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. The F-14 was retired because of massive maintenance costs, low readiness, and after 1990, it’s primary mission – to defend carrier fleets against soviet bombers – was gone. The F-18 was far more versatile, economical, and didn’t have the maintenance nightmare which was a carrier based swing-wing aircraft.

    I don’t dispute the fact that the F-14 was a beautiful, fast plane that could turn and burn with the best of them. But unfortunately maintenance costs, mission readiness, mission relevance, and versatility are all part of the equation of what makes a fighter plane “good.”

    • “The F-14 was retired because … it’s primary mission – to defend carrier fleets against soviet bombers – was gone”.

      Given Vladamir Putin’s intentions, and the growth of China’s military capabilities (especially the Peoples Navy), that mission may be coming back. And I would challenge you with this thought – the DF-21D LR “aircraft carrier killer” hypersonic ballistic missile (and weapons like it – especially low-flying anti-ship cruise missiles). The new threats emerging to compliment or replace the Soviet/Russian bomber in an anti-shipping mission role. Who best to take it on? F/A-18E/F, or what should have been a continually upgraded, produced and refined F-14(X) Tomcat (with improved LR Phoenix and AESA radar)? I’d vote F-14 (let’s say by now the “AdvancedSuperG” Model) over the Super Hornet. Just like they have continually upgraded the F-15 and built that brand new tail-to-radome F/A-18E/F – a completely redesigned aircraft from the original (and all together different) F/A-18 Hornet!

      BTW – certainly not the F-15 in any of it’s derivatives for the U.S. Navy! It could never have served the purpose required of a fleet defense fighter/interceptor and yes, even a bomber. Nor would it have performed as well if it had ever been designed to operate off of a carrier. The added weight would have slowed it down. And what about approach speeds?

      In conclusion, as for today, who would have been best suited to complement stealth on the deck of the modern aircraft carrier (yes – F-35 stealth should be in the mix, but not there alone). What airplane/weapon system could have been most effective (if it had been continuously developed) at engaging these new LR [emerging and current] threats? Who could have most effectively protected the only runway that’s way out there in the ocean and is the only place that an aircraft has to land on (to mention nothing about protecting thousands of sailors’ lives)? An F-14(X) w/improved Phoenix (or another ultra-LR missile/radar replacement) or what they have now? I think the answer is obvious! Congress screwed up by taking the large and powerful LR Tomcat off of the carrier!!

      Last thought because this is all academic. F-15 could have never performed the multi-mission role that Tomcat/Phoenix did. It wasn’t designed for it. Like I said, if I were forced to have only one aircraft at my disposal to produce in order to patrol the entire world against all the threats that can come at me … I’d have taken the F-14 over the F-15 in a heartbeat! Even land-based. It was simply a much more versatile platform (capital “P”)! But again this is all an academic discussion, isn’t it! Just like; “What was the best WW-II piston-engined fighter”? One that was [fairly] widely manufactured and deployed? Oh – I’d say the FW-190 (let’s say the “Dora” model). I’d take it over the Spitfire and even the Mustang. Now – shall we start to argue THAT??? :)

      • Your claims of versatility expose just how ludicrous your whole argument is.

        Lets break this down step by step.

        1. The F-15 is superior in virtually all flight characteristics, speed, g tolerance, acceleration, reliability, maintenance costs, service ceiling etc.. I believe I’ve outlined that sufficiently before so we’ll move on.

        2. The F-15E (a more apples-to-apples comparison to the 14 with its RIO) has a much higher payload than the F-14. 23,000 lbs vs. the F-14’s 14,500 lbs. It can carry a much larger variety of weapons including all current air to air missiles, a wide selection of air-to-surface missiles, and almost every bomb in the US military’s inventory. And even with all of this, it still has better flight characteristics.

        3. The F-15’s combat record is far superior to the F-14, and it has been used in a massive variety of missions. If I were making the claim that a particular aircraft is “unmatched” as the author did, I would probably pick the one with 100+ kills to 0 losses in air-to-air combat. I would not pick the one that had very limited operational success in the US Navy, and whose finest hour was documented with extremely dubious reliability by the Iranians. I will also remind you that the F-15 is the only aircraft in history that has shot down a satellite. So I don’t think you’re in a position to question it’s versatility.

        4. The F-14 has been outlived by almost all of it’s contemporaries. You can shout politics as much as you want, but the simple fact is that maintenance costs and terrible mission readiness killed the F-14. Other airframes can perform all the same functions for less money.

        All of these arguments I have just presented, flight characteristics, payloads, combat records etc.. are facts. If you want to counter my arguments with facts of your own, I would be more than happy to change/revise my position on the issue. But hypotheticals like “An F-14(X) w/improved Phoenix (or another ultra-LR missile/radar replacement)” are useless. We are comparing the aircraft as they are in the present and how they have performed in the past, not postulating about hypothetical future performance.

