F-14 Tomcat

From the F/A-18 Super Hornet to the F-14 Tomcat: all the Fighter Aircraft featured in Top Gun: Maverick

This time, it looks like Maverick and the rest of the Navy crew in “Top Gun: Maverick” will face the Sukhoi Su-57, NATO reporting name Felon.

Top Gun: Maverick, the sequel to the 1986 classic puts Pete “Maverick” Mitchell back in the cockpit to train a new group of young aviators. Facing an uncertain future and confronting the ghosts of his past, Maverick is drawn into a confrontation with his own deepest fears, culminating in a mission that demands the ultimate sacrifice from those who will be chosen to fly it.

The original Top Gun featured the iconic F-14 Tomcat, the nimble A-4 Skyhawk and the famed, black painted MiG-28 that never actually existed: in fact the part of the MiG-28 was played by the F-5E Tiger II.

As explained in an extensive piece appeared on Sandboxx, this time, it looks like Maverick and the rest of the Navy crew in “Top Gun: Maverick” will face an actual foreign aircraft: the Sukhoi Su-57, NATO reporting name Felon.

Sukhoi Su-57 Felon

The configuration of the Sukhoi Su-57 Felon is an evolution of the Su-27’s shape adapted for the requirements of low visibility and supersonic speed and agility.

As explained by Piotr Butowski in his book Russia’s Warplanes, Volume 1, the main solution to reduce radar visibility is internal carriage of weapons. Radar blockers reduce reflections from the engine inlet guide vanes and are installed in the engine air intake ducts. The shape of the airframe has been selected to reduce the number of directions in which electro-magnetic waves are reflected, and to ensure these directions are the safest.

Another group of stealth measures concern the fighter’s equipment. The surfaces of the NO36 radar arrays are deflected from the vertical plane, thus deflecting the enemy radar’s radiation aside. The domes of the arrays are selective — they let their own signal pass through and block other frequencies. In addition, the compartments for these arrays feature radar-absorbent coatings on their edges to absorb ‘freak waves’ (which occur when a wave is amplified after multiple reflections within an enclosed space). In order to reduce their total number, the available arrays are used by multiple systems simultaneously, for example, the radar, ECM and IFF systems. Within the antenna-feeder system, use is made of antennas that do not protrude outside the airframe outlines, and the vertical empennage serves as an antenna for the communications suite. The turret of the 101KS-V IRST is rotated backwards in cruise configuration, and its rear hemisphere is covered with a radar-absorbing coating.

Although it seems all but likely that “Top Gun: Maverick” will paint the Su-57 as a formidable foe, potentially even a straight-up over-match for Maverick and co’s F/A-18 Super Hornets, and even if as we have already explained the Su-57 is marketed as fifth generation fighter, the Felon is not a true stealth fighter and it can’t be compared to the US-made F-22 Raptor and F-35 Lightning II. The Su-57 Felon has the same RCS of a clean F/A-18 Super Hornet (and 1,000 times bigger than that of the F-35).

F/A-18 Super Hornet

The original “Top Gun” may have left moviegoers pining for the cockpit of the F-14, but with the Tomcat’s retirement in 2006, Maverick’s new ride for the movie is the F/A-18E Super Hornet.

The F/A-18 Hornet is US first strike-fighter. It was designed for traditional strike applications such as interdiction and close air support without compromising its fighter capabilities. With its excellent fighter and self-defense capabilities, the F/A-18 at the same time increased strike mission survivability and supplemented the F-14 Tomcat in fleet air defense.

The newest model, Super Hornet, is highly capable across the full mission spectrum: air superiority, fighter escort, reconnaissance, aerial refueling, close air support, air defense suppression and day/night precision strike. Compared to the original F/A-18 A through D models, Super Hornet has longer range, an aerial refueling capability, increased survivability/lethality and improved carrier suitability. [Capability of precision-guided munitions: JDAM (all variants), JSOW and JASSM].

Gone are the days of the RIOs. (If you watch the trailer, the plane at the very end is a Tomcat, present thanks to CGI magic.) The radar system is improved enough that the pilot can fly the plane and use the radar at the same time, no Goose needed.

Super Hornets come in two variants: a single-seater and a two-seater, meaning that unlike a Tomcat, which engineers designed around a two-person crew, a pilot can fly an F/A-18 all by themselves. The two-seaters, technically known as the F/A-18F, can host a “weapons systems officer” in the backseat (abbreviation: WSO, pronounced “whizz-oh”). Alternatively, that backseat can be outfitted with all the controls a pilot would need to fly the Super Hornet.

While the Tomcat is powerful, the Hornet and Super Hornet are more agile. If an F/A-18 and F-14 were to fight, the former would have an advantage in that realm. And with a modern aircraft comes a plane easier to fly: the Tomcat was challenging to fly well, while the Hornet is easier to be good in.

F-35C Lightning II

Paramount film crews working aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln also confirmed that “Top Gun: Maverick” will feature the Lockheed Martin F-35C.

In August 2018 in fact a film crew from Paramount Pictures was aboard aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN-72) the same time the Navy began launching F-35C jets off the ship interchangeably with F/A-18E/F Super Hornets as an integrated air wing.

