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Aviational Accuracy of the 'Top Gun' Franchise

In this article, I look at the aviation specific in the 1986 hit 'Top Gun' and the new 'Top Gun: Maverick' movie. Apart from the needed Hollywood dramatisation, critics claim that the aircraft sequences in the movie are very accurate. An anonymous ex Top Gun graduate revealed that apart from the call signs, the actual training and flight maneuvers are somewhat close to real life situations. Below is a detailed article on the different types of aircraft shown in the two movies.


F14 Tomcat

The F14 is a two seat, twin engine fighter jet built by the Grumman Corporation, which is now part of the Northrop Grumman Corporation, for the U.S. Navy. Operation from 1970 to 1992, it served as the successor to the F-4 Phantom II. The first F-14 was delivered to the U.S. Navy in 1972, and its final flight was in 2006, though its use drastically reduced once its successor, the F-18 hornet was introduced. At the start of its tenure, the F-14’s primary purpose was the defend.

The idea for the F-14 was born out of desperation and a need for a new, modern airplane to combat the Russian MiGs. Its predecessor, the F-11 was criticized heavily for being inappropriate for its time and implementing advance features with no thought for safety. Ex-pilots recount that that the F-11 was ‘grossly underpowered, and had poor cockpit visibility for a fighter.’ They say that it more a supplementary aircraft than a first response plane for difficult mission simply due to its lack of maneuverability. Hence, under pressure to maintain their government contract, the Grumman Corporation gave birth to the F-14, a magnificent, sleek airplane that did everything better than its predecessor, less than a decade after the F-11 was released.

The F-14 was revolutionary for its time and was built with ‘variable-geometry wings’, which means that the position and shape of the wings adjusted automatically for optimal performance at various speeds and altitudes. The plane comes with two engine variants, either produced by Pratt & Whitney or General Electric. There turbofan engines, each produce between 21,000 to 27,000 pounds of thrust. This kind of force, combined with afterburn (an additional component in supersonic aircraft that increases thrust) allows it to surpass Mach 1 (the speed of sound) at sea level and Mach 2 (twice the speed of sound) at high altitudes.


F/A 18

As technology started to evolve, so did the competition from other countries. The carrier aircraft of the 1950s and 60s tended to be specialized fighter or attack planes. The ‘F’ in ‘F14’ stands for fighter, whereas the ‘F/A’ in ‘F/A – 18’ stands for fighter/attack. To understand this difference, it is important to know the difference between fighter and attack plans. An attack aircraft has the primary role of attacking targets on the ground or sea with greater precision than bombers and is better prepared to counter low-level air defenses. These aircraft are mainly designed for close air support and naval air-to-surface missions. On the other hand, fighter aircraft are equipped with air-to-air missiles for self-defense and are suited more for dogfights.

Long before the F-18 was introduced, the carrier-based planes of World War II like the F6F Hellcat could carry heavy bombs, combining fighter and attack capabilities into a single aircraft. However, the low power to weight ratio forced the U.S. military to spilt the two functions. It was not until the F/A-18 that these two functions were united again efficiently.

While the F-14 was a phenomenal plane, it was also expensive. As a result, the Navy was forced to look for a cheaper alternative from the Air Force’s Lightweight Fighter Program. After much deliberation, the Northrop Corporation, in a joined effort with McDonnell Douglas came up with the YF-17, Later renamed as the F-18. There were originally three variants, the F-18, the A-18 and the TF-18. Later, the single seater F-18 and the A-18 were merged to form the two-seater F/A-18B.

The F/A 18 aircraft uses two powerful turbine engines to generate thrust and two broad wings to generate life. Like any other plane, the rear fins help stabilization and the rudders allow it to turn. The turbofan afterburner engines are capable of producing 22,000 pounds of static per thrust that helps it reach a speed of Mach 1.7. The advanced features of the airplane are combined with sophisticated avionics software to create the ideal fighter and attack plane. The jet is equipped with a SAR (synthetic aperture ground mapping radar) system that uses a Doppler beam to give the pilot a real time rendered map of the terrain below, even if visibility is obscured by smoke or bad weather. This is especially helpful in bombing runs. As seen in the movie, the planes have an Advanced Targeting Forward Looking Infrared pod that is used for navigation and targeting. This is a laser target designator used to deliver laser-guided bombs.


5th Generation Fighters

While the name ‘5th generation fighter’ doesn’t refer to a specific model of plane, it is a set of advanced fighter jets that represent the pinnacle of military aerospace technology. There are known to be around 16 total types of 5th generation fighters and belong to countries like Russia, South Korea, Japan and a few more. While there are no specific parameters for a 5th generation fighter, they normally have improved features of their predecessor and introduce new levels of performance, stealth profiles and advanced avionics with integrated all-digital flight systems. The primary armament is held in an internal bay to further preserve the airframe’s radar signature.

These planes are considerably faster than the F/A 18’s and have a higher efficiency ratio. The standout feature is on the software front with enhanced electronic warfare and unmanned capabilities. This airplane represents the future of carrier jets and war in the sky.


Darkstar

While this aircraft does not exist, the closest real life representation is the SR-72. The SR-72 ‘Son of Blackbird’ is a hypersonic unmanned aerial jet that is currently being developed under Lockheed Martin Advanced Development Program. Unlike the speed of Mach 10 shown in the movie, the Son of Blackbird is designed to fly for several minutes at a speed of Mach 6, with a maximum speed of Mach 7. In theory, this plane could depart from a base located in the continental United States to hit specific targets across the Pacific or Atlantic Oceans in less than ninety minutes. Built for high-risk missions, the SR-72 uses an Aerojet Rocketdyne propulsion system and is a replacement to the SR-71 Blackbird which retired in 1998. Since it is still in the developmental phase, the U.S. military keeps much of it under wraps, and most of what we know about this plane is mere speculation.

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