        Don’t get me wrong, the F-14 is a beautiful aircraft that makes for a great bedroom wall poster, and as a result of top gun, is probably more famous than any other airplane. But don’t confuse fame and good looks with performance.

        • We don’t need to go step-by-step, we need to look at the threat. It’s 1975, the Soviet Union was at the height of it’s power, they deployed both fighters and bombers against the United States and NATO. Which was the best aircraft overall to meet a diverse array of Soviet aircraft? F-15 or F-14A? Given what the threat was, I’d have taken the F-14 solely based on Phoenix w/AWG-9 and the second person in the aircraft.

          Tomcat was a good enough dogfighter in a WVR scenario, superior to F-15 against fighters, bombers and cruise missiles at BVR, and able to deploy on a platform, the U.S. aircraft carrier, that could put it into action anywhere in the world at a moments notice. F-15 was restricted to fixed-base airfields. But even if the Tomcat was only land-based, I’d do exactly what the Shah did, and choose the F-14. He did his homework … now you go do yours! Start at THREAT ASSESSMENT (Mig-21, 23, 25, Sukhoi-XX, TU-95, etc., etc.). Remember, it’s 1975. Now if you want to compare F-14D to F-15E, that’s a whole different ballgame – but F-14 still wins.

          PS. I’ll give you the last word if you want. This discussion is going nowhere, but I did enjoy it! :) And yes – F-15 is a great fighter aircraft.

          • To be fair, this very site reported on how the shah made his decision regarding the F-14 vs. F-15 and the article claimed it really all came down to which aircraft put on a more impressive demo. The F-14 did, but only because it went 2nd and ran it’s engines to decrease internal fuel weight before taking off. Also, I sincerely doubt that the shah could have done that much homework, because both of these aircraft were the cream of the crop at the time and we would have held most of their specifications and technologies pretty close to the chest. In the long run though, I’m glad he chose the F-14 because I sincerely believe that the F-15 is superior in almost every way, and their F-14 fleet now is plagued by the aforementioned maintenance problems leaving only a handful operationally ready.

            As far as the thread assessment goes, I think that has already been done for me.. by the Air Force.. in 1975. The F-15C was the airframe that they chose to station at the absolute front-lines during the cold war at bases all over Germany, England, The Netherlands, Japan, and Alaska to be the first responders to any Russian threat. They did this because of it’s unmatched air-to-air capabilities, which have since been confirmed by it having the best record of any aircraft in history.

            Lastly, I agree this debate probably isn’t going anywhere. You seem to be on board with the idea that the AWG-9/Phoenix system is extraordinarily powerful, but I don’t think it’s proven in combat to be as amazing as some people claim. I think it’s clear from simple specifications that the 15 is better than the 14 as far as airframe performance is concerned, and if you can’t concede that, that just seems illogical to me. I will say though, that I think the F-14 was a great, legendary airplane, just not the absolute best. I think that’s a fair assessment. Also, I enjoyed this debate very much, and it’s always nice to talk with someone who is very knowledgeable on the other side of an issue without it devolving into ad hominem attacks. Cheers.

          • Everyone on this post forgets one thing here. The Tomcat had a giant RCS due to those huge intakes and visible fan blades. Even with a radar less powerful than the AWG-9, the opposing fighter could probably see the F-14 at great ranges. While I am not a fan of the so called super hornet (F/A-18E), it probably has a far smaller RCS than the F-14D.

  2. It is amazing the lengths tomcat fanboys will go to try to convince themselves that the F-14 was the greatest fighter ever. The F-15C isn’t better? Are you actually out of your mind?

    The F-15C has higher top speed, higher thrust to weight ratio, better acceleration, better climb rate, lower wing loading, larger range, higher g limit, higher service ceiling, none of the maintenance/readiness problems that come with swing wing aircraft, and boasts the best air to air combat record of any aircraft. Ever.

    • You’re right – I should have clarified. The F-14B model with the F-110–GE400 engines replacing the PW T-30 was a better OVERALL interceptor/fighter (primarily due to Phoenix and second crew-member). The biggest problem with the Tomcat from day 1 was the Pratt engines.

    • Yes, you are right. I am not saying the F-14D was not a great plane, but people on this post need to be a little more honest. The D version of the Tomcat received GE-F110 engines, while the Eagle actually had a thrust degrade when they got -220s in the 1980s. What if the Eagle would have received GE-F110s like the Tomcat? Can you imagine how that would have helped the Eagle’s T/W ratio and turn rates? The F-15C Eagle will go down as the greatest Air Superiority aircraft since the F-86. And the C version still uses the same de-rated PW-F100-220 engines from over thirty years ago.

