Topgun cover

"Topgun: An American Story" by Dan Pedersen describes the origins of the Navy's famous fighter school. 

TOPGUN: An American Story. By Dan Pedersen. Hachette Books. 320 pages. $28.

It was 1968, and Vietnamese pilots were shredding American flyers, even though the Americans had new jets, the F-4 Phantom, and new air-to-air missiles. With this new tech, American pilots could launch missiles miles away from enemy MiGs. The Pentagon and its contractors figured the era of aerial dogfights was over. It wasn’t.

The military also required pilots to make visual contact with enemy targets before firing. That kind of proximity meant dogfights, and the MiGs were more nimble and better armed. The Russian-built MiGs also had cannons where the F-4s only had those long-range missiles. Worse, the Navy and Air Force had de-emphasized dogfighting tactics. 

Enter Dan Pedersen, a hard-charging naval aviator and one of the original architects of Topgun, the U.S. Navy’s Fighter Weapons School.

Pedersen’s soaring new memoir, “Topgun: An American Story,” details the roots of America’s aerial combat crisis in Vietnam and the stunning response that resurrected American primacy in the skies, and may have had a part in preventing a nuclear war.

Pedersen takes readers at Mach speed from his training in the late 1950s to Vietnam and into the 1980s when the Tom Cruise movie "Top Gun" came out. He describes a scene in his early years in which one of his engines catches fire, forcing him to eject above 20,000 feet. Falling at terminal velocity, he realizes he’s still stuck to his ejection seat, which means his chute won't come out. Hurtling toward the Earth, he somehow manages to cut it free in time.

Pedersen came of age when World War II aces still served as mentors. But as the Pentagon pushed the use of long-range air-to-air missiles, “we were no longer being taught how to win a dogfight.”

So he learned on his own, honing combat skills and tactics in the aerial equivalent of illegal street races. Taking their planes into restricted air space off the California coast, these "fight club" pilots initiated duels by flipping each other the finger. Though off the books, these contests kept "the flame alive for a certain way of being a fighter pilot.”

Pedersen highlights the value of failure. Failure is a signal that’s something wrong. Failure gives you the energy and determination to do better, maybe save your life or someone else’s someday. It’s a trait that fighter pilots share with neurosurgeons and other professions where stakes are life and death.

But through much of the Vietnam War, the military and its contractors failed to own its failures, even as less-advanced MiGs downed one American pilot after another. A few high-ranking officers knew something had to change, and on a shoestring budget, the Navy launched Topgun in 1968 with Pedersen at the controls.

Pedersen was just a junior officer at the time and had to scrounge for supplies and space. He handpicked eight other Type A trainers. Together, they taught a new generation of pilots how to win, learning by doing, owning mistakes, doing what it took to gain an advantage over an adversary. Soon, these Topgun grads were downing MiGs in Vietnam. Word spread throughout the services, and soon pilots were clamoring to get in.

Success can have surprising ripple effects. Topgun also trained foreign pilots, including Israeli Air Force aces. In the October 1973 War, Arab forces were poised to overrun Israel. With Israel's fate in the balance, Israeli leaders prepared 13 atomic bombs. But Israel's Topgun-trained fighter pilots fought back with fury, giving Israeli and U.S. diplomats time to plan a response. The United States rushed in reinforcements, and the Israelis won the war without unleashing the nuclear genie.

Pedersen, who retired with the rank of rear admiral, threads his book with enough personal details, including an unlikely love story, to keep his story from devolving into a bonfire of braggadocio. He often writes with the precision and artistry of a skywriter, especially when he describes his love of flight. During a mission in 1958, he tells how his plane “streaked for the heavens like a homesick angel.”

Most of all, "Topgun" is about leadership. Pedersen makes a compelling case that no matter the allure of technology, war and peace are won by men, not machines. In this respect, the book is a cautionary tale. Timed to coincide with Topgun's 50th anniversary, Pedersen spellbinding memoir raises fresh questions about whether the U.S. military has been seduced by expensive technology, and whether the United States will have to lose another war to relearn the lessons of Vietnam.

Pedersen will discuss his book at 7 p.m. May 30 at Patriots Point Naval and Maritime Museum. Tickets are $10. Go to https://bit.ly/2VYVs2N.

Reach Tony Bartelme at 843-937-5554. Follow him on Twitter @tbartelme.

Tony Bartelme is senior projects reporter for The Post and Courier. He has earned national honors from the Nieman, Scripps, Loeb and National Press foundations and is a three-time finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Reach him at 843-937-5554 and @tbartelme

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