TOPGUN: NAS Fallon's famous fighter weapons school

Reported by: Ashley Cullins
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Updated: 7/18/2013 8:10 pm
FALLON, Nev. (KRNV & MyNews4.com) -- You have heard the name, and you have probably seen the movie, but do you know what the Navy pilot instructors of TOPGUN really do? 

"I do have the coolest job in the world, absolutely," said Commander Kevin McLaughlin, the Commanding Officer of TOPGUN.

TOPGUN was created by the U.S. Navy in 1969 to improve standardization and training during the Vietnam War.

It's a legacy that began nearly two decades before Tom Cruise starred as hot-shot pilot Maverick in the movie.

"The movie was a boon for the Navy, and for recruiting and certainly from a name-recognition standpoint," Cmdr. McLaughlin said.

While it was good for PR, TOPGUN Instructor Pilot Lieutenant Kevin Sartain said it wasn't necessarily accurate.

"We don't play much volleyball, although we do prioritize softball in all our free time," Lt. Sartain said.

Jokes aside, TOPGUN Instructor Pilot Lieutenant Doug Grotheus said it is like night and day."

"The individualism and cowboy mentality that's romanticized in the movie is not something we really support here," Lt. Grotheus said. "It's more of a team function."

"Nobody likes the cowboy jet jockey, the stereotype that was generated by the movie, because that guy is typically not a good teacher," Cmdr. McLaughlin said.

To graduate from TOPGUN you have to be able to share what you've learned.

"TOPGUN is the U.S. Navy's graduate strike fighter tactics instruction course," Lt. Sartain said. "We take fleet aviators who have just finished a three-year tour in the F-18 Hornet, or Super Hornet, we take them for 10 weeks and we make them better in their respective platforms, [and] send them back out to the fleet to teach other young pilots."

They teach air-to-air and air-to-ground combat, tactics Cmdr. McLaughlin said mimic real warfare.

"Guys are actually maneuvering and performing as they would in combat in any given theater," he said.

That means a lot of work and long hours.

"It's not all flying," Lt. Sartain said. "We maybe spend an hour or two hours a day flying out of a 12 or 14 hour day at work. So we spend a lot of time briefing, debriefing, developing new tactics."

While most of the action happens in the skies above Fallon, Commander McLaughlin said the most important work done at TOPGUN happens in the classroom.

"The most important thing that we create are good and credible instructors," he said.

TOPGUN moved to the Naval Strike and Air Warfare Center at NAS Fallon from San Diego in 1996. These pilots said there couldn't be a better place to carry out their mission.

"Typically we send out a fairly large number of aircraft against each other at the same time and there's very few places in the country that we could have the air space to be able to make that happen," Lt. Grotheus said.

But flying fast and bombing targets in the desert isn't just fun, for these Navy pilots it is living a life-long dream.

"Every child either wants to be a pro athlete or a fighter pilot," Cmdr. McLaughlin said. "Fortunately for me it worked out."

"I wanted to be a Navy pilot because when I was really young somebody told me the most difficult and challenging thing to do in aviation was to land a plane on a boat, and I decided that sounded like it was something that I wanted to do," Lt. Grotheus said.

Now that he is doing it, Lieutenant Grothues said it has surpassed his expectations.

"It is probably the most adrenaline-filled, terrifying and satisfying moment that you could have," he said.

But like any job in the military, it means time away from family.

"It's tough emotionally, but it's also very rewarding across the spectrum," Lt. Sartain said.

And they are proud to be a part of the legacy TOPGUN has been creating for nearly half a century.
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