Military Aviation

Retired Navy Captain Dan Pedersen, the Naval Officer who created TOPGUN, flies in a Blue Angels F/A-18 Super Hornet

Capt. Brian Kesselring, a former TOPGUN instructor himself and now flight leader and commanding officer of the Blue Angels had the honor of taking TOPGUN1, retired Navy Captain Dan Pedersen, up for a ride.

In 1969, nine men led by retired Navy Captain Dan Pedersen, spent 60 days launching an educational institution that is now cemented in America’s naval aviation history. That school is now known as Navy Fighter Weapons School, TOPGUN. While only a small group of elite fighter pilots knew of the school’s existence in 1969, by the time Top Gun the movie premiered in 1986, no one would be able to forget.

According to US Navy Blue Angels Facebook Page, in 1955 a young Pedersen enlisted in the US Navy and began his Naval Aviation journey with a ride in the backseat of a Naval aircraft while serving aboard NAS Los Alamitos, California. Fast forward to September 2021, he took flight once again over NAS Los Alamitos, but this time in the backseat of a Blue Angels’ jet. During our air show in Huntington Beach, where we had the privilege to fly Capt. Pedersen, the first commanding officer for TOPGUN.

Capt. Brian Kesselring, a former TOPGUN instructor himself and now flight leader and commanding officer of the Blue Angels had the honor of taking TOPGUN1 up for a ride. Joining them that day was the then commanding officer of TOPGUN, Cmdr. Mike Patterson, flying a fleet F/A-18 Super Hornet.

With the recent release of Top Gun: Maverick, the Blue Angels found it only fitting to pay homage to the original TOPGUN. “While many are fascinated by the actors in the films, for me, the true celebrities are people like Capt. Pedersen, the ones who paved the way and used their abilities to make us a more capable military,” said Capt. Brian Kesselring. “Flying this legendary naval aviator was a true honor and a terrific way to thank him for his contributions to our country.”

The Navy’s Strike Fighter Tactics Instructor Course – better known as TOPGUN – has a reputation for producing the best fighter pilots in the world.

Its reputation now precedes it, but TOPGUN’s origin was much more humble. As told by Katie Lange , DOD News, in the article It Started in a Parking Lot: TOPGUN’s History Revealed, initially based out of a trailer in the parking lot of what was then Naval Air Station Miramar, California, the school became necessary to better train Navy fighter pilots during Vietnam.

Despite having the technological edge, the Navy was experiencing unacceptable combat losses in Vietnam. In response, the service commissioned an investigation and tasked Navy Capt. Frank Ault to lead the effort. The resulting report, known as the Ault Report, highlighted many performance deficiencies and their root causes, including the need for an advanced course to teach fighter tactics. The result was the Navy Fighter Weapons School, established at Miramar in 1969.

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Nicknamed TOPGUN, the school’s mission was — and still is — to train aircrew in all aspects of aerial combat to be carried out with the utmost professionalism. In its early days, its students were trained over the course of four weeks on F-4 Phantom II aircraft to get better at one-on-one aerial combat, also known as dogfighting.

Photo credit: U.S. Navy

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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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