In training, flight crews experience G forces similar to what they experience when flying. While the centrifuge can generate up to 30 Gs, typically the fast-jet community will experience 7 to 9 Gs.
Mac Baker, Director of KBR’s Centrifuge Operations, has been training pilots in the centrifuge since 1985, one year before the original film was released. He knows more than most about the effects of G-forces on the human body.
“Is it possible for you to pull 10 Gs, like in the movie? Oh yeah, most definitely,” said Baker, before clarifying that other factors are in play. “If you just spike to 9 G or 10 G for a second or two, there's not enough time for your body to really react to it. It doesn't really pool the blood away from your head. When you start staying there for more than five seconds, bad things start to happen to your body. If you're not doing something to combat that, then you're gonna lose consciousness.”
That loss of consciousness, known as gravitational-induced loss of consciousness, or G-LOC, is also pictured accurately in the movie, according to Baker. As the gravitational forces start to exert pressure on a pilot’s body, their blood starts to move away from the head. The retinal cells of the eye, which are sensitive to low blood pressure, are the first to be affected. Pilots lose the ability to see color and their vision starts to tunnel.
“Suddenly, I'm under 5.5 G and I’m losing all the color in my vision. It goes gray, you know, black and white essentially,” said Cordell, describing what he’s experienced. “And then the tunnel just starts to collapse. And I lost all vision.”
As time goes on, the lack of blood to the brain triggers G-LOC.
“What we typically see is two stages of G-LOC,” said Baker. “The first is total incapacitation. You're out. And that can last anywhere from two seconds to 30 seconds. Then there's a stage called relative incapacitation, where lights are on but nobody's home. You'll see people wake up from a G-LOC and they'll be looking around trying to figure out where they are, they’re not entirely sure what's going on.”
In Maverick, Lt. Javy “Coyote” Machado experiences G-LOC during a training exercise. That scene gets high accuracy points from the team, particularly with how the other pilots try to wake him up.
“It looked really good, the way he just kind of slumped over,” said Baker. “It was very genius the way they woke him up too. The plane will tell them, ‘pull up, pull up, pull up.’ In the movie, they locked him up and the Radar Warning Receiver goes off. The more stimuli you can give somebody that's unconscious, the faster they're going to wake up. You talk to them and stimulate them. They tend to snap out of it a lot quicker than if you were just completely quiet.”
Throughout their training, pilots are taught ways to brace themselves to avoid G-LOC. This includes an Anti-G Straining Maneuver (AGSM), where they tighten and release their muscles to keep the blood flowing.
“You’re clenching your gut to keep that blood up into your head,” said Phelan.
Morey, who graduated from the United States Navy Fighter Weapons School’s Adversary Course, is 6-foot-4, which presents a greater challenge in performing the AGSM. “Taller fighter pilots have a greater distance between the heart and the brain, so this extra distance (head pressure) is the challenge. We have to work a little harder. But we have bigger hearts and, of course, are better at beach volleyball.”
Despite the training, the top physical and mental condition of the pilots, and a G-suit (a tight-fitting garment that applies pressure to the pilot’s legs and abdomen), G-LOC is not 100% avoidable. It’s also difficult to teach pilots how to bounce back from unconsciousness quicker, which is why Baker and his team stopped purposefully putting pilots into G-LOC during training.
“No matter how many times we did it, it still took them the same amount of time to recover, so there wasn't anything being learned, because the brain’s not really functioning,” he said.
However, their training could save their life once they regain consciousness.
“We teach them to trust their instruments,” said Baker. “When you do wake up and you see that you're screaming downhill, instead of trying to figure out where you are, you are going to trust your equipment to pull up. They’re not gonna question it. They're just gonna do it. And that's where training comes in.”
Fiction: Not Following the Test Plan
Cruise’s character, Pete “Maverick” Mitchell starts the new film as a test pilot for the "Darkstar" scramjet program – likely based on the prototype SR-72. The goal is to push into the high-hypersonic speed of Mach 9. After achieving that goal, Maverick pushes to Mach 10 and subsequently crashes the jet.
Sid Hatcher, a KBR Test Pilot, found the aftermath of that insubordination purely fiction.
“You ‘plan the flight and fly the plan.’ No deviations. No surprises,” said Hatcher. “We use buildup and data analysis to reduce risk. If the ‘test point for the day’ was Mach 9, that's where the test team would stop. Pushing it to Mach 10 would be a significant violation and the pilot most likely would be removed from the program. After that scene, I turned off my critical thinking mentality and just watched the rest of the film.”
