The Real Top Gun
Updated: Aug 22, 2019
As I arrived in Spain and started teaching in a school, a woman told me that her family had just moved to the neighbourhood in September and they were having a house warming party. Her husband was from Wexford and they were excited to hear that there was an English teacher from Ireland in the school.
Over some cheese and grapes and beer and wine I was introduced to some of the other ex-pats living in the community and one of them was a Vietnam war era F4 Phantom pilot and over drinks he regaled us with some jet fighter stories such as training on an American aircraft carrier which I believe he said was the USS Saratoga.
The Saratoga was a legendary name to me as I had read about it's postwar faith in National Geographic as a young teenager but naturally he hadn't served on that particular carrier but it's namesake USS Saratoga CV60 where as the original was CV3.
Worth checking out the original Saratoga's curriculum vitae but let's look at my friend's CV first.
Ken was an RAF pilot flying Phantoms from the Saratoga or at least that's how I remember the story, it was during the Vietnam war but his squadron I imagine were only based off an American carrier until the RAF were ready to receive Phantoms into active service, probably onboard the Ark Royal.
One of the most impressive things that Ken told me was that he used to fly Mach 1 at deck level to impress dignitaries which certainly sounds impressive without ever hearing him break the sound barrier.
Our little soirée was interrupted by another neighbour interjecting, "Look at Ken, he thinks he is Tom Cruise" which I thought was a very rude way to shoot him down.
I think the comment took the wind from his wings but it struck me as strange even though I didn't say it at first and waited a few minutes to point out that Tom Cruise was an actor playing the role our friend was trained to do and flying over 767 miles per hour at deck level and parallel to the sea is something that would probably make me seasick to see.
Tom Cruise is a pilot, he even owns a P51 Mustang, he is an adventurer and risk taker and knows how to pick a good script. He continues to hang off of cargo planes and to learn how to do death defying helicopter stunts in his late fifties but I imagine if the Hollywood A-lister was in the room, he would have listened to my friend's stories too. I think my friend described the Phantom as being a pig or certainly very big and heavy and it is only in the last few months that I learnt that pilots coming into land on a carrier must power up and accelerate as they come in to land.
The reason is simple, the landing hook and arrester cable catch and slow the plane but the plane has to be travelling fast enough that it can abort the landing if necessary or if the cable doesn't catch.
That sounds like some incredible shit to me. The real Top Gun dismissed as a wannabe Tom Cruise when he was probably flying by the seat of his pants when Mr Cruise was still in diapers.
The F4 didn't have a gun at first nor reliable missiles which paved the way for future fighters like the F14 and F16 but with high losses in Vietnam of over 400 planes due to AAA and SAMs, the Top Gun program was introduced over 50 years ago to improve naval pilots' dog fighting skills against the slower subsonic MIGs.
Amazingly Tom Cruise has gone 33 years between his Top Gun films and a lot can happen in that time. Filmed from the USS Enterprise and flying F14 Tomcats against fictional Soviet MIGs, The Soviet Union started to fall apart shortly after the film was made and only a handful of US F14s remain, having to be scrapped upon retirement to keep the Iranian airforce from finding parts for their ageing Persian Cats. The Big E was decommissioned and now poses a mammoth problem for the US Navy as they figure out how to dispose of their first nuclear powered carrier.
Costs have already ballooned to about a billion dollars for the operation so maybe the Navy should ask if Tom Cruise and his Scientology friends want a floating runway for his very own P51 Mustang.
I remember e-mailing my friend to say that the USS Saratoga was for sale and I think the price was about $1. I'm sure that is on condition that you can dispose of it in an environmentally friendly way but just like my friend who is long retired, his carriers and career are gone and those mighty heavy planes he flew fast past dignitaries are now just paperweights in museums.
The original CV3 Saratoga with 1,000 water tight compartments survived World War II and went down in history as part of the Operations Crossroads nuclear testing which saw the Saratoga and the Japanese battleship Nagato as well as German U Boats squaring off against the destructive force of nuclear weapons dropped above and below the water.
The ship survived the first blast but I believe slowly sank after the second test. A remarkable ship named after the Battle of Saratoga during the Revolutionary war against England. Unlike Top Gun which used the Big E, the Saratoga's sci-fi future was not as illustrious as The Entrerprise but Star Trek IV began onboard a fictional Saratoga and Deep Space Nine referenced another Saratoga and the tv series Space, Above and Beyond was set onboard a kind of space carrier called the Saratoga. Maybe Trump's Space Force will re-enlist the name for a future wessel or maybe the Saratoga will just become some scrap for sale as CV3 becomes a radiated corel reef at the bottom of the Pacific.
Anyways, let's salute those brave men who continue to give Tom Cruise something to smile about.