- - Monday, April 15, 2019

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

TOPGUN: AN AMERICAN STORY

By Dan Pedersen

Hachette Books, $36.50 305 pages

Navy aviation officials were stunned in the late 1960s at the heavy losses sustained in Operation Rolling Thunder, Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara’s attempt to win the Vietnam War with a sustained aerial blitz.

This, despite confidence that American planes — and their pilots — were far superior to the Russian-built MiGs flown by the enemy, statistics said otherwise. Only two enemy planes were being downed for every U.S. plane that was lost.



Naval Aviator Dan Pedersen was based on a carrier in Yankee Stadium in the Gulf of Tonkin, the major operating base. As losses mounted, “we learned what it was like to sit at a wardroom table surrounded by empty chairs.” He and colleagues became used to “a burning American plane heading towards the jungle below.” The Navy lost 532 aircraft in three years.

What went wrong? In Capt. Pedersen’s opinion, the unwitting villains were Pentagon “whiz kids who decided the day of close-range air combat was over.” Instead, the U.S. reliance would be upon long-range missile technology. “No longer did you have to close to within a few hundred feet to score a kill. Pilots could shoot an enemy plane out of the sky long before getting into dogfight range.”

Supposedly, at any rate. But such proved deadly wrong. The North Vietnamese responded with defensive missiles (based on captured American technology) which blasted U.S. planes from the sky.

Pilots were barred from seeking out one-on-one encounters.

The pilots who suffered the deadly brunt of the policy realized it was failing. Once a plane’s missile was fired, it was defenseless, without the standby 20mm cannon for protection.

Capt. Dan Pedersen became one of a handful of aviators who convinced Navy brass that a change in tactics was essential. Thus was born a Navy program intended to revolutionize aerial combat. (First known as “Topgun,” the name was changed to “Top Gun” by producers of a movie starring Tom Cruise, who wanted a snappier title.)

The change began as what Capt. Pedersen calls “a sort of underground subculture with supersonic fighters.” Pilots used a sector of airspace some 80 miles west of San Diego for what was illicit dogfight training.

Word of the informal “fight club” spread among Navy aviators. Some tactics sound basic in retrospect. For instance: “Never lose sight of your opponent.” As Capt. Pedersen puts it, “Lose sight, lose the flight.”

But aviators had yet another handicap. The “gradual escalation” war strategy dictated by the Johnson White House forbade operations over North Vietnam; hence enemy bases were off limits. Pilots had to make a “positive identification” that a craft was an opponent before firing. A heavy stream of Russian military supplies flowed through the off-limits port of Haiphong. “We could see their decks crammed with weatherized MiGs and surface-to-air missiles that would shortly be used against us.”

In due course, Capt. Pedersen was assigned as an instructor. But obstacles continued. For instance, “risk aversion” was a cardinal rule during training, which meant avoiding close proximity to other planes. Flights could go higher than 10,000 feet. “Don’t kill anybody, and don’t lose a plane,” he was cautioned.

Then came a major break. Alarmed by Vietnam War score cards, the Naval Air Systems Command produced a 200-page report exploring the reasons for the losses. Fighter tactics were cited as a key reason.

At age 33, Capt. Pedersen was given command of a coterie of eight pilots tasked with reforming training. He wisely chose pilots who were veterans of the covert exercises, and who shared his conviction that dogfight tactics should be restored.

He called the program “a teachers’ college for fighter pilots,” intensive training for five weeks. Each class of eight graduates “went out to teach eight times sixteen more.”

Funding was essentially non-existent; “Topgun” was not even given office space. A pilot spotted an abandoned modular trailer. Hmmm. He offered a crane operator a case of scotch to haul it to the training area. A sign went up: “Navy Fighter Weapons School.”

Critical was the Navy’s decision to employ new turbojet engines which made the F-4 Phantom “accelerate like a rocket.” The craft could fly essentially straight up and lurk until another fighter engaged an enemy. It would swoop down for the kill — “a function for which it had never been envisioned.”

Training routines were brutally realistic — and they worked. When the first graduates were deployed to Yankee Station, the air kill ratio went from two Vietnamese planes for every lost U.S. plane to a 12 to 1 ratio.

Capt. Pedersen’s mantra, as combatant and trainer, was “In combat, second best is dead last.” The lives he saved though Topgun training earns him the title of American Hero.

• Joseph C. Goulden writes frequently on intelligence and military matters.

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