The 1986 Top Gun film presents iconic names like “Maverick” and “Goose” to uniquely identify each fighter pilot. Call signs are a very real part of the TOPGUN program, but not all fighter pilots go by snazzy call signs.
Commander Guy “Bus” Snodgrass—a real-life TOPGUN instructor—was given his call sign based on former Pittsburgh Steelers running back Jerome Bettis, also known as “The Bus,” famous for his incredible power on the football field. “It was one of those kinds of opposite call signs,” Snodgrass tells Popular Mechanics, because he showed up at TOPGUN “145 pounds, soaking wet, a rail-thin kid.” Snodgrass recalls some unique stories of TOPGUN call signs in the video below:
The phrase TOPGUN rolls off of the tongue much easier than the United States Naval Fighter Weapons School. The academy, founded at California’s Naval Air Station Miramar, was integrated into a new naval air warfare center. Navy fighter pilots were dying at an unnerving rate during the Vietnam war, prompting the United States to rethink its warfare strategy. As a result, the TOPGUN school officially opened in March 1969. The mission: train students to be efficiently skilled aerial combat pilots with the greatest professionalism.
Fighter Squadron 121 (VF-121) was the first group to be tasked with instructing lessons for TOPGUN. Officers studied enemy aircraft and tactics, engineering, and how to stage aerial battles, challenging any American willing to learn. Students at TOPGUN are divided into three groups: instructors, adversaries, and controllers. Instructors had to become experts on different subjects, such as maneuvering or the intricacies of radar technology. Competitiveness runs rampant among the students, but instructors keep their egos in check by debriefing them on physics and tactics—rather than “keeping score.”
But students don’t spend as much time in the sky as they do in preparing, briefing, and studying. “For every hour of flying we do during a training mission, there’s countless hours of preparation, rehearsal, briefing, and debriefing,” Lieutenant Kyle “Washjob” Haith tells Men’s Health. Haith mentions that on average, only five to eight flight hours are logged each week. “I’ve heard stories from friends deployed overseas that have spent as many as 8 hours in the jet at one time” Haith continues.
TOPGUN staff may have fun with their call signs, but they take the program very seriously. The infamous scene in the original film, where pilots play beach volleyball on a sunny day, does not align with the actual schedules of fighter pilots in the program. Call signs also check the competitiveness of students, so as to not be too overconfident. “Usually, I think in a very positive sense, they keep your ego in check,” Snodgrass tells Popular Mechanics. TOPGUN is home to the most approachable, credible, and humble pilots and instructors. It is a center for true aircraft mastery with a legacy that is respected worldwide.