A Real Top Gun Grad Grades the Movies’ Flying Scenes

Sure, both films are undisputed blockbusters, but are the stunts credible? We asked an expert to weigh in.

June 13, 2022 5:00 am
Top Gun Maverick
Tom Cruise in "Top Gun:Maverick"
Paramount Pictures

Warning: Spoilers ahead

By summer blockbuster standards, Top Gun: Maverick already ranks as an undisputed masterpiece. Critics and audiences adore the film, as do the Hollywood execs at Paramount, who’ve got missile lock on a coveted one billion dollar global box-office payday (which would make TG:M Tom Cruise’s most financially successful hit yet). Such praise, however fawning, seems well earned, especially during a time when most people would like to forget about the sad state of the world for a few hours during a mindless matinee spent in front of the big screen. From shirtless beach football to Kenny Loggins’ “Danger Zone,” TG:M channels all the nostalgia and hits every target you’d want from such a sequel, and even delivers some unexpected pathos along the way — causing the most smitten of critics to reconsider the original Top Gun as more than just a slick, two-hour exercise in Reagan era homoeroticism.

But Oscar buzz aside, let’s be honest: the real reason we watch a Top Gun movie is for the dog fights, and both films deliver those in spades. Ten fighter jet set pieces stretch across the two flicks, which got us thinking: which one is the best? Or, better yet, which ones are the most believable?

F/A-19 Pilot Matthew "Whiz" Buckley
Matthew “Whiz” Buckley spent 10 years flying F/A-18 Hornets for the U.S. Navy
Matthew Buckley

Rather than offer some subjective pontificating (we do enough of that already), we turned to Matthew “Whiz” Buckley — producer of the forthcoming PTSD documentary No Fallen Heroes — for the definitive answer. As an F/A-18 Hornet pilot and Top Gun graduate (his role was to fly as one of the “bad guys,” putting students through the wringer in preparation for real world combat), Whiz knows a thing or two about aerial authenticity, and he was happy to share his unfiltered thoughts on two films he loves deeply but recognizes as pumped up Hollywood takes on the real deal. We asked him to grade all 10 Top Gun flight sequences on a scale 1-10 for believability.


Watch the Birdie!

The Scene: In this classic opening to the first film, Maverick and his Radar Intercept Officer (or RIO) Goose (along with Cougar and Merlin) encounter a pair of MiG-28s, go head to head in a game of chicken before finally inverting their F-14 to flip their adversary the bird and take a perfectly-timed Polaroid. While landing, Maverick hears over the radio that Cougar is suffering a mid-air panic attack, and — though dangerously low on fuel — decides to ignore orders and take off again so that he can escort his shell-shocked buddy back onto the aircraft carrier’s deck.

Whiz’s Take: The whole inverted in a negative 4-G dive would have been physically impossible in an F-14, which is such a big plane we used to call it the “Flying Tennis Court.” Maverick’s tail would have hit the back of the MiG and they would have had a mid air [collision]. Also, Maverick would have never heard Cougar because Cougar and Merlin were talking on ICS — Inner Cockpit Communication — so he would have had no idea that the guy was in trouble. And even if Mav did [starts laughing], after he lands on the carrier and decides to take off again to get Cougar, he pulls the throttles to idle, meaning he would have dribbled off the carrier and crashed into the ocean.

Believability Score: I give it a 1 or 2. Call it a 1.5!

Yeehaw Jester’s Dead!

The Scene: In their first Top Gun dogfight, Maverick and Goose go head to head with their instructor, Jester. Following some fancy flying (“I’ll hit the brakes, he’ll fly right by!”), Maverick disregards protocol by pursuing Jester below the hard deck to notch his first “kill,” though he’s later stripped of the win in what amounts to the film’s most quotable Pyrrhic victory — “I want some butts!”

Whiz’s Take: The flying is believable, but once Jester broke the hard deck it would have been game over. He would have called knock it off over the radio. The hard deck simulates the ground. In combat there is no hard deck — it’s the ground. If you hit the hard deck technically you’ve crashed. It’s called a “Rocks Kill.” So Jester crashed by those standards, meaning on that engagement Mav should’ve claimed the kill. But that’s a moot point — since they broke orders they would’ve all had their wings ripped off their chests and been fired.

