FighterSweep Fans, today marks a significant milestone in modern military aviation history. It’s not because someone did something exceptionally cool somewhere with an airplane. It is actually because a pretty remarkable movie made its debut on the silver screen. I can’t even count the number of friends who got their aviation careers started because, thirty years ago, Top Gun inspired them to do so.
Thirty years ago, Top Gun hit theaters and took people’s breath away with director Tony Scott’s exhilarating Navy fighter-jet flying scenes and Tom Cruise’s displays of machismo as Lieutenant Pete “Maverick” Mitchell, the pilot striving to be “top gun” at the Navy’s “Top Gun” school for pilots, while wooing his civilian flight instructor, played by Kelly McGillis.
It became the highest-grossing film of 1986, and as ticket sales soared, so did interest in the military, among both potential enlistees and Hollywood producers. It was that dynamic that TIME detailed in the Nov. 24, 1986, feature “The Pentagon Goes Hollywood.”
First and foremost, the movie raised the profile of “TOPGUN” the real nickname of the Navy Fighter Weapons School that admitted its first class in 1969 — at the height of the Vietnam War — after a 1968 study found that U.S. pilots lacked sufficient aerial-combat training.
The story, named the “Ault Report” after author Capt. Frank “Whip” Ault, it was “a sweeping review of fighter system performance covering logistics, training and operations and is credited with raising the air combat kill ratio” from two Vietnamese planes downed for every American plane lost “to more than 12.1,” according to the Navy.
In preparing for his role, Tom Cruise shadowed these elite pilots at the school’s headquarters, which were in Miramar in San Diego at the time, and told TIME that an instructor told him that there were “only four jobs in the world worth having: an actor, a rock star, a jet fighter pilot and President.’” Kelly McGillis shadowed the woman who inspired the role, Christine Fox, a 30-year-old civilian employee of the Center for Naval Analyses, who, in 2013, went on to become the highest-ranking woman ever to serve in the Department of Defense when President Barack Obama appointed her to replace current DoD Secretary Ash Carter as acting deputy defense secretary.