Lights, Camera, Tomcat

From the set with Tom Cruise to the real TOPGUN

Navy pilot in F-14 above carrier deck

Early in his career as a radar intercept officer (RIO) onboard the F-14 Tomcat fighter jet, a movie studio came to make a film on Tom T’s base, Naval Air Station Miramar, California. The producers asked the U.S. Navy to allow service members to act as extras, and Tom’s superiors informed him that he would volunteer — whether he wanted to or not.

He wasn’t thrilled. It meant giving up two weekends to sit around the set of what looked like a small movie aimed at teenagers. Little did he know that film would become one of the most popular movies of all time and transform his job into one of the coolest gigs in naval aviation.

“Top Gun,” released in 1986, turned out to be a smash hit at the box office. It also had a bestselling soundtrack and propelled stars Tom Cruise and Val Kilmer to superstardom. The movie was selected by the U.S. Library of Congress for preservation in the National Film Registry in 2015. The film was also a showcase for the Grumman F-14 Tomcat.

And Tom had a part in it.

From Pilots to Rock Stars

Tom, now a director of business development for the Aeronautic Systems (AS) Global Surveillance division at Northrop Grumman, said that he and his fellow F-14 aviators enjoyed a share of the fame.

“After the movie came out, whenever we flew to new bases around the country, we were treated like rock stars,” Tom recalled. “On Wednesday nights when we were allowed to bring guests to the Miramar Officer’s Club, it was always packed full. It was a really fun time.”

“(Buzzing the control tower) was pretty cool, coming down at 100 feet and with the wings back. There were tons of noise complaints that day.”

— Tom T.

In contrast, Tom said being on set was not exciting.

“There was a lot of sitting around,” he said. “They were very long days.” But as he watched the crew work and the actors perform, he gained a respect for the process. Tom said that one scene in particular, toward the end of the film when Ice Man tells Maverick, “You can be my wingman any time,” took dozens of takes to get right.

“They didn’t like the way it first turned out when they filmed on the ship, and so they filmed it on the tarmac at [Naval Air Station] Miramar for four hours. Retake after retake after retake after retake,” Tom said. “I would have lost it after about ten times. I really gained a huge respect for the actors.”

An Unexpected Hit

silhouette of two pilots next to F-14 Tomcat

At the time of filming, the only recognizable star in the movie was Tom Cruise, who was known as a teen idol from 1983’s “Risky Business.” Tom said he spent some time chatting with cast members like Val Kilmer and Anthony Edwards, who went on to fame in film and television. “None of them expected this movie to become what it did,” Tom said.

For the Sailors serving as extras, the highlight of the shoot was the scene from early in the movie when Maverick and Goose buzz the control tower, flying in very low to the ground. In real life, the maneuver is illegal and would likely result in a court martial for a pilot who tried it without permission, Tom said.

“That was pretty cool, coming down at 100 feet and with the wings back,” Tom said. “There were tons of noise complaints that day.”


While Tom does appear in “Top Gun”, he’s hard to spot; a blurry figure in the background here and there. He’s much more proud of how life eventually imitated art: A few years after the film, Tom was selected for the U.S. Navy’s Fighter Weapons School, the real TOPGUN, styled in all capital letters, and now known as the Strike Fighter Tactics Instructor (SFTI) program.

“The best pilots at the time went to TOPGUN and you were flying against the best and learning against the best,” he said.

The movie “Top Gun,” he said, was fairly accurate when it came to the classroom instruction and flying at TOPGUN. He did note, however, that the intensive course with demanding 12-hour days, left little time for singing in piano bars or playing beach volleyball.

Coming to a Theatre Near You

While he wasn’t on set for “Top Gun: Maverick,” the sequel to the 1986 film that is scheduled for release in May of 2022, Tom will have a presence in it. The producers on the new movie borrowed some of his personal F-14 photography for several scenes. He said he plans to rent out an entire theatre to watch it with his family and friends.

“I’ve seen all the trailers, including some of the extra flying scenes the producers showed us, and the level of cinema photography is ten times better than the original Top Gun movie,” Tom said. “I can’t wait; it should be epic.”

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