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


Enhanced by Zemanta


  1. Look, I don’t hate the F-14, I just don’t understand the obsession that everyone has with it. But I strongly suspect it might have a little something to do with the movie Top Gun.

    With the US Navy, the F-14 and Phoenix combination was great on paper, but the Phoenix was used only a handful of times and it never scored a hit on an enemy aircraft.

    Iran ***claims*** to have used it to great effect in the Iran/Iraq war, but keep in mind that these claims come from a country run by religious fanatics who censor all information entering or leaving the country.. Not to mention the fact that they engage in propaganda stunts to exaggerate their military power on an extremely regular basis. Remember their “super advanced” Qaher 313 stealth fighter that was so poorly photoshopped, it was debunked by basically everyone on the entire internet in a matter of minutes? ..So forgive me if I am reluctant to take their military claims seriously.

    I don’t doubt the F-14/AIM-54 had the potential to be good. But when you judge historically whether or not a plane was good, it doesn’t matter how cool the Tom Cruise movie about it was, it doesn’t matter how much it makes you yearn for the golden era of naval aviation, and it definitely doesn’t matter how pretty you think it looked. All that matters is combat record, which for the US, is virtually nonexistent, and for Iran is dubious at best. Couple that with the fact that it was retired because of through-the-roof maintenance costs and poor mission readiness, and I really don’t get the “Legendary Tomcat” circlejerk.

    Efficient, battle hardened, killing machine? Not a chance.
    Pop culture icon? Absolutely.

    • I was never really into Top Gun later on, loved the Jet from the movie yes but in reality the Final Countdown with the skull and crossones on the Jolly Rogers tail made me a fan! Top Gun for alot yes and I admit that but not the only reason some love the Jet (I have friends in the Navy too).

      You can mention it’s 4-0 combat record for the US at most I guess since you do not believe the Iran claims (Which may or may not be true, dubious you can use but who knows? IF even half true what a hell of a plane they had on their hands for that war.

      I was talking moreso the capabilities and fear factor of the Jet, when upgraded with the radar and GE F110 Engines it was a very capable fighter aircraft not prone to the compressor stalls the earlier TF-30 junk engines had, still have no clue why they kept those in so long. Maintenance was bad on this later on from the airframe etc., suspect as Pilot told me the wear and tear of being on a ship that many years can take a big toll on the Jet, something the F16 and F15 do not have to endure! Think about that for a second.

      The Jet is basically a legend during the cold war and an icon of the Navy, capabilities at times as you said vastly unproven so we would be arguing all day as to what it could really do in battle but the mistique is the full capabilites are unknown. I believe it to be an invaluable interceptor and even capable in it’s later days of bombing missions in which it was not too shabby at. The jet never got a chance in a full blown war though to get the kill ratio of the F15 so that part is not fair, you have to have the chance to actually prove your capable and the F15 being fleet defence did not. I almost wish it was out a few years earlier in Nam to replace the F4 because it would have had it’s shot then.

      BTW the F100 Super Sabre never had an air to air kill, does that make it less capable for it’s time? I don’t believe so.

      • The whole discussion about which U.S. fighter outperforms the other is moot if you consider one thing: how could the Navy or Air Force justify any new planes they so much want if they could also keep the old stuff flying by doing upgrades?
        I mean they are able to keep their B-52’s in the air and those are really old, so why not fighters?
        Because they need to create a gap so the new plane can fill it, and they do love their new toys :)

        • You are fully correct, they like wasting money on new junk though it seems which is shady at best…. They could have upgraded the fighters they had, yet they had to get the F22 and F35 who I have heard alot of mixed stuff about as far as their capabilities etc. Upgrade the F14 to the Supertomcat 21 like they were supposed to and keep the Eagle and F16 going or give them some upgrades as well, bingo. I agree with this post 100%.

  2. You forget one thing, when the F-14D received F110s that helped it considerably in the BFM. However, the F-15A and C models NEVER received any uprated engines of the like. They actually had a thrust degrade in the mid 1980’s with the -220s. You have your “future” super Tomcat idea, what about doing the same with the Eagle. Give the Eagle F110-129/132 engines, FBW, leading edge slats, and CCV; and that plane would probably be superior to any fighter similar to its size. All that you speak is conjecture-

  3. The F-14D was lucky enough to get more powerful engines in the form of the GE-F110. The F-15A/C fighter versions of the Eagle never received more powerful engines as the Tomcat; but they have soldiered on since the mid 1980’s with their de-rated PW-F100-220’s. If the Eagle received the GE-F110s as the Tomcat there would be absolutely no comparison. So lets be a little fair here. Not to mention the Tomcat was old, probably would be a waste of taxpayer money to keep a plane in service with so many airframe hours. And now that is become of the Eagle, those C versions produced in the early to mid 1980’s are very old and have on average over 7,500 hrs on their airframes. Age got to the Tomcat just as it is getting to all the teen series fighters now.

  4. The Tomcat was a nice looking plane but VG is obsolete. The Tomcat was retired because it had few airframe hours left, had dated electronics, and most importantly of all it had a giant RCS (radar cross section). If VG is so great, how come none are being designed today??

Comments are closed.