  3. I’ve heard this claim before, and there is one small problem. If the migs were close enough to be damaged by the same missile, they would not be distinguishable on radar as multiple planes. Also In general, I would take Iranian claims about the tomcat/phoenix’s performance with a grain of salt.

  4. Given a choice between the F-14A and the F-15, where I’d have to choose one aircraft only to patrol the world and take on all adversaries, all aircraft (bombers as well as fighters), I’d have done exactly what the Shah did and chosen the F-14. Phoenix and the RIO made it a much more versatile, overall superior platform to the F-15. PLATFORM (weapon system), not single-mission pretty much WVR dogfighter.

    F-14 was all-around the best choice of aircraft to patrol the world. And after all, isn’t that what the U.S. Navy does? Patrol the world? That’s why the F-14, overall taken as a package of capabilities, was better.

  5. In its day in blue water ops, 500 or so miles from the “boat”, there never was a fighter in the world that could beat a Tomcat in a free/fair fight and live/land to brag about it.

    First, the Tomcat could have a Phoenix on target before a 15, 16 or 18 can even launch a Sparrow or Amraam. (Stealth fighters excluded)

    Second, the 15’s and 16’s while great aircraft, never were or ever will be carrier capable aircraft. They are unable to perform any mission in blue water ops without serious tanker assets to escort them back to a long, safe runway.

    Third, the most able opponent, the carrier-based Hornets, when loaded out in cruise configurations simply do not turn well. They could not go very far from the boat for a fight (without multiple refueling) and return with a suitable fuel state for a carrier landing. This fuel limitation is exacerbated if participating in any kind of turning fight, and even more so against a GE equipped model Tomcat.

    I was a carrier-based Tomcat pilot and have a rather good idea of its capabilities, as I do of the other teen-series fighters and many others, all of which I successfully fought numerous times.

    • Funny, I have spoken to several F-15 pilots who use to call the Tomcat the “Turkey” because from the Eagle’s HUD view the Tomcat appeared to look like a turkey with its wings and spoilers hanging out. Also, at the merge, being in a F-14A/B/D or F/A-18E vs a Su-27, Rafale, or Eurofighter would be suicidal. The Tomcat was great in 1975, but those days are over-

      • Are you an experienced fighter pilot yourself, because it’s funny you’re trying to argue with someone who is, based on what others have told you. Of course other services will talk trash, that’s just the way it is. I actually was told once by a Viper driver that he’d fought and lost to an F-14. There’s lots of great jets out there, it’s ultimately the skill of the pilot that will largely carry the day. This much has never changed. Despite its size, the Tomcat was plenty able as a dogfighter, especially the B/D.

        • My brother spent 18 years in an F-16 squadron my friend. And he also has a friend who was in VF-1 back in the late 1980’s. The Tomcat was a great jet, but it was not the best ACM machine.

        • 1. I never said the Tomcat was not a good dog-fighter. What I said is that IT CERTAINLY WAS NOT THE BEST DOG-FIGHTER. If you actually believe that the B or D model is (or was) superior (in a 1 v 1 scenario with equal pilots) to the F-16C Block 30 big mouth, the Su-27, the Rafale, the Eurofighter then you are the one that is totally out of touch with reality. The Su-27 and the F-16C Block 30 can complete a 9g turn in 15-16 seconds. The D model Tomcat takes almost 21 seconds.with the wings at 22 degrees and 27 seconds with the wings at 68 degrees. So the up-rated D model F-14 basically turns like a 1985 model F-15C.

          The F-16C turn happens at :35 and the Su-27 turn happens at 4:25.

          Ironically here is a video from 1991 of a F-14B vs F-16N, look at the HUD camera at 6:24. It clearly shows the F-16N killing the supposed invincible F-14B.

          2. My brother spent 18 years in a F-16 unit. He is also friends with a Naval aviator who was with VF-1 back in the late 1980’s.

          3. Once again I do love the F-14, but it was not the best 1 v 1 dogfighter. HOWEVER, as my brother’s friend once said, the Tomcat really shines in the 2 v 2 or many v many BFM. And that is mainly because of the benefits of the RIO, 2 sets of eyes are always better than 1 set.

          Read LCDR Ruzicka’s (F-14D RIO and part of the last year Tomcat airshow demo team), the interview is here:

          Have a good day-

    • The F-14 was an interceptor, not a fighter. Unless it could actually use its BVR Phoenix system and avoid the merge, it was a dog and would die. In ROE that requires visual identification, the F-14 was screwed. It could not handle a -5E, -15, -16, -18, MiG-29, MiG-31, or even the F-4. In DACT exercises, even a pair of old German F-101Fs built for ground attack defeated the Tomcat in 5/6 engagements.

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