Retired Navy Commander Guy Snodgrass had yet to see Top Gun: Maverick in full when we tracked him down, but the accomplished combat pilot knows as well as anyone what it's like to be a real TOPGUN.
Snodgrass served an instructor at the Navy’s Fighter Weapons School, aka TOPGUN, the same position Tom Cruise’s Pete “Maverick” Mitchell comes into in the new film, and Snodgrass has some thoughts on the accuracy of both the new film and its 1986 predecessor.
Admitting that he saw 1986’s Top Gun “probably two dozen” times, Snodgrass says the blockbuster helped make him want to enlist.
“It came out when I was 10 years old. And so it kind of set the stage,” Snodgrass told us during a recent phone interview. “I was already a little bit of a G.I. Joe [and] Transformers kind of kid. And so I enjoyed airplanes and things. And then suddenly here comes Top Gun the movie, and that over time really inspired me to want to pursue the same type of career path.”
U.S. Navy enrollment soared by 500 percent after the release of the original Top Gun, which was the highest grossing movie of 1986 and also supremely popular on VHS. “It really put [TOPGUN] on the map in a big way,” Snodgrass says. “It kind of got nutty for a while, but at the same time, recruiting officers loved it because everyone said, ‘Holy smokes. How do I become a Naval officer or fighter pilot?’”
So what do the Top Gun movies get right about the Navy’s famous program?
“I think in some respects, it's the camaraderie and perhaps also the sense of mission,” says Snodgrass, now CEO of Defense Analytics, a national security and foreign policy advisory firm specializing in strategy development, government policy, and technology adoption.
“You know, when you think back to the first movie, there's a lot of fun scenes and a lot of joking around and stuff, but at the end of the day, at that point in time, [there were] Russian threats and and you really had this undertone throughout of the threats that that posed between the United States and Russia. And so interspersed with it you've got the aviation scenes where you've got pilots from both countries going head to head, et cetera. So I felt like that was pretty accurate for the time in which it was shot during the Cold War. And you had sailors, men and women, going to sea routinely who were kind of manning that line against Russia at that point in time.”
The “fun scenes” and “joking around and stuff” — the professionalism, ultimately — is where the movies break most from reality, Snodgrass explains.
“If you had watched the movie, like I did as a kid and as a young adult, you'd think it was really just this big party culture. Yeah, there's some cool flying and there's some professional stuff that needs to occur, but largely it's beach volleyball. It's hanging out at the club and partying,” he says. “But in [my] 20-plus-year career in the U.S. Navy and working with a lot of elite military institutions, TOPGUN is very professional. It’s a focus on the mission. It's a focus on the men and women beside you. There's a lot less of the Hollywood aspect, and there's a lot more of being a true professional organization that's dedicated to making today the best it can be and then doing the exact same thing tomorrow.”
And yes, Snodgrass knows you’re probably disappointed to hear there’s no volleyball, given the legacy of that iconic scene.
“I don’t think I ever saw a volleyball or a beach volleyball my entire two-and-a-half years when I was with the staff,” he says.
The call signs of the pilots also tend to differ. In Top Gun, there were of course Maverick, Iceman, Goose, Viper, Cougar, Wolfman and Slider. In Top Gun: Maverick, there are Rooster, Hangman, Hammer, Phoenix, Warlock and Payback (also “Bob,” though that one’s clearly aiming for laughs).
“I rarely hear call signs as cool as they are in Top Gun the movies,” says Snodgrass, whose own call sign is “Bus.”
“Almost by design, they’re meant to keep your ego in check. Every once in a while you’ll have one that’s kind of off the wall. … You have some that are fun, like a former Blue Angel pilot named Ted Steelman. Around that time Buns of Steel was popular, so his call sign was ‘Bunsa.’ Another buddy of mine who was a TOPGUN instructor, his call sign was ‘GIMP,’ which stood for ‘Guy Inebriated Missing Pants.’ So it’s usually something you’ve done to earn it. … But it’s rarely gonna be super-cool, like ‘Laser’ or something.”
Top Gun: Maverick is now in theaters.