Both “Top Gun” movies owe a debt of gratitude to Northern Nevada.
“Top Gun: Maverick,” the long anticipated sequel to 1986’s “Top Gun” is on its way to setting box office records that will be difficult to match. Only weeks into its run, ticket revenues are headed well north of $1 billion worldwide. Miramar, Calif., was the home base for that first aerial-themed movie, but the Top Gun training program (official known as the “United States Navy Strike Fighter Tactics Instructor” program) moved to Fallon Naval Air Station in 1996 when the Marines took over Miramar.
While most scenes from the first movie were shot in San Diego, most of the memorable dogfighting action was filmed over the test ranges of NAS Fallon in 1985.
The Reno Air Races also played an indirect role in the two flicks. Pilot Art Scholl was always a featured performer at the annual air races in Stead, doing acrobatics in his “Super Chipmunk” plane. While filming and executing a flat spin for the first movie, Scholl crashed into the Pacific Ocean. and his remains were never recovered. The closing credits of “Top Gun” show a dedication to Scholl’s memory.
Trivia freaks, and those who delight in spotting film errors, will have a feast with this new movie. Ribbons on uniforms are improper; airplane squadrons are in the wrong locations; and the hanger at NAS North Island in Coronado, Calif., does not declare itself as “Fightertown.”
But, unlike most air combat movies, the flight scenes are incredibly accurate. The actors were flying in real F-18s, something Tom Cruise insisted upon before agreeing to return for the sequel. However, the stars are in the back seat of the “Super Hornet” F/A-18 with a military pilot manning the main controls. The results are some of the best aerial footage ever filmed. The twists, turns and resulting G-forces distorting their faces are very real, and all are captured on Hi-Def IMAX cameras.
The scenes where Tom Cruise appears to be flying a P-51 “Mustang” also seem realistic. That’s because they are. Cruise is both an owner and a pilot of one of the famous World War II fighter planes. One of the country’s largest gatherings surviving Mustangs occurs every fall at the STIHL National Championship Air Races, where the P-51s, along with F8F “Bearcats,” have dominated the Unlimited racing category for years.
Spoiler alert: One thing that seems highly unlikely in real life is the climactic scene in “Top Gun: Maverick,” where Cruise and actor Miles Teller are both shot down over enemy territory. They escape by stealing an enemy F-14 and taking off without a proper runway. Many thought the scene was unrealistic. They are wrong: The proof comes from another Reno Air Race connection.
Bob Hoover’s daring escape
For years, Bob Hoover was the “aerial pace car” for the Reno Unlimited races while flying his yellow Rockwell International P-51. I had the rare opportunity to fly in the back seat with Mr. Hoover one year, and he told me an incredible story.
In 1944 he was flying a Spitfire on his 58th mission when he was shot down by a German fighter over southern France. He managed to safely land his crippled plane but was captured by German soldiers. He spent more than 15 months as a POW in Barth, Germany. However, he and a few others staged a fake fight, and used the distraction to jump a fence. After a few days on the lam, he spotted a German airfield.
In his words, “We ran across this airfield, and all the planes were damaged or unflyable. But I found one that had a lot of damage, but it was full of fuel. I got in the cockpit—didn’t have a parachute, but I was in there—and I was going and got the engine started. I took off, I didn’t even go to the runway, I went out right across the grass and got airborne.”
With no maps, he headed north looking for windmills to let him know he was over Denmark, before landing in a field. He had to calm the armed and angry farmers who at first mistook him climbing out of a Focke-Wulf Fw-190 for a German pilot.
Hoover went on to become one of the world’s best pilots. He was Chuck Yeager’s wingman when Yeager broke the sound barrier for the first time. Aviation experts called Hoover the “world’s best stick and rudder man.” While he did it 80 years before them, he proved that Maverick and Rooster’s escape stunt was possible. Bob passed away in October 2016.
Lake Tahoe as movie star
In addition to Cruise, the real stars of this new movie are the F/A-18 jets and Lake Tahoe. It was the winter of 2018 when film crews took over the South Lake Tahoe airport and flew in the nearby, snow-covered canyons. The airport facilities were closed for renovations, so the film crew arranged to convert it into an enemy airport with temporary hangers and eventually a runway full of bomb craters. The Sierra peaks lined the valleys which (fictionally) marked the safe pathway to the crucial enemy target. That difficult piece of low-level flying is the crux of the plot for the entire movie (and the reason Maverick is called back to train the young Top Gun pilots).
The film begins with Cruise as a test pilot attempting to hit Mach 10 in an experimental aircraft. This scene was reportedly filmed at China Lake, the Naval Air Weapons Station, near Ridgecrest, Calif. Some speculate he was in the rumored SR-72 “Darkstar,” successor to the SR-71 “Blackbird” spy plane. If it were real, it would be highly classified and off limits to Hollywood. And, while China Lake has lots of secret stuff, it’s more likely this plane would be testing at southern Nevada’s Edwards AFB or the mysterious Area 51 nearby. “Darkstar” (if it exists) is further proof that “what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas.”
The first “Top Gun” movie resulted in a 500% increase in those wanting to become military pilots. Coming after the end of the unpopular Vietnam War, that was an incredible feat. It was exactly what the military needed after the negative Hollywood portrayals by movies like “Platoon” which was released the same year. The Navy set up recruitment booths at selected theaters for some performances of “Top Gun.”
Civilians are also catching the bug. “Sky Combat Ace (SCA),” with locations in Las Vegas and Minden, offer what they call extreme flying adventures for the general public here and in southern California. With their fleet of German-made “Extra 330LCs,” you can sign up for everything from a mild aerobatic demonstration flight to a session of simulated dogfighting. The small plane allows customers to sit up front with a certified flight instructor in the back. While the prop-driven Extras are a bit slower than the F-18s, they can maneuver with the best of them and pull extreme G’s just like the jets. The flight experiences range from an entry level of just under $500 to group events with combat-like scenarios where you chase your buddies Top Gun-style for a few thousand.
Flying through the ‘danger zone’
SCA was founded in 2011 by ex-Air Force F-16 pilot, Richard “Tex” Coe who is now an aerobatic instructor and in charge of nearly a dozen other top pilots. Spokesperson Nate Gonzales said business picked up with the easing of COVID restrictions, but it is now booming as they “are riding the coattails of ‘Maverick.’”
Want to fly a real F-18? Your odds are not good, but possible. First, get a college degree (or sign up for four years at Annapolis); enlist in the Navy or Marines; and then do a whole lot of training. It helps to have a fair amount of talent and lots of natural ability.
That’s about the only way you’ll sit in the front seat. You can get a civilian ride like Tom Cruise and his fellow actors did, but that’s a slim chance, too. Making a movie that the Navy likes (and paying them for the flight time) is how they did it; but that only happens every decade or so and just for a handful of movie stars. The other way is what the “Blue Angels” or “Thunderbirds (flying the F-16)” call being a “Key Influencer (KI)” in your community.
Those famous jet demonstration teams generally offer two backseat rides to civilians in their planes at each air show. These rides are limited to local officials or members of the media (that’s how I got my rides with Bob Hoover, the A-4 Blue Angels, and the Canadian Snowbirds). I never made much money in a decade of being a Reno TV reporter for KTVN Channel 2, but those rides were priceless. And they made watching “Top Gun: Maverick” even more memorable.
The critics on Rotten Tomatoes rate the new movie a 97% with an audience score of 99%. The pilots I rode with also gave very high rankings for our neighborhood. As the film crew for Maverick learned, it’s hard to match Nevada’s world-class scenery and open spaces. And there’s no place better to fly than around Lake Tahoe.