MEDIA

TOP GUN ON TARGET

ALUMNI ENSURED TOP GUN’S PORTRAYAL OF PILOTS AND FLIGHT SEQUENCES WERE REALISTIC

John H. Semcken ’78 knew the filmmakers’ plan would infuriate his admiral.

Capturing a seminal shot in the original Top Gun took precise planning and a willingness to absorb a severe tongue-lashing. Semcken served as technical advisor and Navy liaison for the 1986 blockbuster produced by Jerry Bruckheimer and directed by Tony Scott. To film Maverick, played by Tom Cruise, buzzing the air traffic control tower, Semcken said the pilot couldn’t leave the confines of Miramar Naval Air Station to conform to FAA guidelines. So, the F-14 had to break over the base. That route meant buzzing the quarters of Rear Admiral Thomas J. Cassidy Jr., Commander, Fighter Airborne Early Warning Wing Pacific.

Semcken said he knew it would take multiple takes to ensure they got a quality shot of the fly-by and that it would require flying over Admiral Cassidy’s quarters , which would not make him happy. He knew the director would only get three takes before the admiral called a “knock it off” on filming.

“I knew it was then that the phones were going to start ringing,” said Semcken, a 1983 graduate of Navy Fighter Weapons School, also known as TOPGUN.

When as expected after the first fly-by the phone rang, Semcken bought the director some time by walking past the nearest phone to one further away. Semcken took his expected tongue lashing from the admiral while the second fly-by took place, hung up, then called the admiral after the third fly-by to apologize personally.

Semcken, who was one of several Naval Academy alumni to work on the original Top Gun, was on set every day of filming. He was the first officer and pilot at Miramar to read the script and was assigned by Admiral Cassidy to oversee the filming. He played an integral role ensuring depictions of Navy pilots were as accurate as possible. He understood Bruckheimer and Scott weren’t making a documentary, but he was committed to helping deliver a film that would be well received by the general public and “make the pilots look as cool as they were.”

He acknowledged the filmmakers did take some creative license.

“No pilot in the Navy would fly-by the tower if the fly-by was denied,” Semcken said. “You’d never fly again. But, that’s Hollywood.”

PROFESSIONAL PORTRAYAL

Lieutenant Commander (later Admiral) Robert F. Willard ’73, was a TOPGUN instructor during filming. He was the film’s aerial coordinator and spent several weeks reviewing the screenplay and “battling” with the filmmakers to eliminate flight sequences that were more fantasy than reality.

He said early script drafts included mid-air collisions that would have put the naval aviation community in a bad light. He said he worked with Scott and Bruckheimer to inject realism into the dogfight and training sequences. Willard flew the F-5 (simulating the MiG-28, a fictional threat aircraft) in the movie and he also coordinated all the F-14 crews during the flying sequences. Lieutenant Commander Lloyd “Bozo” Able flew the F-14 equipped with cameras for most of the flight sequence scenes in the movie.

The filmmakers were dedicated to producing a realistic film and integrated nearly all of Willard’s suggestions into the movie.

“We wanted to portray the school as professional,” said Willard whose call sign was “Rat.”

Willard appreciated the cinematic vision the filmmakers sought and worked with them to deliver exciting and realistic flight sequences. At times, he said he would reject requests for aerial scenes calling for pilots to fly too low over difficult terrain. Willard said Scott was a gracious partner who would listen to suggestions that were credible, safe and looked great on film. He said the first time they filmed a head-on pass between two airplanes, the results weren’t convincing. The planes didn’t appear close enough. So, Willard gained permission from Admiral Cassidy to change the rules of engagement to allow for much closer passes.

The final dogfight scene was laid out on white boards with Willard walking Scott through the engagement scenario.

“(Scott) was a visualist and would listen,” Willard said. “He was a willing partner in the whole thing. We thought we had sufficient control over what we wanted. In general, we were flying lower to the ground, closer to each other and slower than we normally would in training.”

While Willard was a stickler for reality, there is one scene that might have been a bit loose with the laws of physics. It is one of the movie’s most memorable and Willard played a central part.

Willard was the MiG pilot Maverick engaged in “international relations” with while inverted during an early flight sequence in Top Gun.

“I was the guy who got flipped off,” Willard said.

MASKS ON

Semcken knew when he first read the script that there were no words in the dogfight scenes. He suggested that Scott add words to the aerial sequences which Scott denied. He was befuddled watching the first dogfight scene the filmmakers cut together. Nothing in the movie should have confused him. He was on set each day of filming, was involved during the creation of the flight sequences, was a TOPGUN graduate and an experienced pilot.

