The best of the best

A conversation with Topgun founder Dan Pedersen

Created date

May 17th, 2019
Topgun founder Dan Pedersen leans against a yellow plane wearing a grey fighter pilot uniform in 1956, at Whiting Field in Florida, where he entered primary flight training to become a naval aviator.

Topgun founder Dan Pedersen in 1956, at Whiting Field in Florida, where he entered primary flight training to become a naval aviator.

It’s perhaps the world’s most elite fighter pilot training program, and it became a household name with the 1986 release of the Tom Cruise movie classic Top Gun. A highly advanced Naval aviator graduate school, Topgun (in its proper spelling) is the home for the best of the best fighter pilots.

And recently, the Tribune spoke with the legendary program’s founder Captain Dan Pedersen (U.S. Navy, Ret.) about his book Topgun: An American Story (Hachette, 2019).


Tribune: Tell me about your entrance into the Navy.

Pedersen: I began as an enlisted man and became a mechanic on World War II airplane engines. And then I got a jet squadron and tagged along with a squadron test pilot who flew a lot of engines that I worked on.

And he said: “You ought to go flying. Would you do it?”

Well, I was tired of sleeping in my car at night and going to class in the daytime, then working till one o’clock in the morning. And I loved flying.

As soon as I started flying with this young lieutenant, I was hooked. I went into the Naval Aviation Cadet program in 1956 as an enlisted man; I went through flight training as an enlisted man; and then I got my wings in 1957.

I never looked back.


Tribune: Let’s talk about the genesis of Topgun.

Pedersen: Well, in 1967, I went on a cruise on the USS Enterprise [the famous nuclear-powered aircraft carrier]. That was my second real taste of war; and we lost 11 guys in 17 days.

That’s not good.

When you do this as a profession and you’re a student of tactical aviation, your thinking is: “If it isn’t going well, you must know why.”

You do a lot of talking with your fellow squadron mates—I was with VF-92 when we were losing so many guys. A bunch of pilots were getting out after one cruise.

It was demoralizing; we had a big problem. We were not using our weapons the way we should have been, which is why pilots weren’t coming home.

Something had to be done.

Captain Frank Ault of the carrier Coral Sea—a great man—recognized this and wrote an unsolicited report to the Navy’s senior admiral saying that the airplanes and weapons that we had weren’t working. We trained wrong for the kind of war that was Vietnam.

And by God, that letter hit Washington, D.C., and ricocheted right back out to Miramar [California]. He recommended a graduate school for fighter pilots, and they immediately saw the need for it.

That’s what got it started.


Tribune: You had to be happy about Captain Ault’s efforts.

Pedersen: I was delighted. When I came home from that cruise, I was teaching basic tactics at Miramar.

I was outspoken and opinionated, which is why I was chosen to lead this effort to fix things.


Tribune: So what is Topgun?

Pedersen: Simply put, Topgun is graduate school for fighter pilots. The students are the handpicked best from the fleet squadrons—technically brilliant kids.

That said, they’d better be willing to learn more. We would tell them: “You know you’re good. That’s why you’re here. But we have to make you better.”

It’s been 50 years, and it’s the premier school for fighter tactics.

Instructors and students must believe they are the best pilots around; however, the students have to be willing to learn, and the instructors should never humiliate them. Here, ego is important, but it can also be dangerous.


Tribune: And what’s the basis of the training?

Pedersen: Well, I’d spent some time with the Israelis and observed how they accelerate the learning curve in everything they do. They have individually selected people like my original eight guys in Topgun.

To this day, they’re chosen because they are the best of the best, and the task here is to make them better.

The training was based on tactics tuned to the airplanes we were flying [at the time, F4 Phantoms]. And as I said, these guys were good when they came into the program.

They were really good when they graduated.


Tribune: So, how successful was it?

Pedersen: I’ll give you an example.

At the beginning of Topgun, the statistics for fighter pilots in the Vietnam war were 2 to 1. In other words, we were getting two MiGs for every one of us.

By the time Topgun started in March of 1969 to the end of the war in 1973, we moved that ratio up to 24 to 1.

That success continues today.