TopGun Days

"Well, that’s how it’s supposed to work when you put a couple of $30 million Tomcats against a couple of $5 million Tigers."


This is an extract from Topgun Days: Dogfighting, Cheating Death, and Hollywood Glory as One of America's Best Fighter Jocks, by Dave "Bio" Baranek, published by Skyhorse

In the 1980s, Navy and Marine Corps fighter aircrews (F-4, F-14, and F/A-18) that attended the five-week Topgun class spent 2-3 days flying at the Navy Electronic Warfare Range near China Lake, California, known as the Echo Range. Here aircrews battled both the surface-to-air threats, which were simulated realistically, as well as Topgun’s fighters. The range was also used for test and evaluation of weapons, which took priority over Topgun training flights. The following excerpt from TOPGUN DAYS describes a flight in 1982, when Bio’s F-14 section (2 aircraft) filled the time after being booted from the range.

Quick introduction to the leading characters:

  • Spartan: Topgun instructor and detachment coordinator; previously a US Marine Corps F-4 pilot
  • Jaws: Bio’s pilot
  • Boomer and Jake: Bio’s wingman pilot and RIO, respectively

As we started to brief for the afternoon flight, Spartan said we had been kicked off the Echo Range by a higher priority test project. He gave us the option to take the afternoon off, but Jaws, Boomer, Jake, and I all wanted to fly.

Spartan had coordinated with China Lake range control for an area where we could work. It was small, but included a well-defined valley with craggy mountains 3,000 to 6,000 feet high marking its edges. Because of the airspace rules, we had to stay below 18,000 feet. Intercepts would be 20 to 22 miles at most. And in this area we would not have to deal with surface-to-air threats. 

Afternoon off? I don’t think so.

We arrived on station at the western side of the valley a little before 3:00 PM. A layer of high clouds tempered the afternoon sun. Instead of our usual 22,000-foot altitude, we started around 15,000 feet. There was no radar control so the Topgun instructors filled-in with basic calls simulating a radar controller. I think they expected the lack of good radar control, the short set-ups, and the mountainous terrain to cause us problems. They were wrong. 

We called on-station and ready.

From the brief, we knew Spartan was in one jet, but we didn’t know who else would be there, or how many.

“Recorders on, fight’s on. Bogeys estimated 105 at 20 miles, altitude low.” That was Sunshine’s voice, using situational awareness and familiarity with the area to simulate calls from a radar controller. Sunshine was a RIO, so at least one jet was a two-seat F-5F.

Jake got the first contact and said over the radio, “Boomer, group 090 at 19 miles, two degrees low. Fighters steady 060.” Working in search mode our calls were a little different than the lethally efficient rhythm we had developed on longer intercepts. But at this point it was a welcome change. After more than three weeks of Topgun flying our technical skills, thought processes, communication, habit patterns, and crew coordination were all at their peak. We could handle the scenario variation.

After just a few seconds I replied, “Jaws same” over the radio, and proceeded to give Jaws a formation description over the intercomm (ICS). I saw two bogeys on radar. I looked for more and didn’t see any. A clean 2v2 would be nice at this stage of Topgun.

 With first contact Boomer and Jake had the lead on this run. Jake and I remained in search mode longer than normal, then took our radar locks. As we neared the merge, fighter radio calls included tally-hos to indicate we saw the bogeys, missile shots, formation descriptions, and quick game plans.

“Boomer’s blowing through the lead.” 
“Jaws tally dash two.”

In an unusual development caused by the last-minute changes to this entire flight, we shared a radio frequency with the bogeys, who usually had their own freq. So, even though I was talking and listening on an ICS and two UHF radios, I was keying on the voices of the Topgun instructors. They tried to make their calls short, but we could identify them.

We heard, “Tally one.” Okay, that’s Spartan, but we already knew he would be here. And we had heard Sunshine.

“Wingman’s high.” That sounds like K.D.

And that was it. We heard no additional voices. Pretty soon it was easy to tell that Spartan and Sunshine were in an F-5F, while K.D. was in an F-5E. We had a 2v2. Sweet!

“Knock it off, bogeys headed east.” 
“Roger, knock it off, fighters headed west.”

Run after run they tried various means of challenging us, such as starting at extreme ends of the airspace, using wide formations, or starting low and then high. It didn’t matter—Jake and I both had good radars and used them well; Jaws and Boomer had good eyeballs and used them well, and then followed that up with some great flying. 

Pretty soon we could tell that the bogeys were getting irritated at being detected and shot every run, no matter what they did. We could hear it in their voices. Well, that’s how it’s supposed to work when you put a couple of $30 million Tomcats against a couple of $5 million Tigers.

Besides, I thought, you guys trained us. 

All four Tomcat crewmen enjoyed the rare experience of actually irritating Topgun instructors.

Since we were so close to China Lake, we were able to fight until our fuel was fairly low, so the flight lasted a long time, an amazing 1.7 hours. It was one of the more memorable flights of my career, with tight-turning F-5s wrestling us in the afternoon sun, the mountains on the edge of the Sierra Nevadas forming the boundaries of our arena, and purple late afternoon clouds the audience. 

The debrief was fairly short, and then we headed to the small Officers Club at China Lake to discuss the fine points before going into town for dinner.