The problem, Semcken said, is the scene resembled a music video with airplanes. There were no words in the original cut. It contained zero communication between pilots, the tower or the radar intercept officer (RIO). To the uninitiated viewer, it was just a bunch of planes randomly

flying, Semcken said.

On the final day of filming, Semcken convinced Scott to have the actors wear masks during closeup shots in a mockup of an F-14 inside a Burbank, CA, hangar. He insisted that during the dogfights, pilots wear masks. He withheld the part that masks aren’t needed below 10,000 feet because he knew dialogue was critical to telling a story the audience could understand. Dialogue also added a level of tension and excitement missing from the original cut.

“I knew they needed words,” Semcken said. “I knew the only way they’d be able to add words in the future was if they were wearing masks. I told them, ‘when this movie comes out and they’re not wearing masks, they’ll court martial me.’”

The filmmakers weren’t totally onboard with Semcken’s suggestions, however. It wasn’t until the film’s first cut was ready that the critical change was made. Bruckheimer invited Semcken and Dave “Bio” Baranek, a RIO and TOPGUN instructor, who flew in Rat’s back seat in the F-5 (MiG-28), to review the movie. Semcken said his recommendations were supported by Baranek who hadn’t been as intimately involved as he was in the day-to-day filming. Semcken said Baranek verified Semcken’s concern the audience wouldn’t understand what was happening during the first dog fight scene.

Semcken reminded Bruckheimer about filming the actors masked in the hangar in Burbank and advised inserting the masked actors into the flight sequences that were in the film. He said he and Baranek could add realistic dialogue to the flight scenes, which the actors were brought back in to record, and editor Chris Lebenzon could cut it into the movie. Semcken spoke as if he was the pilot (Maverick) and Baranek as if was the RIO (Goose).

ICONIC AND INFLUENTIAL

The reverberations of Top Gun on the aviation community are still felt, Semcken said. He said he regularly hears from senior and former naval aviators and flight officers how the movie influenced their career choice. Semcken said the sequel, Top Gun: Maverick, could have a similar impact.

“To anyone who sees the movie and is excited, (Navy is) hiring,” Semcken said. “To anyone at the Naval Academy, aviation is an incredibly exciting and rewarding career and it will be accurately portrayed in the film.”

The Navy received some recruiting assistance during that time as Top Gun was the highest grossing film of 1986, according to a Time magazine story from November 1986. It reported:

The high-flying hardware turns Top Gun into a 110-minute commercial for the Navy … theater owners in such cities as Los Angeles and Detroit ask(ed) the Navy to set up recruiting exhibits outside cinemas where Top Gun was playing to sign up the young moviegoers intoxicated by the Hollywood fantasy.

Willard said the excitement generated by Top Gun when it was released was obvious. He said it resonated with the younger generation and benefited all forms of service in the aviation community.

“I do believe it had a widespread appeal,” Willard said. “At some level it certainly helped recruitment.”

ALUMNI SIBLINGS FOREVER LINKED BY ROLES IN TOP GUN: MAVERICK

Lieutenant Amy E. Heflin ’11, USN, was determined to carve out her own identity even if she sometimes walked in her big brother’s footsteps. Lieutenant Commander Nicholas E. Lowe ’09, USN, preceded his sister at the Naval Academy and in the naval aviation community.

Their shared commitment to the Navy resulted in a once-in-a-lifetime experience as each participated in the filming of Top Gun: Maverick. Heflin received some screen time as a stunt double and technical advisor to the Top Gun sequel that was released on 27 May. Lowe served as landing signal officer during filming on Theodore Roosevelt in 2019.

Heflin flew an F/A-18F Super Hornet in March 2019 as stunt double for actress Monica Barbaro, who played Phoenix. Barbaro was in the back seat with four cameras aimed at her while two more cameras were positioned over Heflin’s shoulder. Sharing such an extraordinary experience—even from halfway across the globe—with her brother was surreal, Heflin said.

“It’s been a real joy,” Heflin said. “Even from an early age, I followed behind Nick. My fear was to not live in his shadow. We’ve done a good job of keeping that separate. Having this shared experience, I can’t wait for him to get off cruise and see the movie.”

While the siblings didn’t interact during filming—Heflin was flying out of Naval Air Station Whidbey Island in Washington state and Lemoore, CA—Lowe said the experience will provide good sea story fodder.

