One of the more proactive actions taken by TOPGUN during the 2000s was the effort to integrate with the USAF F-22 community.
TOPGUN, known to fleet as the Navy Fighter Weapons School, was founded during the Vietnam War after naval aviators were sustaining high levels of casualties despite superior aircraft and weapons technology. The school brought in experts to train the pilots and Naval Flight Officers on how to take advantage of new innovations inside the cockpit and properly engage enemy targets. One year after the school opened, for every one U.S. casualty, there were 12 for the enemy.
At today’s TOPGUN these highly-skilled men and women define them for the rest of the fleet. They experiment with new maneuvers in dogfighting and air-to-air combat. They design methods for low-level bombing runs. Instructors fly as adversaries, testing out enemy tactics on their students. Each day, pilots push their aircraft to the limit, just to see what’s possible.
As explained by Brad Elward in his book TOPGUN: The Legacy: The Complete History of TOPGUN and Its Impact on Tactical Aviation, one of the more proactive actions taken by TOPGUN during the 2000s was the effort to integrate with the USAF F-22 community. The Raptor, which reached IOC in December 2005 and first appeared in Exercise Northern Edge in Alaska in June 2006, is the most advanced air-to-air fighter in the world and relies on stealth, speed, and maneuverability as its main attributes. TOPGUN’s integration with the F-22 community took several approaches, ranging from having a former TOPGUN instructor participate in an exchange with the USAF 422nd Test and Evaluation Squadron (TES) at Nellis, to flying with the F-22s in integration testing and having F-22s participate both in 1v1 graduation and strike graduation exercises during the SFTI course.
The first of these interactions involved former instructors flying with the 422nd. Beginning in 2006, three TOPGUN instructors were given the opportunity to complete an exchange with the USAF’s 422nd to fly the F-22—Mike Wosje, David Berke (Marine), and Eric Doyle. Berke, in fact, is the only Marine to have ever operationally flown the F-22 and for a period of time was the only pilot in the world who had operationally flown the F-22 and F-35, the latter when he commanded VMFAT-501 at Eglin AFB. Each exchange officer then shared his F-22 experiences with TOPGUN to help the staff better understand the tactics employed by fifth-generation fighters so as to more effectively integrate in combat. This trend continued in the 2010s with Erick “Pol Pot” Kammeyer, Blaine “Convict” Felony, and, recently, Chris “Penguin” Case, all of whom are former TOPGUN instructors.
Berke recalled how the exchange first came about. “The Navy contacted TOPGUN and requested that it get engaged with the 422nd to start evaluating the newer fifth-generation aircraft.” He said, “The initial plan called for the Navy and Marine Corps to alternate sending a pilot. They called it, ‘port/starboard.”‘ The Navy sent the first pilot, Wosje, and the Marines sent Berke. According to Berke, “The time made perfect sense because the Marine Corps was anticipating standing up its F-35B fleet in the early 2010s, and the leadership wanted to get someone with fifth-generation experience so we could hit the ground running as opposed to starting cold. The Marines thought the best way to do this was to work this alternating plan with the Navy.” But after Berke completed his tour and Doyle assumed the role, the Marines ended this relationship, having worked out their own exchange with the USAF to send a pilot through the F-35A community. Thus, Berke became the only Marine to fly the F-22. The Navy has also started an exchange with the USAF’s 6th Fighter Squadron and currently has a pilot assigned there flying the F-35A.
Another opportunity came through integration tests held by the 422nd. Chris Papaioanu, who was TOPGUN’s training officer during 2006 and early 2007, recalled, “It was more of how do we as the F/A-18 community integrate with the F-22s in the tasks that we, the Navy, execute. Their tactics are very unique because they can do so much more than the average Navy plane. And what we found was our tactics were perfect for them, and the integration was almost seamless.” But, Papaioanu said, “It took some thought on both sides to put that together. And it worked out really well in the end.”
The first integration effort came in early 2007, when TOPGUN sent a contingency of jets and instructors to Nellis to work with the 422nd in a series of fighter integration exercises. Papaioanu recalled, “They were trying to figure out how to integrate the Raptor with the F-15, the F-16, and the F/A-18.” TOPGUN ended up borrowing two VX-9 fleet-representative jets and took two of their own jets to Nellis. Papaioanu said VX-9 was glad to help “but asked if they could send one guy to fly with us so they could get a better understanding of where we’re going with our new tactics.” At the time, TOPGUN was in the process of implementing its new Fighter Tactics concepts.
The 422nd integration exercise was set over three weeks, with the F-15s flying first, followed by the F-16s and then Navy F/A-18s. “All the flights were the same. So the flights that the F-15s went through were the same setups as the flights that the F-16s and F-18s went through.” Papaioanu recalled being nervous about the exercise because “this was the first real-world test of our new tactics. We were wondering, ‘Did we create something that only worked on Fallon’s ranges, or did we really create a sound tactic?”‘
But it worked. Papaioanu said, “I got the call from Dave Harris, who was spearheading the detachment. l said, ‘How did we do?’ He goes, ‘The whole week, we lost one guy. Out of all the flights, we lost one fighter, and it was the VX-9 guy.’ And he just made a bad mistake. No harm or foul on his part. He was doing something very dynamic. They don’t do that much down in VX-9, and he just made a mistake and got himself shot.’ And I couldn’t believe it. I said, ‘Seriously, we lost one? Out of all the flights that whole week, we lost one guy?’ And ‘Pool said, ‘Just one.”
Fourth-/fifth-generation integration work continued during Berke’s time with the 422nd. According to Berke, integration is basically “how you take fourth-generation and fifth-generation aircraft and work them together. Each community develops their own tactics for their platforms, and the challenging part is how to make those tactics work with fifth-generation aircraft. We knew that if we went to war, within a few days we (as F-22s) were going to be operating with a large number of fourth-generation aircraft. And we needed to figure out how to best do that. It isn’t as simple as each does their own.” Berke said, “Having Raptors really changed the situation. And we could not just ask each of the communities to change their tactics too much, because those tactics were developed based on their capabilities. We had to develop tactics that integrated the communities.’ Berke said, “We had to develop an employment scheme, which we called integration, for each community. We had one for Hornets, one for Super Hornets, one for Falcons, and so on. Integration involved operationally testing our integration schemes with each of these communities.” Berke recalled that TOPGUN’s Fighter Tactics worked well with the F-22 tactics and made integration easier.
The integration work with TOPGUN culminated in 2010, with Berke bringing two F-22s to fly in TOPGUN’s 1v1 Graduation Exercise. Berke said the students first found out about the Raptors when they walked out onto the flight line. “We had parked the two Raptors right outside the hangar on the flight line, so they were the first thing the students saw when they walked out.’ He said the two F-22s did two sorties—one in the morning and one in the afternoon—and did multiple flights during each. “It ended up being about eight students.” He also arranged for F-22s to participate as “blue air” for the Class Graduation Strike (Grad Ex) during the following class. Following those events, TOPGUN integrated the F-22 flights into its syllabus, and they continue to do so today.
TOPGUN: The Legacy: The Complete History of TOPGUN and Its Impact on Tactical Aviation is published by Schiffer Publishing and is available to order here.
Photo credit: U.S. Navy Photo by Christopher Hurst