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Into the danger zone: Maverick flies into area theaters

By ThisIsReno

By Steve Ranson, Nevada News Group

Independent and unorthodox, a maverick tests his boundary to the extreme ends.

Likewise, Tom Cruise’s character in the latest Top Gun movie not only pushes his boundaries to Mach 10 and beyond, but he also improvises the tasks at hand in being the best of the best with an escape scene at the end.

Top Gun: Maverick debuted over the weekend with the second movie portraying the warfighting skills of aviators associated with the Navy’s Fighter Weapons School that fits under the umbrella of the Naval Aviation Warfighting Development Center. The current film cost $170 million to make compared to the $40 million (adjusted for inflation) to produce the first Top Gun movie in 1986. Since its debut 36 years ago, the original Top Gun has grossed more than $350 million worldwide.

“They were filming all of that with a camera inside the jets.”

Like its two famous movies, TOPGUN instruction is real … teaching pilots that warfighting becomes a matter of life and death in the skies above sea or land.

Connection to flying

Zip Upham, public information officer at Naval Air Station Fallon, said the newest movie provides “a ton of fun” with a wonderful  connection to the original flying sequences.

NAS Fallon provided many of the crucial scenes in a major supporting role to make the movie as realistic as possible. Upham said he was involved with the production of the movie while scenes were filmed in Nevada’s high desert. He said Hangar 1 was used as were the shots over the Fallon Range Training Complex area from inside the F/A-18 Super Hornets.

“Some of the outside flying sequences were done over the ranges in the Kingston canyon,” Upham added. 

TOPGUN Cmdr. Michael Patterson, right, talks to NAS Fallon public information officer Zip Upham.
Steve Ranson / NNG

From watching the first very film crews arrive to Fallon more than three years ago to last weekend’s premiere, Upham said between 150-200 pilots flew over multiple locations. Upham emphasized the pilot scenes filmed with the actors were accomplished with a camera focused on them in the rear seat that is usually reserved for training.

“The pilots were in the front seat, and the actors in the back seat,” Upham said. “They were filming all of that (the dogfights) with a camera inside the jets.”

Upham said Cruise was not allowed to touch any of the jets’ controls.

Additionally, Upham said the TOPGUN pilots put the Hornets through the same maneuvers written in the script. The aviators provided the technical support, Upham said, and much of that came from the flight instructors.

“My job was a lot more coordination and to keep the sailors away from the hangars,” he added.

Although the movie opened to a nationwide audience last week, filming actually wrapped up in 2019. Because of the coronavirus pandemic and the decision not to stream the movie in its debut, Upham said the studio decided to wait and then select a good date for the release.

Unknown to many Churchill County residents, Cruise stayed at the air station’s quarters to be closer to the action. 

“Tom Cruise was very professional and very focused,” Upham said. “They (Cruise and the production crew) were very gracious spending the night here. The production teams arranged staying in our older quarters. Proximity was the issue.”

In addition to the filming at NAS Fallon, other local scenes were shot at Lake Tahoe. The other locations included NAS North Island in the San Diego area, Naval Air Weapons Station China Lakes and NAS Whidby Island northwest of Seattle. In the film, though, the NAWDC command was located at North Island and not Fallon.

The aircraft carriers USS Abraham Lincoln and the USS Theodore Roosevelt also had a role in the filming.

An F/A-18 Super Hornet begins to taxi to the runway. Steve Ranson / NNG
An F/A-18 Super Hornet begins to taxi to the runway. Steve Ranson / NNG

A bulk of the production costs were earmarked for the flying scenes. Upham said the studio paid the Navy more than $11,000 an hour to use its jets.

The newest TOPGUN commander, Pennsylvania native Cmdr. Michael Patterson, has served in the Navy since 2001 after he was commissioned through the Officer Candidate School in August. He has deployed eight times: twice to Iraq and Afghanistan and six times in the western Pacific. He said the movie compared to real-life duty in the Navy is realistic by showing the stress and involvement in naval aviation.

Movie beckons aspiring pilots

Prior to becoming TOPGUN commander, Patterson spent previous tours at Fallon by completing the Navy Weapons Fighter School and instructor’s course. As an instructor, he’s considered a subject matter expert.

