An Era Ends in San Diego as Navy's Top Guns Take Off

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In a roar of supersonic power and panache, a cherished part of San Diego's identity flew away Wednesday, never to return.

Four F-14 Tomcats and 12 F/A-18 Hornets punched into the overcast morning sky from the runways at Miramar Naval Air Station, as the Navy's famed Top Gun school completed its move from Miramar to Fallon, Nev.

The move is part of a fundamental change in the almost-familial relationship between the Navy and this seaside city that has long prided itself as the cradle of naval aviation.

"It's the end of an era," said Navy Cmdr. Tom Trotter, a former commanding officer of Top Gun who was among the crowd watching the Top Gun fighter jets depart. "If you would have told me a few years ago that Top Gun would leave San Diego, I wouldn't have believed it."

It has been just over 10 years since the movie "Top Gun," starring Tom Cruise and Kelly McGillis, did for naval fighter pilots what Tom Wolfe's book 'The Right Stuff" did for astronauts. Overnight, the Top Gun school at Miramar became the most widely known and glamorous of all military commands.

Cmdr. Rolland Thompson, the current commanding officer, said he gets mail from foreign countries marked simply "Top Gun." Somehow, postal carriers around the globe know that Top Gun means San Diego.

"It's been a great relationship," Thompson said.

Rene Billingsley, the wife of a Navy helicopter pilot who brought her two small children to watch the Top Gun departure, said, "It's a sad day for all of us."

Her children waved small U.S. flags as the jets took off for the hourlong flight to Fallon. "I thought it was important they see this," Billingsley said.

San Diego has long been synonymous with the Navy and with naval aviation.

The first Navy pilot, Lt. T.G. Ellison, was trained at Camp Glenn Curtis at Coronado across the San Diego Bay in 1911, and a year later, the Navy built a small airfield on Coronado at what is now North Island Naval Air Station. Jimmy Doolittle, whose carrier-based raid on Tokyo provided a morale lift for the American public in the early days of World War II, was trained in San Diego.

At its peak, Miramar, which became a naval station in 1947, was home to more than 150 F-14s, the fastest, most threatening plane in the Navy's arsenal. In the Navy, Miramar was known as "Fightertown."

But now, with military downsizing and realignments, squadrons of F-14s that once made Miramar the busiest naval air station in the world have departed for a base in Virginia.

The move of Top Gun, formally named the Navy Fighter Weapons School, is part of the changes occasioned by the crumbling of the Soviet threat and the desire in Congress to trim the defense budget.

Things were different when the Soviet Union was still considered "the Evil Empire," and Top Gun pilots--the "best of the best" the U.S. Navy had to offer--were being trained for what seemed like an inevitable clash with the Soviet MIGs.

One Christmas, instructors at Top Gun sent a group photograph to their counterparts in the Soviet Air Force, along with the greeting, "Thinking of you and yours at this joyful Yuletide Season. Trust all is well and cozy at your fireside. If our nations ever pair off in war, check your six o'clock. We'll be there, hosing you." Signed: Top Gun.

Nowhere has the glamour and glory of Top Gun been more intensely felt than in San Diego. Businesses employed "Top Gun" themes to boost their sales. The San Diego Chargers used a "Top Gun" motif in the team's advertising campaign one season.

A downtown restaurant (Kansas City Barbecue) used for the filming still sports a red-white-and-blue sign, "Top Gun Sleazy Bar Scene Filmed Here." Sales of Top Gun shirts and hats are brisk. A farewell party for Top Gun was SRO.

Little wonder that Wednesday's departure of the F-14s and F/A-18s was carried live on San Diego television and that coverage on the evening newscasts rivaled that given to Bob Dole's podium-thumping speech at a San Diego community center.

"Top Gun is part of the San Diego mystique," said John Kern, a former Navy officer and San Diego newspaper reporter turned political consultant and gentleman farmer. "Being a fighter pilot is the stuff of boyhood dreams and for years San Diego was the place that had the best fighter pilots anywhere."

Top Gun was formed in 1968 when the "kill-ratio" of Navy pilots during the early stages of the Vietnam War showed a precipitous drop from the lopsided ratios of World War II and the Korean War. A Navy report suggested that aviators had become too dependent on technology and were lacking in the fundamentals of air-to-air dogfights.

At Top Gun, five five-week sessions were held annually. For each session, 30 flight crews were selected from F-14 and F/A-18 squadrons for intense classroom work and daily dogfights above the ocean and desert to be scored electronically.

"I'm alive today because of Top Gun," said Rep. Randy Cunningham (R-San Diego), a graduate of the school who shot down five enemy planes in Vietnam.

Cunningham said during one dogfight he could virtually hear the voice of his Top Gun instructor telling him what tactics to use. "You fight like you train, and at Top Gun, you trained very realistically," he said.

(In recent years, the sessions have been stretched to nine weeks, to include not just dog-fighting but also techniques on attacking land targets.)

By 1972 the kill-ratio had increased to 12 to 1 (12 enemy for every American), and Top Gun was considered a smashing success. Still, it took Hollywood, inspired by a story in California magazine, to make Top Gun a household word.

Truth be told, the movie laid in some fiction to spice up the tale. There is no trophy for the best pilot in each class and buzzing a tower can end your career (not just get you a scolding).

"Top Gun" also pushed San Diego into the big leagues as a site for movies, much to the delight of civic boosters and the local Film Commission.

"'Top Gun' was a flashy, big vehicle for us to get our story out there," said Film Commission Director Cathy Anderson. "It catapulted San Diego into contention as a movie site."

Rumors already are spreading in Fallon, located 60 miles east of Reno, that a possible "Top Gun II" might do the same wonders for Fallon. (The rumors are apparently just that; so far, Hollywood is denying any plans for a Top Gun redux.)

"Top Gun is the biggest thing to happen to Fallon in years," said David C. Henley, president and publisher of the Fallon Eagle-Standard, who came to Miramar for the launch. "We have a new Wal-Mart, but it's not nearly as big as Top Gun."

The move to Fallon, while wrenching for some, is not altogether surprising. For several years Top Gun pilots have spent two weeks of their nine weeks in classroom work at Fallon.

Miramar's Carrier Airborne Early Warning Weapons School--Topdome--has already moved to Fallon to train aviators for the E-2C Hawkeye, an electronic warfare plane whose duty is to detect enemy ships and aircraft through advanced radar. Also at Fallon is the Naval Strike Warfare Center.

"Leaving San Diego is sad, but in the military your job is go where you're needed," said Lt. Brian Sweeney, a Top Gun staffer. "At Fallon, we can get a lot more done, provide more service to the fleet. The guys at the end of the tip of the spear will be better for it."

As military shifting continues, North Island will retain squadrons of electronic warfare and anti-submarine planes. In October, Miramar will become a Marine Corps air station, with F/A-18s and helicopters from bases being closed in Orange County.

"San Diego is losing fighters but getting helicopters," Kern said. "It's like losing Superman and getting Porky Pig."

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