Tom Cruise With F-14 Tomcat on Snowy Set in Tahoe: Top Gun Escape Scene Filmed?

F-14 on set in South Lake Tahoe. (Image credit: Hollywoodpipeline.com)

Hollywood leaks photos of Cruise in snowy set; fan photos show special colored F/A-18F flying though the Star Wars Canyon; F-14 Tomcat appears on set.

More “leaked” photos from production of the anticipated 2020 sequel, “Top Gun: Maverick” hit social media and Hollywood tabloids this week. The latest teasers may provide clues about plot ideas and speculation about the film’s production.

Four interesting things surfaced: Tom Cruise as “Maverick” photographed in flight costume running through the woods in snowy Lake Tahoe during filming- along with what looks like an old Eastern Bloc tank. Earlier photos show a sweaty Tom Cruise in real U.S. Navy flight gear (not costume) at the crew ladder of an F/A-18 after what may have been an orientation flight from NAS China Lake. Photos of Cruise in Tahoe show him climbing around an old F-14. And most interestingly, photos have surfaced of the special paint scheme F/A-18F nose number “00” with Maverick’s name on it flying through Star Wars Canyon suggesting the area may be featured in the upcoming movie.

A series of photos surfaced two weeks ago on Instagram that showed Tom Cruise with sweaty hair wearing actual U.S. Navy flight gear as he chatted with what appears to be a senior officer while a maintenance man with hearing protection is servicing an F/A-18 Hornet. The second photo in the series shows the specially painted black/blue two-seat F/A-18F Super Hornet we’ve reported on earlier. It doesn’t look to us like either photo was taken during production.

In this first photo, it looks more like Cruise may have been returning from an orientation flight in an F/A-18. If you examine the two photos from the “tom_cruise_fan_k” Instagram you realize he is standing in front of another, different F/A-18 – not the special “Top Gun” black and blue F/A-18F. Look closely at the centerline tank in the photo of Cruise and the officer; the tip of the tank is gray. The tip of the tank on the specially painted bird is black with two blue stripes.

We also found this information on an official U.S. Navy website about two F/A-18F two-seat Super Hornets at Naval Air Weapons Station (NAWS) China Lake flown by Air Test and Evaluation Squadron 31 (VX-31) the “Dust Devils”:

“VX-31 operates two F/A-18F Super Hornets as range support aircraft that can provide airborne target presentations, range instrumentation and threat calibration, photo and safety chase [emphasis added], and any other use other than end item test flights. Because maintenance and consumable costs of operating the aircraft are funded each year by NAVAIR, DOD customers need only pay for the fuel that is consumed during each flight. The fiscal year 2010 customer cost per flight hour is $3,425.00, making these aircraft very attractive assets for the range and flight test support role. These two aircraft are not scheduled as project test aircraft for end-item testing.”

We previously reported that Tom Cruise was seen wearing a VX-31 “Dust Devils” patch on his flight jacket.



Tom Cruise has been seen and tracked on flight data websites flying his own personal P-51 Mustang into China Lake. Then he was photographed in different, actual U.S. Navy flight gear in front of an F/A-18 with a low-vis centerline tank. And finally, two of the F/A-18F Super Hornets operated by VX-31 at China Lake (aircraft numbers 211 and 212) are configured especially for observers to fly in the back seat. According to their own web page, “The aft cockpit has excellent field-of-view for photographers and safety observers.” And then, remember Tom Cruise on the motorcycle with the VX-31 patch on his jacket.

If you put all this together, the photo of a sweaty Tom Cruise in real flight gear at the bottom of an F/A-18 ladder with a senior officer, the VX-31 patch on his jacket in the motorcycle shots, the two photo-shoot birds operated by VX-31 and Tom Cruise flying into and out of China Lake, where VX-31 is operating- it seems reasonable to suggest Tom Cruise was actually flying in either F/A-18F aircraft number 211 or 212 from VX-31 for an orientation flight. It’s no different than the Thunderbirds or Blue Angels taking a celebrity or reporter on an orientation flight.

About a week after the first photos showed up of the special paint scheme “00” nose number F/A-18F Super Hornet with black and blue markings and “Maverick” on the cockpit rails, photographer Paul Massey of Manchester, England caught images of the same aircraft flying through Star Wars Canyon in Death Valley, California. Massey posted the photos on Twitter and on his excellent website, lowflyimages.com. He was kind enough to allow us to share them. The appearance of the Top Gun painted F/A-18F Super Hornet in the Canyon seems to reinforce rumors that Star Wars Canyon will be a location for “Top Gun: Maverick”.

The special-colored F/A-18F flying through the Star Wars Canyon (Image credit: Lowflyimages.com)

The real prize would be a photo of either the specially painted “00” F/A-18F or one of the two VX-31 F/A-18Fs, either aircraft 211 or 212, flying through Star Wars Canyon with Tom Cruise in the back seat. He may be recognizable by the specially marked helmet he has been seen with on set, or, it could be a U.S. Navy pilot acting as a stand-in. Tom Cruise is 5’7” tall, maybe a little shorter than the average U.S. Navy pilot. Either way, seeing the special “00” black/blue “Top Gun” F/A-18F in the Canyon is pretty special. Interestingly, when black/blue “00” was photographed in the Canyon by Paul Massey, there was no one in the back seat of the F/A-18F.

The tabloid websites, blogs and Instagram started posting photos of Tom Cruise on Location in Lake Tahoe last week. An old F-14 hulk was seen being towed into town before photos showed up of Cruise on a crew ladder next to the F-14. So, it looks like we’ll get to see at least one F-14 Tomcat in “Top Gun: Maverick” even if it is on the ground. The F-14 appears to have a Phoenix emblem under the cockpit.

The second set of photos from the Lake Tahoe location are more interesting. They show Cruise as Pete “Maverick” Mitchell running around in the snowy forests of the Lake Tahoe wilderness wearing full flight gear. Other photos that showed up on Instagram from the same set show what appears to be a movie prop Russian or Chinese tank. Moreover, “Mav” is using his old HGU-33 helmet.

Photos that appear leaked from the set of “Top Gun: Maverick” show actor Tom Cruise as Pete “Maverick” Mitchell wearing an old flight helmet while be filmed in the snow around Lake Tahoe . (Photo: tom_cruise_fan_k via Instagram.)

It makes you wonder if the production crew in Lake Tahoe is filming a flashback scene to Maverick’s F-14 Tomcat days when he may have been shot down over “enemy” territory even though there are chances they are  filming an attempt to steal an F-14 from an enemy nation (just for info: Iran is the only remaining Tomcat operator).

With the volume of social media images surfacing from the set of “Top Gun: Maverick” you have to wonder if some of the “leaks” are intentional. Hollywood is smart about leveraging cost-effective social media for promotion. Especially after grumbling about the film’s delay until summer, 2020, a well-executed guerilla marketing campaign for “Top Gun: Maverick” may be a good way to keep the project relevant and maintain the fan hype. Whether the social media photos are intentionally “leaked” or genuine paparazzi shots, following the film production and using some plane spotting techniques makes the experience more interesting.

Meanwhile, let’s not forget we have also reported about set of photos (once again originally appeared on TheHollywoodPipeline.com) showing Tom Cruise in his character as Pete “Maverick” Mitchell wearing an all-black high-altitude pressure suit similar to the actual ones worn by high altitude reconnaissance pilots in aircraft like the U-2 and SR-71. The plot thickens…