Added Phelan: “And the fact that everyone in that control room and all the other folks associated with that test let it happen, you know that wouldn't happen in real life.
“It's all detailed out in a test plan – sequence of test points, which build up in either complexity or risk to get to an endpoint. Obviously, they had an endpoint there, but they skipped over some of the intermediate points. Especially for high-risk stuff, you're in constant communication with the engineers and the control room -- they're monitoring data. At any time, they can call it off and stop the test. You regroup and evaluate the risks and the mitigation of those risks and then either proceed or you stop.”
Added Morey: “That entire part of the story breaks many rules of flight tests. This rogue, unplanned, and unscheduled test event of an experimental aircraft expanding the envelope simply would not occur as portrayed in the movie. But it was great drama and it really underpins why Maverick is Maverick, right?”
Fact: Teamwork Training
When the original film was released, Jay Lennon – the son of a fighter pilot (and grandson of a fighter pilot) – was in high school. Much like Morey, he already aspired to join the family business as a third-generation Air Force officer.
“I don’t think it necessarily influenced me,” said Lennon, now Vice President for KBR’s National Security Technologies Group, before taking a beat. “But it definitely increased the cool factor.”
The real United States Navy Strike Fighter Tactics Instructor Program – known as TOPGUN – is currently located at Naval Air Station Fallon, Nevada. Lennon, who started his career as a B-1B pilot and instructor pilot, was hand selected as the Air Force Liaison Officer to the Naval Strike and Warfare Center (NSAWC). There he flew F/A-18s in support of naval operations, including taking on an aggressor-training role to simulate the capability of current threat aircraft in fighter combat mode for TOPGUN pilots.
“They'll take a young fighter pilot, bring them in, and show them there is another level of capability,” said Lennon, of TOPGUN. “They'll show them that they're not all that they think they are.”
In the movie, the first thing Maverick does as an instructor is thoroughly humble the young hotshots.
“Then, give them the additional training to build them back up as a team,” said Lennon. “They are really good, but as a team, they're even better.”
“I loved the development of the team, of the comradery, the trust in your wingman’s capabilities, and knowing you need to also excel to ensure their success,” he said. “There is competitiveness to be the best, but also understanding that you need to support your teammates. In the climax of the movie, each member has a role to play. They’re going to step up and do what it takes to make the team succeed. And in the end, that was the reason for the success. That's my goal for how KBR does business with the ‘Team of Teams’ approach.”
For Morey, he agrees that teambuilding outside of the normal work environment is critical in any industry, and KBR does this very well. Relationship building, understanding everyone’s role and how we can support each other is essential. He also thought the film accurately portrayed the risks involved in Naval Aviation and how it requires a team to mitigate these risks.
“Most people probably do not realize just how dangerous that environment really is,” he said. “On the flight deck, it's not just the naval aviators, there is a team of teams involved in keeping everyone safe. They’re loading live ordnance, fueling airplanes, directing aircraft, maintaining aircraft and attending to the arresting gear. Jet blast, noise, ice – and cables that can snap at any time – are among the many risks. There are many lessons learned, written in blood, and you have to have your head on a swivel.”
Fact: The Cool Factor
Like in 1986, Top Gun: Maverick is a worldwide phenomenon, grossing $1.2 billion worldwide to date. Similarly, the portrayal of fighter pilots as cocky heroes (that still have time to bond on the beach) has once again put the profession in the spotlight.
“They portrayed the fighter guys as strutting their stuff. They always have cool call signs and they think they're God's gift to aviation,” said Phelan. “That’s still pretty true.”
Beyond the cocky attitudes and trash-talking in bars, it was the comradery that ultimately resonated with Morey.
“Fighter-ready rooms are a highly competitive environment,” he said. “Look, you actually want it that way. These men and women are our best at what they do because of the competitive environment. When the going gets tough, you just have to fall back on those relationships.”
More than three decades after the original film, Morey, Lennon, Phelan and Cordell are no longer youngsters looking at the big screen with aspiration in their eyes. They have thousands of flight hours between them and decades of experience. But there is still adrenaline, validation and, yes, it’s still pretty cool.
“I asked my wife to come with me to watch the movie,” said Lennon. “She said, ‘I’d love to see that movie because I want to see how cool you used to be.’”