Believability Score: 5

I Want Viper

The Scene: Midway through the movie, Maverick and Goose get the opportunity to beat Commanding Officer Viper — “The very first man to win the Top Gun trophy” and a pilot who knows no equal. That carrot is too enticing for a cowboy of Mav’s caliber, and he decides to ditch his wingman in favor of going after Viper, only to get “killed” by Jester.

Whiz’s Take: It’s realistic. Of course it’s Hollywood, so they make this really big deal about never leaving your wingman. Actually you do but it’s briefed. Most air-to-air maneuvers are quiet, there’s not much chatter, because it all goes according to brief. The whole, “You gotta suck wingtip on your lead for the rest of your career” isn’t true. The never leave your wingman line is bullshit. Other than that, the scene is realistic, but it needed to be briefed.

Believability Score: 7

Mayday! Mayday! Flat Spin

The Scene: The tragedy that’s haunted every man for the past 36 years begins when Mav flies his F-14 through arch nemesis Ice Man’s jet wash and goes into a flat spin. After ejecting, Goose hits the plane’s canopy and breaks his neck. It’s the rare moment of despair — with Mav clutching his dead best friend’s body in the water — in a music video of a movie otherwise set to 80s cock rock.

Whiz’s Take: The jet wash thing is semi realistic, but only for a Tomcat because it’s a big airplane. I fly through jet wash all the time in my F-18 and very rarely do engines flare out.

That said, the Tomcat did have a penchant for getting into flat spins — that was a problem. But based on the way the canopy blew off in the movie Goose wouldn’t have hit it; the airflow would’ve blown it away. That’s a Hollywoodism. The odds of that happening — flame out to punch out — are one in a billion.

Believability Score: 3 — maybe it happened once.

Grand Finale

The Scene: The Top Gun grads are deployed to a mission against unnamed enemies (how convenient), and Mav teams up with Cougar’s old RIO, Merlin. MiGs are engaged, MiGs are defeated, towers are buzzed and Mav and Ice famously make amends (“You can be my wingman anytime.” “Bullshit, you can be mine!”).

Whiz’s Take: This one is kind of realistic, except when Ice Man’s Tomcat gets shot up. It’s funny, they take a bunch of bullets but Slider says, “They didn’t hit anything critical!” Uhhhh, every bit of a fighter jet is critical! They lose their motor and fly with one engine. The funniest part of the whole damn thing is when Ice Man — with one engine on fire! — does a flyby of the carrier with Maverick. The odds of a Tomcat surviving any of that are next to zero. Good theater but that ain’t reality…that’s just awful.

Believability Score: It’s a draw so we gotta split it. Dogfight: 10; single-engine Ice Man: 0


Mav Goes Mach-10

Top Gun: Maverick

The Scene: In direct violation of Rear Admiral Cain’s (aka The Drone Ranger) orders, Mav — now a nearly 60-year old Navy test pilot — pushes a prototype plane beyond Mach 10, resulting in a spectacular explosion somewhere in the stratosphere that the grizzled (or as grizzled as an ageless Tom Cruise can ever look) veteran miraculously survives.

Whiz’s Take: First of all, that plane is pretty cool. I guess it’s real. If you can think we are doing something we probably are. There are booger eating guys in windowless rooms thinking this shit up as we speak.

But the ejection scene? No way. I’ve got a buddy, call sign Smurf — short for Scrappy Motherfucker — who ejected out of a Hornet at 695 mph. He was sub sonic — it’s the fastest ever punch out of a Hornet. I’ll put it this way: It would be easier to tell you what he didn’t break. Now doing that at Mach 10? That’s impossible. Unless Mav ejected in a capsule, punching out at Mach 10 ain’t survivable.

Believability Score: Negative 10

Training Montage

Maverick showing the new Top Gunners a thing or two in Top Gun: Maverick.

