Regulations prohibit the Navy from promoting the hit movie “Top Gun” in its recruitment efforts, but the film extolling the service’s best fighter jocks apparently has become a valuable tool--in some parts of the Southwest anyway.
When the film opened in May, recruiters in some cities manned tables outside movie houses during “Top Gun” premieres to answer questions from would-be flyboys emerging with a new-found need for speed from an F-14 warplane.
Navy recruiting officials say they didn’t keep track of that operation’s success, but they have noticed more inquiries than usual about the naval aviation officer candidate program since the movie’s release.
They don’t think it’s a coincidence.
“Two groups I can identify (as having increased interest) are individuals who have applied in the past and were turned down or dropped out of Aviation Officers Training School, and individuals who are approaching the maximum age limit (to apply),” said Lt. Ray Gray, head of the officer programs department in Los Angeles.
“There seems to have been a big rush in those categories that I have to attribute to the movie. I’ve asked several of these individuals if they’ve seen the movie and if that’s why they came down to talk to us again and they’ve said ‘yes’.
“On the other end of the spectrum, we’ve seen a general increase in interest in young men who don’t yet qualify for the program, and I have to attribute that to ‘Top Gun’ also.”
Lt. Sandy Stairs, the Navy’s representative while the film was in production, said Navy regulations prohibit the service from “selectively endorsing or appearing to endorse a commercial product,” like the movie, even though it favorably portrays the Navy and could aid in recruiting.
“Some recruiters have said to me that a lot of young high school graduates said they’ve seen the movie and would like to sign up for naval aviation, but we don’t actively go out and say, ‘Go see the movie.’ We’re not in the business of promoting the movie, we’re in the business of recruiting people,” Stairs said.
But Lt. Cmdr. Laura Marlowe, officer in charge of recruiting for the naval officer program in Arizona and San Diego, Riverside and San Bernardino counties, said her recruiters in Phoenix have received twice as many calls as usual about the aviation program in the last month.
“They couldn’t specifically say it was a direct result of ‘Top Gun,’ but they suspect it probably had a lot to do with it because when they would talk to applicants, about 90 percent said they had seen the movie,” Marlowe said.
“Maybe it hadn’t made them call in, but they’d been thinking about (joining the Navy) and this was just the kicker that put them over the line,” Marlowe said.
The film has been in the top 10 for box office receipts throughout its seven weeks of release, grossing more than $72 million. It depicts the extensive training given to the top 1% of fighter pilots at the Navy Fighter Weapons School at the Miramar Naval Air Station in San Diego. The school is nicknamed “Top Gun.”
Several scenes were filmed at the real-life Top Gun school, where most of the pilots have several years of F-14 experience. To qualify as a pilot, rigid mental and physical screenings must be passed, followed by two years of officer and flight training school and four years of non-combat flying.
Despite the local tie, Marlowe said there hasn’t been an appreciable increase in San Diego applicants. She said she thinks that’s because of the high level of interest in aviation and the Navy in the area to begin with.
Master Chief Charles Griva, who oversees the Navy’s general recruiting in San Diego, said he’s noticed a slight increase in people wanting to join the Navy since the movie came out and “a definite increase in those asking about the naval aviation program.
“This would be a hard town to sample,” Griva said. “Maybe the Midwest would be a better place because if you live in Mira Mesa (next to Miramar), for example, watching F-14s is old hat.”