On Top Gun’s 30th Anniversary, We Talk to a Topgun Instructor Who Worked on the '80s Masterpiece

The myth of Mav and Goose lives on, and F-14 RIO Dave “Bio” Baranek explains how the film's scenes didn't crash and burn.

Paramount

The War Zone recently talked with good friend Dave “Bio” Baranek, who was a F-14 Radar Intercept Officer and a real Topgun instructor during the filming of Top Gun. He actually flew on several flights to film scenes for the movie’s aerial jousts and spent days at Paramount Studios helping to write the jargon-filled dialogue and edit the flying scenes. He recounted all this and more in his must-read memoir, Topgun Days, and offers an insider's take of the blockbuster Tony Scott film that blasted onto the big screen 30 years ago today:

I think producers Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer immediately saw the makings of a hit movie. The Tomcat’s pilot and RIO crew was a natural set-up for a “buddy movie.” The naval aviation setting and Topgun class would provide action, danger, and stunning visuals, along with personal challenges. The producers also planned a love interest for the star, and that took an interesting turn.

Paramount

This goes back to the origin of the Top Gun movie. The producers saw an article in California magazine about an F-14 crew going through the Topgun class. They had already made several flashy hits, like Flashdance and Beverly Hills Cop, so that was their style: fast pace, rock music, and the striking visuals. The guy who really made them aware of the eye-catching power of Navy fighters (the F-14 in particular) was Chuck “Heater” Heatley, himself an F-14 pilot, former Topgun instructor, and very talented photographer [see the game-changing coffee table book, The Cutting Edge, from the same era]. His photos in that magazine article deserve much of the credit for inspiring the movie.

Simpson and Bruckheimer did their homework, sketched out a contemporary story line, and got to work. I have to say that just coming up with the idea was genius, but it took a lot of talent to actually make a great movie.

When they came to Naval Air Station Miramar to prepare for filming, they met real-life analyst Christine Fox. Christine is an attractive woman who was known around Miramar for her insightful and relevant work for the Center for Naval Analyses, and while she wasn’t a Topgun instructor, she often worked with aircrews. She inspired the Kelly McGillis character in the movie.

National Archives

Let’s start with the opening, where Tomcats intercept enemy fighters. This happened in the real world often, and continues today. In the 1980s, a lot of intercepts were off the coast of Libya, where Navy fighters parried with Libyan MiGs—and whatever else came up. Pacific Fleet Tomcats intercepted fighters from the Soviet Union, Vietnam, and other countries. We all intercepted bombers and patrol planes from a variety of countries around the world. Really, these events were welcome breaks from the routine flying of a Cold War carrier deployment. They usually incited some apprehension until the situation stabilized.

US Navy fighters occasionally encountered aggressive aircrews, and most people remember the two Libyan shoot-down incidents involving Tomcats. Most of the time, the intercepts led to benign escorts and even humorous “cultural exchanges,” like Soviet bomber crews showing us bottles of Pepsi through the windows of their aircraft.

The movie also captured the stress and danger associated with landing on a carrier—although I should add that we weren’t dripping sweat every minute of every flight. It takes a lot of training and skill for pilots to put the jet down in that small area, and for the Naval Flight Officer (NFO) to function as an effective crew member. I’ve got about 650 carrier landings and one of them ended in a split-second ejection when the arresting gear machinery broke. It was just a few months after joining my first squadron and it happened with no warning: Suddenly, we had to make a life-or-death decision. Check out the video.

As for the Topgun class, the movie captured many of the essentials. Students are challenged and evaluated by instructors, and when Goose says, “Viper's up here? Great,” that shows the students’ competitiveness, looking for any intel on their opponents. When I went through the class we listened for any instructor on the radio and we could tell who was flying. In most cases we only heard one voice out of four or more opponents, but it was some insight. Later, when I went back as an instructor, I realized that the exceptional flight discipline resulted in few transmissions on frequencies the students used, which made it hard for the students to put together a picture of who they were facing, including names and numbers of adversaries.

There is also some mentoring of students by Topgun instructors, which is shown throughout the movie. The instructors realize they have an important responsibility not only to teach friendly and threat weapons and tactics, but in many cases to mentor the young aircrews.

Paramount

The makers of Top Gun spent a lot of time at Miramar asking for stories. At least one RIO actually used to say, “Do some pilot shit!” When I heard about it, it was said by Tom “Sobs” Sobieck, one of the more colorful and talented RIOs, who was also a Topgun instructor and later commanded an F-14 squadron. One of my contributions to the movie was, “Watch the mountains!” Maybe not as memorable as Sobs’ quote but something I actually said on a low-altitude bugout (exiting the fight, usually at high-speed).

Paramount

The producers got a lot of help—check the credits and you’ll see many Navy people—and they actually listened when we made suggestions.

Lots of people point out all the flaws or unrealistic elements in the movie. They're there, and I’m not going to list them all, but let’s be candid—Top Gun is not a documentary. Regardless, a few that stick out:

“Never leave your wingman.” Actually, we used a concept called "mutual support," where one aircraft should be able to come to the assistance of the other if required during an engagement. This would be difficult if the two friendly fighters are outnumbered and engaged—as often happened in the old days—but it was one of the tactical concepts. Mutual support, however, didn’t mean that the aircraft should maneuver in formation. In fact, if a section of fighters were engaged, both fighters should not be in the same piece of sky in order to complicate the enemy’s targeting problem. The way it was shown in Top Gun was more dramatic, and it looked better on screen.

DoD

In basically every scene, we had to fly closer to each other for the cameras than we would in real life. When we were filming the head-on passes, it took quite a few passes to get it right [detailed in awesome fashion in Topgun Days]. In our dogfight training, when we had a head-on pass we were required to stay 500 feet away from the other jet for safety. That was a distance we were all comfortable with, even if we were closing at Mach 1! But when we tried it for the movie the other jets looked too small, so the director wanted us to get closer than 500 feet. We talked about it and reasoned that under the controlled filming conditions we could close the distance. It still took several passes to refine the formations and other things, and we eventually passed close enough to hear the other jets—a rarity.

That got the shot we were looking for.

Dave "Bio" Baranek

A trio of Topgun F-5E's painted black for their role as the enemy MiG-28. Clay Lacy's modified Learjet cameraship was used to shoot some of the movie's most exciting aerial scenes.  

The flight leads and all the aircrew kept it professional, in the briefings and during the flights. The main flight lead for the F-14s was Lloyd “Bozo” Abel, while Bob “Rat” Willard and Ray “Secks” Seckinger took turns leading the Topgun jets. From the Navy’s safety-conscious culture, we knew that unusual flights such as air shows present high risk because it’s not the way we normally fly. So the movie crew would tell us what they wanted and the flight leads would work out how we could safely accomplish it. Then the briefings were very thorough. No one wanted to mess up while filming a Hollywood movie.

Real-life Topgun instructors Sunshine, Rat, and Hollywood strike a pose after filming scenes for the movie Top Gun

So now Top Gun 2 is finally a go. I’m not involved with it, but that’s fine with me—I enjoyed working on the original, let the guys flying now have their own awesome Hollywood experience.

You can read more of Bio’s unique perspective on the filming of Top Gun and his time as a Topgun instructor here as well as his incredible insight of watching the F-14 Tomcat, a strictly air-to-air fighter, turn into a “Bombcat” in the 1990s here. He has just come out with a new book that recounts his flying experiences before arriving at Topgun in the memoir Before Topgun Days which you really need to read. Bio’s author site, which is packed with awesome content is www.topgunbio.com.

Contact Tyler at Tyler@thedrive.com