Patterson said the skills and tactics taught at NAWDC can be used against any adversary in the world. In addition to the training in the Hornet and Super Hornets, he said other training is provided for helicopter pilots and aviators from the EA-18G Growler and E-2C Hawkeye. Before deployment, a carrier air wing trains in Fallon for about five weeks.

The comparison between the movie and real-life learning is as good as it gets, said Patterson.

A special room stores the pilots’ gear.
Steve Ranson / NNG

“It’s the same drive to be as good as you can,” Patterson said.

During the TOPGUN course, Patterson said students encounter much stress while logging in numerous flight hours over the Fallon range. As an instructor, Patterson said he encounters the same level of stress.

“We’re teaching them to get better,” he said.

The Penn State University grad said taking off from an aircraft carrier is exhilarating. Learning is just as mentally exhausting and challenging, but back at NAWDC, Patterson said the instructors do an amazing job to take away the concerns that aren’t part of flying.

“We take care of the administrative things,” he explained. 

Patterson also said being away from family presents its own sets of challenges.

Overall, though, Patterson said the movie portrayed the excitement that defines naval aviation.

“The skill, dedication and courage that our young men and women display every day … the movie does a good job of capturing that,” Patterson said.

Upham agreed.

“There are aspects that are unrealistic, but it’s great storytelling,” he said. “It’s a very worthy sequel.”

As with the first Top Gun movie, Upham said the Navy does a good job in inspiring people to become interested in naval aviation.

“From a recruiting standpoint, no one has paid more attention to Hollywood as Navy recruiting,” Upham said. 

Patterson added realism also beckons the future naval aviator to consider the Navy as a career.

“It (the movie) realistically captures the stress of battle and deployment,” said Patterson, who first wanted to be in the Navy at a very young age.

“I wanted to belong to something bigger than me,” he said. “I wanted to give back to my country.”

Likewise, Lt. Briana Plohocky said being a TOPGUN pilot had a special niche in the back of her mind. Her father was a private pilot and when she was 11 years old, she joined the Sea Cadets.

The newest instructors

“We’re the best of the best. Every day, we try to get better, and we will never stop doing that.”

Plohocky arrived at TOPGUN earlier this year, and as an instructor, she said the difference is noticeable.

“As a student, you learn and listen. Instructors go through the syllabus, and with the more reps (repetitions), the better you get, she said.

As an instructor, she said the course is rewarding at the end of instruction.

Steve Ranson / NNG

As a pilot, Plohocky wanted to land on an aircraft carrier. During her time in the Navy, she has served aboard the aircraft carries USS Teddy Roosevelt and the USS Nimitz, one of the largest warships in the world.

While a student at TOPGUN, she said Fallon has a good bombing range, but the training area is somewhat constricted.

“I wish we could make it bigger,” she said.

Overall, though, Plohocky saw the newest movie and liked it.

“The flying scenes are awesome,” she said. “They get it pretty accurate.”

Lt. John Taylor Gregg has been an instructor in Fallon for less than a year. Seeing an airshow in his home state of Maryland whetted his thirst to become a naval aviator.

Gregg’s first operational tour occurred four years ago aboard the USS Lincoln. As with many aviators, flying a Super Hornet is still enjoyable.

“It never gets old,” he said. “It’s hard to explain.”

Gregg said the flying scenes in the sequel captured his attention, and he feels the point-of-view offers realism.

Being away from friends and family back home, though, is one of the most difficult aspects of life for a military man or woman.

“People who are around you (at a military installation) become your family,” Gregg said. “You’re going through it together.”

In a workplace environment such as the military, he said sailors and aviators take care of each other like a second family.

It’s because of the camaraderie that pilots and instructors like Gregg and Plohocky keep improving, and refining their skills.

“We’re the best of the best,” he said. “Every day, we try to get better, and we will never stop doing that.”

Once the day is over, Gregg has his own way of de-stressing. The TOP GUN instructor said he enjoys the outdoors and the solitude.

“I like going on a hike to get silence from the day,” he added.

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