The Scene: Back at Top Gun (his penance for disobeying orders and destroying the aforementioned prototype), Mav returns to train the school’s most elite alums for a mission to destroy an unnamed nation’s uranium enrichment program. Though initially skeptical, the cocky grads soon learn that despite his advanced age Mav is still “the best of the best.” In a red blooded montage set to The Who’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” Mav “kills” the whipper snappers one by one, each time doling out 200 pushups as punishment.

Whiz’s Take: This one also kind of sucked, but again: Hollywood. We’re led to believe that the most elite graduates in Top Gun’s history can’t beat up on an old man? What did they learn at Top Gun — nothing? And what’s that say about the people who didn’t go to Top Gun? Comical. That’s an indictment of Top Gun. They should shut it down if that’s the case.

Believability Score: 1

G-Lock for Payback

Payback goes into G-Lock in Top Gun: Maverick

The Scene: In preparation for their secret mission (so secret we don’t even know where it is!), the Top Gunners run a simulation of what they’ll face: namely, a twisty run in through a canyon to evade radar detection, a dive into a crater to hit their target followed by a steep 10-G climb up a mountain wall. While scaling the simulated mountain, Payback goes into G-Lock and passes out, forcing Mav to wake him by getting missile lock (thus triggering Payback’s plane’s alarm system) just before he crashes into the ground. Moments later, the relieved pilots fly through birdstrike, which causes Phoenix’s engines to flame out — she and her Weapons System Officer (or WOS) Bob eject from their F-18 seconds before it explodes.

Whiz’s Take: That whole sequence features everything that can happen in Naval aviation in one flight [laughs]. Let’s take it apart. The actual strike is pretty realistic. What’s not realistic is flying that close together. If you’re the wingman 90 percent of your time is sucking wingtip, meaning you’re not helping tactically in any way. We fly more apart — it’s called Tack Wing. But the weapons deployment was realistic.

As for Payback’s G-Lock, he wouldn’t have come out of that. You don’t come out of G-Lock. I had three buddies go into G-Lock and they all crashed their planes. They never woke up. As I say, they still don’t know they’re dead. So the whole Maverick locking Payback up and waking him…if you’re out you’re out, you’re in la la land, no idea of time and space. And now they have a system in the F-18 that prevents you from crashing. Once the jet notices that it’s flying straight down, it automatically pulls up. The software saves you.

The birdstrike is more realistic. That’s aviation — you take a bird to the face. When they test the plane’s canopy, they shoot frozen turkeys that weigh 50 lbs at it. But you can lose a motor so you’re hoping you got a backup. Odds of both motors going out are slim [as was the case with Phoenix and Bob], but if it does happen you’ve got to get out of the airplane. What isn’t realistic in the movie is the lack of an investigation. Even mishaps get investigated. That’s a $65 million aircraft. They’re pulling blood. Let’s say you had drink in the last 24-hours, they would find you at fault. It’s 12 hours bottle to brief, meaning if you violate that you could be court marshaled. They even find some cold syrup in you and you’re in trouble.

Believability Score: G-Lock: 10 that it could happen, 0 that Mav would wake him up with radar lock. Birdstrike: 10

Mav Goes Rogue

Maverick shows the mission is possible in Top Gun: Maverick

The Scene: Facing dismissal, Mav defies the brass by taking an F-18 out for an unauthorized flight and completes the simulation in just over two minutes — thus proving to the naysayers that the mission under its original parameters can be done.

Whiz’s Take: No way! There’s a whole process to schedule a flight. Base of operations has to know about it. Maintenance does, too. The Commanding Officer has to sign a flight schedule the night prior. Maverick can’t just walk into a hanger and say I need a jet and it needs to be armed. I saw that with my Navy buddies and we all just chuckled. That was some good Hollywood. You guys all suck you’re fired!