At the time six F-35Cs were operating aboard Lincoln and the film crew almost certainly got an up-close look at the Lightning II – operating alongside the Super Hornets, the EA-18G Growlers, the E-2 Hawkeye and the C-2 Greyhound.

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Thanks to the F-35C Lightning II for the first time in US naval aviation history, radar-evading stealth capability comes to the carrier deck. The F-35C carrier variant sets new standards in weapon system integration, lethality, maintainability, combat radius and payload that bring true multimission power projection capability from the sea.

The F-35C combines lessons learned from previous aircraft with technology breakthroughs to produce a fighter that retains its stealthy advantage with minimal low observable maintenance, even in the harshest shipboard conditions.

The F-35C matches 5th generation survivability with major advances in network-enabled mission systems, reliability and interoperability. It is a first-day-of-the-war fighter with the capability to dominate adversaries in the air or on the surface, while surviving the most formidable threat environments.

SR-72 Son of Blackbird (or Darkstar)

Based on an assumption made thanks to the Matchbox toyline, Top Gun: Maverick will also feature the SR-72 Son of Blackbird (or Darkstar).

The aircraft shown only briefly in some of the movie’s trailers is very clearly not based on anything in operation today… but that doesn’t mean it’s without an analogous real-world platform.

The SR-72 is envisioned as a manned or an unmanned, reusable hypersonic ISR and strike aircraft capable of Mach 6 flight, or nearly double the speed of its predecessor, the SR-71 Blackbird. As we have previously reported ,NASA is funding the validation of a previous Lockheed study that found that speeds up to Mach 7 could be achieved with a dual-mode engine that combines turbine and ramjet technologies.

This exotic-looking aircraft will introduce hypersonic platforms to the Top Gun universe.

P-51 Mustang

“Top Gun: Maverick” doesn’t only feature advanced new fighters and aircraft, it’s also got an appearance from Tom Cruise’s personally-owned P-51 Mustang.

The Mustang was among the best and most well-known fighters used by the US Army Air Forces during World War II. Possessing excellent range and maneuverability, the P-51 operated primarily as a long-range escort fighter and also as a ground attack fighter-bomber. The Mustang served in nearly every combat zone during WWII, and later fought in the Korean War.

The P-51 Mustang featured in “Top Gun: Maverick” actually belongs to Tom Cruise.

The P-51D version incorporated several improvements, and it became the most numerous variant of the Mustang with nearly 8,000 being built. The most obvious change was a new “bubble-top” canopy that greatly improved the pilot’s vision. The P-51D also received the new K-14 gunsight, an increase from four to six .50-cal machine guns, and a simplified ammunition feed system that considerably reduced gun jams.

The P-51 Mustang featured in “Top Gun: Maverick” is not a P-51D, but rather a P-51K (different propeller and canopy shape), but that’s just a bit of picking nits.

F-14 Tomcat

While Tom Cruise got top billing in the first film, the Grumman F-14 Tomcat was the real star. Now, it looks a lot like the F-14 is making a comeback in “Top Gun: Maverick,” and in what may be the craziest split-second of footage you’re apt to find on television today, it might be squaring off against Russia’s Su-57.

Advancements during the Cold War in Soviet long-range patrol and bomber aircraft dictated a requirement for a fleet defense fighter that could engage high-altitude bombers from well beyond visual range. The iconic F-14 Tomcat was Grumman’s answer. Equipped with long range AIM-54 Phoenix air-to-air missiles, F-14s could engage multiple hostiles over 90 miles away. Needing an interceptor’s high speed while carrying this heavy ordnance, Grumman produced the highly effective variable sweep wing of the F-14, enabling it to operate at a wide range of airspeeds.

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The F-14 saw its first combat in August 1981, downing two Libyan Su-22 fighters over the Gulf of Sidra. It saw considerable duty in the Gulf War, Iraq and Afghanistan. The last F-14D Super Tomcat retired from active service with the US Navy in 2006, when it was replaced by the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, an evolutionary upgrade to the F/A-18C/D.

However, the F-14A remains in service with the Islamic Republic of Iran Air Force (IRIAF).

How would an old F-14 fare in a fight against the latest and greatest fighter Russia has to offer? Well, that’s hard to say. The F-14’s variable-sweep wing design was a relic of a pre-stealth era, and the aircraft is said to have a radar cross-section comparable to that of the still-in-service F-15.

That might not sound too bad… but it is.

Suffice to say, the Su-57 would see the Tomcat coming long before even the Tomcat’s massive AN/AWG-9 radar could see the Felon.

Although Russia’s avionics may be dated, this time, the Russians likely would have the technological advantage.

The interesting video in this post features the 6 fighter aircraft that according to Paramount Pictures will appear in Top Gun: Maverick.

Photo credit: Paramount Pictures and Asobo Studio/Xbox Game Studios

Dario Leone

Dario Leone is an aviation, defense and military writer. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviation Geek Club” one of the world’s most read military aviation blogs. His writing has appeared in The National Interest and other news media. He has reported from Europe and flown Super Puma and Cougar helicopters with the Swiss Air Force.

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