Maverick’ with real TOPGUN fighter pilots

Maverick’ with real TOPGUN fighter pilots

TAMPA — Three fighter pilots walked into a bar on a Wednesday night. It was a particularly neon watering hole in the lobby of the AMC Veterans 24 multiplex. Dozer bought a set of colds for Rock and Ratso. They had met a few minutes earlier but had already fallen into an easy conversation about where they had been and who they knew.

The occasion: a preview screening of “Top Gun: Maverick,” the upcoming summer blockbuster that revives Tom Cruise as the most arrogant Navy pilot to ever see the screen, 36 years after the “ Top Gun” original made him the biggest movie star on Earth. These guys have been waiting for this day.

“Just by watching clips online, I identified things about the flight maneuvers that are technically more correct than the first movie. It’s like, ‘This guy really does a Split-S,'” Brandon said. “Dozer” Sellers, a 46-year-old sales rep for a tech company, wore a custom-made Bremont watch for his squadron and had a bright face that looked sharp even with a beard.

Chris “Rock” Petrock had a jaw like a quarterback and looked at least ten years younger than his 51 years. “I will shamelessly say that I was part of the ‘Top Gun’ generation,” he said. He had six days of active duty remaining but had just started civilian work with a defense contractor. He was in high school when the movie premiered. “It was a driving force for me to go to the Naval Academy.”

Mike “Ratso” Cariello, a 61-year-old pilot for American Airlines, had a regulation haircut and exploratory eyes. He had brought his TOPGUN business card. “I was in flight school in Beeville, Texas when he came out. Yeah, that was a big deal.

The three men had flown F/A-18 fighter jets like those in the new film, Dozer and Rock with the US Navy, Ratso with the US Marines. Rock graduated from the Army’s elite Strike Fighter Tactics program, known as TOPGUN, in 2000. Ratso came through TOPGUN in the early 1990s and later returned to teach. He was there for the final class in San Diego, where both movies are set. Dozer was not a TOPGUN guy, but was an F/A-18 instructor pilot. All live here now.

Left to right, fighter pilots Mike
From left to right, fighter pilots Mike “Ratso” Cariello, Brandon “Dozer” Sellers and Chris “Rock” Petrock. [ Mike “Ratso” Cariello, Brandon “Dozer” Sellers and Chris “Rock” Petrock ]

In the darkness of the auditorium, Cruise’s “Maverick” and Miles Teller’s “Rooster” navigated their rocky relationship and perilous mission to destroy a nuclear facility in an unnamed desert nation. Dozer bowed and took notes on what was checked.

The communication language is excellent. Dagger attack. No, you’re not taking the elevator with your jet.

When an extra in a bar scene thanked Maverick for buying everyone a round (a penance for the sin of placing his phone on top of the bar), Dozer said aloud, “I know this kind.”

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Rock watched Rooster’s “Star Wars” fly through canyons onscreen and recognized a real Navy training course. In the credits, Cariello counted the names he recognized.

The three men smiled as they stepped back into the hall light.

“It almost felt like my hands were moving, like I wanted to grab the controls.”

“How many fucking practice violations can you fit in a movie?”

“None of these guys would fly anymore.”

Laugh. They crossed the parking lot to another bar and another round on the terrace. Drinking places were central to both films. Realistic?

Absolutely. You are away from your family, in an isolated place, Ratso said. Many bonds are created in the bar.

What about speed? Is there really a…need?

“My wife absolutely hates the way I drive,” Dozer said.

Ratso liked that the film depicted “pulling G’s” and showed a character losing consciousness due to intense gravitational force during an ascent. This kind of pressure physically forces blood out of the brain. “We’ve all lost friends that G locked away, unfortunately,” he said. The men nodded.

The flight was much more realistic this time, they agreed, perhaps because the actors were filmed inside real fighter jets (without controlling them). The jargon was almost perfect.

There were, of course, small details: turns during climbs that would have torn an F/A-18 apart, pilots flying without masks and a seemingly endless supply of fuel. Maverick himself would not only be hated, but stopped.

And they have no memories of volleyball or beach soccer, à la Tom Cruise in jeans. Instead, they recalled a pilot game called “crud” involving pool tables and lots of elbow room, or high-adrenaline activities like rafting and downhill skiing. Even golf, which they agree fighter pilots love, has always turned into intense competition.

Throughout an airman’s career, every aspect of every flight, from takeoff to landing, is noted and every name is filed daily on a board in the waiting room for all to see. “From the moment you get to flight school, everything,” Dozer said, “is competition.” Another point for the realism of “Top Gun”.

Less authentic, says Rock, were the call signs. Everyone in “Top Gun: Maverick” has a cool one, like Phoenix, Coyote, and Hangman. “Actually, it’s not even close. … It’s usually related to some antics you’ve done. In fact, what blocks a call sign is if the guy doesn’t like it.

“Okay,” Dozer said. “There aren’t a whole lot of flying Mavericks.”

“I actually knew a real Iceman,” Rock said, nodding to Val Kilmer’s character.

“Really?” said the bulldozer. “Did he give himself that one?”

“Dozer” was won on a night in the Pacific involving a bottle of whiskey and a bulldozer. There is a story, “but I don’t want to embarrass the Japanese nation in any way.”

In “Top Gun: Maverick”, Cruise names his elite squadron as the best in the world at dropping high-altitude bombs, but bemoans their inexperience in dogfighting. This, Dozer said, tells the true story of modern air combat.

He had trained in air-to-air combat, of course, but never engaged in it during his forward deployment from 2001 to 2004. A US Navy F/A-18 shot down a single Syrian Su-22 in 2017, marking the first American air-to-air kill in decades, but the last time American fighters really did what we see in “Top Gun” was Desert Storm.

Dozer thought about that and, for the first time that night, looked slightly sheepish about what he meant. “Is it great to be able to sail at 35,000 feet, drink from your water bottle, drop things without any threat? Sure. But did you want, maybe, a little opposition? I don’t know. It’s very easy to say that sitting here at 1 G.”

The night is shrinking. Plans were made to have a drink once in a while. It turned out that they all live in the same neighborhood. Dozer had a ticket to see “Maverick” again in a week. Ratso had one two days later.

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