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Book Review: Top Gun

The following review is a special for BlackFive readers provided by Elise Cooper. You can read all of our book reviews and author interviews by clicking on the Books category link in the right side bar.

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Forget the movie “Top Gun.”  This book, Top Gun: An American Story, by Dan Pedersen soars into the readers’ minds. On the 50th anniversary of the creation of the "Top Gun" Navy Fighter Graduate School, its founder shares the remarkable inside story of how he and eight other risk-takers revolutionized the art of aerial combat. Pedersen, known as the “Godfather of Top Gun,” is credited with establishing the Navy Fighter Weapons School with the help of eight other passionate and talented officers known as the “Original Bros.” (For the purpose of consistency, the spelling will be Top Gun instead of “Topgun.”)

The book is an autobiography as Pedersen reflects on his childhood, why and how he decided to be a flyer.  There are also bits of his love life and family life, his military career, and his post-military life. He stated why the book was written, as “a legacy for the Top Gun school and teachers and what they accomplished.”

His soul mate, Mary Beth, who Pedersen has been married to for twenty-seven years noted, “They are very opinionated guys.  Very, very intelligent.  Handsome with a certain swagger.  They are natural leaders.  Very disciplined, focused, confident, humble, self-assured with a good sense of humor. At the time of Vietnam, they did not get any recognition.  It was horrible that they could not even wear their uniforms when they came home because people would spit on them.” 

But the most interesting parts of the book is the discussion on how he became the man assigned to creating the school. Many today, can reflect on similar situations with the War on Terror.  The bureaucrats and many high-ranking Generals thought they knew best.

Pedersen gave as an example, “McNamara and Secretary of State Dean Rusk, on orders by LBJ, sent the next day’s targets to the Swiss Embassy in Hanoi to let them know where the US would be bombing. The rationale was that there will not be collateral damage and civilians killed. But the Vietnamese used the information for other purposes, instead of moving the civilians away from the targeting areas. But in reality, they moved the guns and missiles into those targeted areas to shoot at us.  The high command was rigid and inflexible. They cared more about the headlines than protecting American pilots.  At the time, we never knew we were being used like that.”

Some of the problems included pilots fighting in Vietnam receiving limited training, having faulty Sidewinder and Sparrow missiles, and not learning the skills they needed to outmaneuver the enemy. This became abundantly clear with the kill ratios: In World War II the kill ratio was approximately 14 to 1, during the Korean War about 10 to 1, but in Vietnam before the Top Gun program it was as low as 2 to 1. Captain Pedersen (then a lieutenant commander) was the first officer in charge of Top Gun. He was chosen because of his experiences in the air battles over Viet Nam where he received a first-hand knowledge of the shortcomings of American tactics and equipment. The "high tech" weapons failed about 90% of the time, and the latest fighter plane didn't even have a gun! American fighter pilots were being shot down by a third-world air force using Soviet aircraft, MiGs. The Navy moved toward radar-guided missiles and aircraft to fire them instead of dogfighting.

He wants Americans to understand, “Industry designs our weapons and planes.  This is still going on today, where no one ever goes into the cockpit and faces the enemy.  Those doing the actual fighting do not have a lot to say.  The planes did not even have guns because someone in the design industry decided they were not needed.  There was a reliance on the missiles, but they never worked. This is what we changed with the founding of the Top Gun graduate school. If a war is to be fought guys are asked to risk their lives flying an airplane, competing in real life combat, decisions should not be made by politicians, but by people on the ground. Robert McNamara, the Secretary of Defense during the Vietnam War, and President LBJ mandated what went on.  World War II was fought completely different where the war in the Pacific was run by two 4 star admirals and carrier skippers. They had a lot to say in the daily operations and tactics.  The motto should be to never send an American into combat unless the intention is to win.”

The Top Gun School ended up being very successful.  The 2 to 1 ratio changed to a 24 to 1 ratio.  It became and still is run by people with combat experience.  It is obvious that Top Gun saved lives and turned the air war around.