Believability Score: Negative 10

Uranium Enrichment Strike

The Top Gun grads on the ingress strike

The Scene: For the final mission, Mav leads a team of four F-18s through a landscape of snowbound mountains. The Navy knocks out the unnamed enemy nation’s airport with a Tomahawk strike, Mav and his team destroy the uranium enrichment facility and evade a barrage of surface-to-air missiles. It seems like mission accomplished until Rooster — Goose’s son — is nearly hit, with Mav taking the missile for him and ejecting into enemy territory. After waking up face down in the snow, Mav is pursued across a frozen lake by an enemy helicopter, whose pilot is poised to shoot him when — what??! — Rooster dives in out of nowhere and takes the chopper out with a deftly deployed missile (cue USA! USA! chants). But, oh no(!), Rooster’s F-18 is shot down in the aftermath, and he too is forced to eject. After a Rocky-worthy reunion, Mav and Rooster sneak onto the destroyed air base, hijack a somehow unscathed F-14 (the existence of which has caused some scribes to speculate just what country we’re in), jerry-rig it back into the sky (not, however, without first snapping off the landing gear thanks to a dicey takeoff), and gloriously out-maneuver two exponentially superior fifth-generation foreign fighters (“it’s not the plane, it’s the pilot!”), all before Hangman comes to the rescue by blowing a third enemy fighter out of the sky. Whew!

Whiz’s Take: First of all, the most realistic guy is Bob! They nailed that part, he’s such a nerd. We give the back seater guys a lot of grief. And all my back seater buddies were pissed when they saw Bob.

Ok, first off, the ingress strike. Wouldn’t the enemy nation think of how they’d get attacked? Why did they have SAM missiles that only pointed up? Even in Korea, they strung wires across valleys — planes would get decapitated. They’re not dumb! You’re telling me this country is smart enough to buy fifth gen fighters but not smart enough to string wires? Come on! Tactically it makes no sense, but hell it’s good entertainment. And as for the Navy, we could’ve just used the Tomahawks to blow out Uranian site. But they needed to Luke Skywalker it for the movie. I tried to keep count, they were just rippling off SAMs. Thank God they got to a point where they were out. And our guys were spitting out so many flares. Modern day surface-to-air missiles have flare rejection: they lock onto source of heat and stay locked on — flair rejection and decoy technology can’t do a thing about it. Think of it as Spy vs Spy — whatever you build, I’ll build better. But 20 SAMs launched and none of them hit? I want my money back.

Now, for the second part of the sequence, after Mav punches out and is pursued by the helicopter. Rooster shooting it down? That’s a good hit. But reality gets left behind after he punches out and Mav runs toward him for their reunion. Running? No injuries?! You can’t do that after an ejection!! Punch outs are rough. Most people lose an inch or two in height — it compresses your spine. But not Mav! He’s in a full sprint! Holy shit he’s the bionic man. Then they sneak onto the airbase and an F-14 is still there, totally untouched by the Tomahawk strike. A Tomcat surviving that is negative 100. That’s negative Kelvin!

Ok, whatever, they manage to take off in the stolen Tomcat, and then beat the two enemy fighters. No way that happens. Whatever that fifth gen jet was versus an F-14…it beats an F-14 every time — those bad guys are packing some serious weapon systems. And then Mav and Rooster took battle damage — nothing critical of course! — and do a flyby. Rooster, who’s never flown a Tomcat, says, “Nothing critical.” How the hell does he know that? I guess it’s genetic. He’s channeling Dad. That matched the awfulness of the finale to the first Top Gun.

So then Hangman comes in to save the day, blowing up the last enemy fighter. That’s cool, but then he flies directly through the fireball of the exploded plane. You don’t frag yourself! Here’s what gets this part the uber zero. There’s a big fireball explosion. If you think a bird going up your engine is bad, guess what an explosion does? If you blow something up you get out of the way. Hangman shot that guy and he would’ve shot himself down because he flew right through the frag. You arrogant ass, you killed yourself! Again, good theater, but if I shot a guy down I’d get out of there and live so I could tell everyone.

Believability Score: Airstrike: 3; Helicopter kill: 10; Ejection Reunion: 1; Tomcat hijack: 0; Hangman’s rescue: uber 0

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