'Top Gun' Turns 30

Learn about the behind-the-scenes drama and workarounds required to make the highest-grossing film of 1986. Do you feel the need for speed?
Publish date:
Top Gun Tom Cruise Photo

Kelly McGillis and Tom Cruise in 'Top Gun.' (Photo: Paramount Pictures)

If executive producer Jerry Bruckheimer hadn't picked up a copy of the May 1983 issue of California magazine and shown it to his producing partner Don Simpson, Top Gun would never have been made. The film was inspired by an article on the U.S. Navy's Top Gun school at Naval Air Station Miramar (San Diego, Calif.).

Now celebrating its 30th anniversary, the action-packed thrill-ride that is Top Gun was the highest-grossing movie of 1986. Interestingly, it didn't open blockbuster, like today's summer films. Rather, it had legs, meaning it stayed in theaters for a year and ultimately earned a worldwide box office of more than $350 million.

"I always loved airplanes. I thought it was going to be the greatest thrill," says Tom Cruise, who starred as hotshot pilot Pete "Maverick" Mitchell. But it wasn't until he took a test run with the Blue Angels [a Navy and Marine flight demonstration squadron] that he was convinced. He jumped out of the plane and said, "'Let's do it.' I could not wait to fly in those planes."

Top Gun is the story of an elite group of Navy fighter pilots, who are being trained to fly air combat missions, even as they compete to be the best in their class and earn the title of Top Gun. In reality, the trophy is a bit of dramatic license taken by the screenwriters -- Jim Cash and Jack Epps Jr. -- who wrote the film as a sports analogy, and, therefore, felt there had to be some kind of reward at the end. They even threw in a few locker room scenes to get people thinking about excellence in sports.

Top Gun Tom Cruise Photo

Tom Cruise, Anthony Edwards, and Val Kilmer in 'Top Gun.' (Photo: Paramount Pictures)

"Never let the truth get in the way of a good movie," Epps jokes about their stretching reality. But he gets serious explaining that he and Cash decided to present aerial combat as a sporting event after having been down to Miramar and seeing how athletic the real pilots were. He adds, "For the film, we needed a culmination for this education process." Hence, the Top Gun trophy.

Starring along with Cruise is Kelly McGillis as his love interest Charlotte "Charlie" Blackwood, a civilian instructor who teaches him a few things you can't learn in a classroom; Anthony Edwards as Radar Intercept Officer (RIO) LTJG Nick "Goose" Bradshaw and Maverick's best buddy; and Val Kilmer playing Lt. Tom "Iceman" Kazanski, Maverick's chief competition.

Here are some of Top Gun's top moments:

Aerial Maneuvers

One thing that was apparent early on was that the movie couldn't be made without the cooperation of the U.S. Navy. Bruckheimer and Simpson wanted the flying scenes to have a documentary feel -- which they accomplished -- and in order to do that, they needed the real F-14s, especially back in 1986, when the CGI, so common in films today, didn't exist.

"We needed the planes," says Bruckheimer, who knew that Top Gun was going to be an enormous production. He wanted to make it his "Star Wars on earth."

Once the Navy agreed, Paramount Pictures commissioned Grumman, the makers of the F-14, to install special camera mounts on the plane, so they could shoot air-to-air photography.

In fact, at one point, Paramount wanted to make Top Gun 2, but all the air-to-air footage had been used in the first film, so the idea was put to rest.

Top Gun Tom Cruise Photo

Tom Cruise as 'Maverick' in 'Top Gun.' (Photo: Paramount Pictures)

Actual Top Gun pilots were used to fly the planes to achieve the realistic aerial footage, but each of the actors -- Val Kilmer begged off -- actually took a flight. Cruise managed to wangle three flights -- but on the first one, he needed an airbag.

Needless to say, filming of the aerial scenes where you see the actors' faces wasn't done while they were taking their test flights. [With the exception of Anthony Edwards, all the actors needed a barf bag.] Those scenes were shot in a facility near Burbank Airport using a busted up fuselage from a crashed F-14 that was trucked in for the shoot.

