Top Gun Days: a book reveals how the best F-14 Tomcat air-to-air scenes were filmed

Developed in the late 1960s to protect US Navy Carrier Battle Groups (CVBG) from the raids conducted by the Soviet bombers armed with long-range cruise missiles, the F-14 was the best fleet defender thanks to its weapons system, the AWG-9 radar.

This radar featured a large antenna, giving to the radar the possibility to scan huge part of airspace and the ability to track up twenty four targets. Furthermore, the AWG-9 could support six AIM-54 missiles attacking six different targets simultaneously at unmatched distance of one-hundred mile range and each Phoenix included a small onboard radar to guide itself during the last part of the run against the target.

No contemporary aircraft, friend or foe, can match Tomcat since all these features gave to the F-14 unprecedented and unparalleled mission capabilities.

But to have an edge above its adversaries by using this complex weapon system, the pilot was not sufficient on board the F-14: in fact it requires another skilled crew member in the back seat, called Radar Intercept Officer (RIO).

The RIO had the responsibility to chose among four search radar modes, he selected the scan pattern of the radar from a dozen choices and assured the radar antenna search the correct portion of the sky. Once the targets are detected, the RIO advised the pilot where to fly to optimize radar performance and set up for the attack. He could also launch long range missiles pushing the red button in the rear cockpit.

In other words a trained RIO would have been essential against a Soviet bomber raid. But the F-14 RIO was also responsible for communication and navigation and he assisted the pilot for the checklists. But also during a dogfight the RIO can make the difference giving its contribution reporting airspeed or fuel state and reporting to the pilot even more important information like the position of the bogey during the air to air combat.

“Even though you’re doing the flying, I’m right here with you in the fight”, with these words a real Tomcat RIO, Dave “Bio” Baranek, in his book Topgun Days: Dogfighting, Cheating Death and Hollywood Glory as One of America’s Best Fighter Jocks, describes the crew coordination, the term which became an essential skill for every Tomcat crew.

Self Portrait

According to Topgun Days, a large fighter like the F-14, thanks to its design could win an engagement also against a smaller and more maneuverable fighter: a result that can be achieved only with an aggressive and trained crew.

To help the reader to understand the challenge of flying the F-14 Tomcat, Bio provides inside his book not only the full story of his career as Naval Flight Officer (NFO), but also some short intelligence briefings where you can even find several details about the history of the legendary Fighter Weapons School, the official name for the unit known as Topgun.

But the book is not only a detailed source of F-14 technical information since, as the title implies, Topgun Days also covers some never revealed before features about the realization of the most famous aviation movie, Top Gun.

So we discover that the first intercept of the MiG-28 (the movie fictional name of the F-5) was filmed over the Pacific from a Learjet 25 belonged to the air-racing legend Clay Lacy on board of which there was film’s director, Tony Scott.

After two head-on passes between the F-14s and MiG-28s, during which the two formations had been much closer than the normal 500-foot of separation generally required for safety purposes during training flights, the adrenaline that filled pilots was enough to make unforgettable that kind of experience.

But Tony Scott commented on the radio “Can we do it one more time, only a bit closer?”

Film’s director request was due to the fact that during the crucial passes between the black-painted bandits and the American Tomcats there was too much space between the aircraft and the two sections could not be fitted in the same frame.

For pilots this meant that they had to fly an even closer pass.

So, after the Tomcats made their turn, the lead Tomcat’s RIO called the distance every two miles, every twelve seconds and after this third thrilling faceoff at 700 MPH, Tony Scott eventually came up on the radio saying “That’s great gents! Super!”

Baranek’s book also includes more secrets about the making of the movie, because “Bio” took part to Top Gun flying in the rear cockpit of the only F-5 in a two seat configuration among those used in the movie and this is perhaps the best feature of Topgun Days: the perspective whose flew with the best trained American fighter pilots.

Dario Leone for

VF-24 F-14 Zone V

Image credit: Dave “Bio” Baranek


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  1. “No contemporary aircraft, friend or foe, can match Tomcat since all these features gave to the F-14 unprecedented and unparalleled mission capabilities.”

    What a hilariously misguided statement. Maybe on paper no missile has the range of a phoenix, and yes the AWG-9 was a powerful radar. But guess what? In real life, the US only shot down something like two aircraft ever with the phoenix, five total with the tomcat, and emissions from the AWG-9 made tomcats extremely easy to detect and avoid. On top of that, the outdated swing wing concept employed on the tomcat has the absolutely terrible side effect of telegraphing your energy state to the enemy in a WVR dogfight. Do you want to know why the tomcat and phoenix were retired years before competing airframes and missiles? It’s because they simply weren’t very good.

    • Pretty hilarious to see somebody starting off with “What a hilariously misguided statement.”

      Before going on to make a bunch of hilariously uninformed statements.

      • Oh please go on. Tell me all about the glorious combat history of the AIM 54 with the US navy. Tell me all about how the F-14 was by far the best aircraft of it’s era despite the fact that the F-15, F-16, and F-18 were all made in the same era, and are all still in service but the F-14 isn’t. I won’t even bother to talk about how much better the super hornet and the raptor are because the F-15 alone has the F-14 beat in every way except maybe a few stats on paper which never panned out in reality.

        • That’s the whole point. You’re saying the F-14 “wasn’t very good”, because the AIM-54 and F-14 have little combat history with the Navy. It’s absurdly faulty logic.

          The F-14 and the AIM-54 put an absolute drubbing on the Iraqi Air Force in the Iran-Iraq war – essentially the only time the combo was ever used without dangerously impotent ROE.

          If you really need *me* to explain why the F-15, F-16, and F-18 are still in service while the F-14 was retired – you’re simply reinforcing my earlier comment.

      • True, but one would expect, if it was such an excellent weapon that it would still be around in anticipation of future conflicts where the ROE might be different.

    • “No contemporary aircraft, friend or foe, can match Tomcat since all these features gave to the F-14 unprecedented and unparalleled mission capabilities.”

      This statement is what David “Bio” Baranek says in his book that I have reviewed in this post. Bio was a real RIO who flew real mission with and against real airplanes. So I believe he knows fighters charateristics more than me and you.

    • The F-14 was retired b/c of maintenance problems. Not flight performance. When they upgraded with the new engines(old ones were Pratt & Whitney, new ones were GE), the F-14 was a beast.

  2. I think is my turn to share a little secret with you. Bio worked also as CIA correspondent during his Topgun tour. And when he finished his fleet career he became a defense contractor in Washington D.C. These fact gave him the chance to work with personnel of every USA service and also with Foxbat defecting pilot Belenko. Do you copy? :-)

    So I suggest to you to read his book..

    • That does sound really interesting, actually and I’ll probably go out and get his book. Trust me, I wasn’t really trying to start a flame war or tear down the F-14 or Bio. His claim of unmatched capabilities just seemed exceedingly bold. Especially when you consider the F-14 is from the same era as the F-15, 16, 18, and the Flanker, some of which will more than likely go down in history as all time greats.

  3. the F14 a good looking plane? Everyone has a different idea of what’s good looking I guess. (Mine would be the Spitfire).

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