“It’s always been interesting and definitely special having my sister in the same profession,” Lowe said. “The two of us being able to share our stories and experiences from the movie has been great, even if we are halfway around the world from each other.”

Heflin and Lowe were raised in Lubbock, TX, and their father was an aviation junkie with a private pilot’s license. He took them to see the Blue Angels and Thunderbirds perform. That helped spark Heflin’s love for flying. At the time of Top Gun: Maverick’s release, she was preparing to separate from the Navy and serving as an F-35C Lightning II simulator instructor.

Lowe flew F/A-18s following flight school. He was on the landing signal officer platform for a few days with the Top Gun: Maverick film crew, totaling about 12 hours. Lowe was surprised by the sheer number of support crew and equipment it takes to produce a major motion picture.

He appreciated the technical aspects of filming. Lowe said he also enjoyed watching and interacting with the crew and actors.

“My favorite memory from my time on set was when the Phenom (a Learjet with cameras mounted to it) flew the landing pattern and low approaches to the carrier,” he said. “Another memorable moment was when the stars of the movie came up to the flight deck and LSO platform for recovery of the Air Wing aircraft both during day and night events.”Lowe said he emphasized safety and realism to his crew during filming.

“I stressed to the squadron LSOs in the Air Wing that I wanted any and all scenes filmed of the LSO platform to look and feel like it would if we were recovering aircraft on deployment,” Lowe said. “The last few seconds of each landing can be the most dangerous and I wanted to ensure that even though there was a film crew there, that safety was the most important priority.”

ONCE-IN-A-LIFETIME

Being in the right place at the right time proved fortuitous for Heflin. She was the only female pilot assigned to Striker Fighter Squadron VFA-122 when Top Gun: Maverick producers asked for help with technical assistance in 2018. She was on a shore tour at the time and welcomed the chance to provide guidance for safety and camera locations inside the jets’ cockpits.

The filmmakers were concerned with getting the proper sun angles and lighting correct during the flight sequences, Heflin said. From a personal standpoint, Heflin said she had to pin up her blonde hair, dye the bottom portion of her hair black to resemble Barbaro’s and spray tan her arms and neck to mirror Barbaro’s complexion.

During filming, Barbaro sat behind Heflin wearing an identical uniform as six cameras captured action inside the cockpit. 

“It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, not like anything I’ve done before,” Heflin said. “Some of the types of flying we did was incredible, as we tried to utilize the cameras they set up.”

Heflin was impressed with Tom Cruise’s understanding of the aircraft’s capabilities. She said the movie star’s background as a pilot was evident as he asked for guidance with body movement in the cockpit and where his hands should be and where his eyes should be looking during flight sequences.

Behind the scenes, TOPGUN instructors helped the actors with tactical guidance. A fake cockpit, made of plywood, was on set and the actors would sit in it and ask the pilots for tips.

“It amazed me how humble and down to earth those actors were,” Heflin said. “They knew they were making a huge movie and they were still curious about our jobs and how they could portray us better. They wanted to show the Navy and aviation in the best light.”

Authentically capturing the skill and teamwork involved with naval aviation was a critical component for Navy’s partnership with the filmmakers. Heflin said providing an accurate depiction of the aviation community was important to her because of the impact it could have on future pilots.

The film team shared that sentiment, she said.

“When you’re trying to motivate the next generations, you want to show them the level of training it takes and the best instructors,” she said. “It would be disappointing if you got into naval aviation, and it was nothing like the movie. They wanted to do right by the Navy.”

While her brother was deployed on Theodore Roosevelt when Top Gun: Maverick premiered, Heflin was invited to walk the red carpet at a 4 May showing hosted by the Navy on Naval Air Station North Island for sailors and local squadrons. She also attended a premier event on Midway with the cast of the movie.

Heflin said the movie, long delayed from its original 26 June 2020 release date, lived up to its commitment to authenticity.

“It was really painful waiting those two years for the movie to come out,” she said. “But it was worth it going to the theater. The aviation scenes were amazing. I can’t stress enough how little (computer generated imagery) was involved. These are real pilots working with the actors.”

Heflin and Lowe said they had seen the original movie and it resonated with them. Lowe said it was one of several influential factors that directed him to the Naval Academy and naval aviation.

Heflin said Top Gun: Maverick could provide the Academy and Navy a boost in interest.

“This movie is going to reinvigorate the nation’s younger generations’ desire to get out there and fly,” Heflin said. “Hopefully, it will spark the interest of the Navy in general and military service in general. I would not be surprised if we saw a spike in the numbers.”