The actors would climb in and flight would be simulated against a blue backdrop painted to match the sky in San Diego. Because they actors were wearing the requisite oxygen masks, their dialogue was dubbed in later, which made it easy for the editors because nothing had to be matched -- and the dialogue hadn't been written yet!

The most memorable aerial scenes are the landing of the F-14 on the deck of a carrier at night at the beginning of the film -- which real-life pilots have said is the most difficult aspect of flying off of a ship, the fight sequences over the Indian Ocean that launched from the Enterprise at the end, and Maverick's plane spinning out of control and then crashing during training, causing Goose's death.

Top Gun Tom Cruise Photo

McGillis and Cruise. (Photo: Paramount Pictures)

"We needed an accident but not one that Maverick would be blamed for," Epps says. So he turned to technical advisor Peter "Viper" Pettigrew, a Vietnam vet who flew more than 325 combat missions and was a Top Gun instructor, who went through all the accidents he remembered and came up with one very similar to what happens in the movie, where it wasn't pilot error, but mechanical failure when the F-14 goes into a flat spin.

Even so, Maverick feels responsibility, which made for a several poignant moments. One with CDR Mike "Viper" Metcalf (Tom Skerritt), who tells him, "Goose is dead. There will be others. You've got to let him go." Another with Goose's wife Carole Bradshaw (Meg Ryan), who tells Maverick that Goose would want him to go on. And a scene after Maverick quits, where Charlie encourages him to continue flying.

An interesting note is that director Tony Scott didn't want to cast Ryan. She had recently come off As The World Turns, and he didn't want to use a soap actress. But Bruckheimer convinced him to use her by pointing out that the guys who would go to see the movie didn't watch soaps. Not to mention, she was the better actress for the role.

All went well during filming with the F-14s, but there was a tragedy on the set. While filming footage for a flat spin, Hollywood stunt pilot Art Scholl was killed when his plane crashed into the Pacific Ocean five miles off Encinitas. As a result, the film is dedicated to his memory.

Combat Rock 'n' Roll

Composer Harold Faltermeyer wrote the Top Gun theme, using a driving guitar because he saw the fighter pilots as rock 'n' roll guys of the sky. That set the tone for the rest of the music for the movie, which had a sensational soundtrack with unforgettable songs including Berlin’s "Take My Breath Away," which won the Oscar, and "Danger Zone," which was recorded by Kenny Loggins after Toto turned it down.

The soundtrack, which went platinum, also included popular songs. One very special moment was at the beginning when the aviators are at a bar and Maverick spies Charlie for the first time. He tries to pick her up by singing the Righteous Brothers' "You've Lost That Loving Feeling." The pickup doesn't work, but it is the beginning of their romance. The song is used again at the end, when the couple is reunited.

Love Story

In the original script, the character of Charlie was originally in the Navy. But when Admiral Mike "Wizard" McCabe and Pettigrew read the script, they knew that couldn't happen. There was a non-fraternization rule. So, the character was changed and based on a civilian flight instructor the producers met on a visit to Miramar, who worked at the Pentagon.

That also gave Scott the opportunity to make Charlie sexier than originally planned. There is the very memorable scene when Charlie comes to a training session -- after she shot down Maverick at the bar -- and the camera pans to her legs, encased in seamed stockings, as she walks to the front of the class.

Scott recalls fighting Paramount on how sexy Charlie should be, but, luckily, it turned out that he was right. When the film was tested, audiences wanted to see more of a love story.

Cruise was already working on The Color of Money and had darkened his hair, which was also longer, and McGillis had cut her hair, but they brought them back for a one-day shoot and came up with workarounds for the changes in appearance. An intimate scene in the elevator, where Maverick and Charlie flirt, McGillis is wearing a baseball cap and Cruise is wet, just out of the shower, so his hair is slicked back. Then, the love scene was shot in low light, so the physical discrepancies weren't apparent.

30th Anniversary

Top Gun has stood the test of time because it features some of the most electrifying aerial footage on film. In 2015, the United States Library of Congress selected it for preservation in the National Film Registry. And an unexpected outcome of its original release was that U.S. Navy enlistments increased about 30 percent for several years after.

Now, for its 30th anniversary, Top Gun is available in a Limited Edition Blu-ray Combo Steelbook and, for the first time, on Digital HD.