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We watched ‘Top Gun: Maverick’ with real TOPGUN fighter pilots

The sequel to Tom Cruise’s 1986 blockbuster premiered this week.
Tom Cruise portrays Capt. Pete "Maverick" Mitchell in a scene from "Top Gun: Maverick."
Tom Cruise portrays Capt. Pete "Maverick" Mitchell in a scene from "Top Gun: Maverick." [ PARAMOUNT PICTURES | AP ]
Published May 27|Updated May 27

TAMPA — Three fighter pilots walked into a bar on a Wednesday night. It was a particularly neon watering hole in the lobby of the AMC Veterans 24 multiplex. Dozer bought a round of cold ones for Rock and Ratso. They’d met minutes earlier but had already fallen into easy conversation about where they’d been and who they knew.

The occasion: an early screening of “Top Gun: Maverick,” the soon-to-be summer blockbuster reviving Tom Cruise as the cockiest Navy pilot ever seen on screen, 36 years after the original “Top Gun” made him the biggest movie star on earth. These guys had been waiting for this day.

“Just watching snippets online, I’ve identified things about the flying maneuvers that are more technically correct than the first movie. It’s like, ‘That guy’s really doing a Split-S,’ ” said Brandon “Dozer” Sellers, a trim, 46-year-old sales rep for a technology company. He wore a Bremont watch custom-made for his squadron, and had a bright face that looked clean-cut even with a beard.

Chris “Rock” Petrock had a jaw like a quarterback and appeared at least a decade younger than his 51 years. “I will shamelessly say I was part of the ‘Top Gun’ generation,” he said. He had six days left on active duty but had just started a civilian job with a defense contractor. He was in high school when the movie premiered. “It was a driver for me going to the Naval Academy.”

Mike “Ratso” Cariello, a 61-year-old pilot for American Airlines, had a regulation haircut and probing eyes. He’d brought along his TOPGUN business card. “I was in flight school in Beeville, Texas, when it came out. Yeah, it was a big deal.”

All three men had flown F/A-18 fighter jets like those in the new movie, Dozer and Rock with the U.S. Navy, Ratso with the U.S. Marines. Rock had graduated from the military’s elite Strike Fighter Tactics program, known as TOPGUN, in 2000. Ratso went through TOPGUN in the early 1990s and later returned to teach. He was there for the final class in San Diego, where both films are set. Dozer was not a TOPGUN guy, but was an F/A-18 instructor pilot. All live here now.

From left, fighter pilots Mike "Ratso" Cariello, Brandon "Dozer" Sellers and Chris "Rock" Petrock.
From left, fighter pilots Mike "Ratso" Cariello, Brandon "Dozer" Sellers and Chris "Rock" Petrock. [ Mike "Ratso" Cariello, Brandon "Dozer" Sellers and Chris "Rock" Petrock ]

In the dark of the auditorium, Cruise’s “Maverick” and Miles Teller’s “Rooster” navigated their rocky relationship and their perilous mission to destroy a nuclear facility in an unnamed desert nation. Dozer reclined and took notes on what checked out.

Comms language is great. Dagger attack. No, you don’t ride the elevator with your jet.

When an extra in a bar scene thanked Maverick for buying everyone a round (a penance for the sin of placing his phone on the bar top), Dozer said aloud, “I know that guy.”

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Rock watched Rooster’s “Star Wars”-esque flying through on-screen canyons and recognized a real Navy training course. When the credits rolled, Cariello counted names he recognized.

All three men were smiling as they stepped back into the light of the lobby.

“I almost felt like my hands were moving, like I wanted to grab the controls.”

“How many f—ing training violations can you fit in one movie?”

“None of those guys would be flying again.”

Laughter. They walked across the parking lot to another bar and another round on the patio. Drinking establishments were a focal point in both films. Realistic?

Definitely. You’re away from your family, in an isolated place, Ratso said. A lot of bonding happens in the bar.

What about speed? Is there really a ... need?

“My wife absolutely hates the way I drive,” Dozer said.

Ratso appreciated that the film portrayed “pulling Gs” and showed a character losing consciousness from intense gravitational force during a climb. That kind of pressure physically forces blood out of the brain. “We’ve all lost friends that G-locked in, unfortunately,” he said. The men nodded.

The flying was far more realistic this time, they agreed, possibly because the actors were filmed inside real fighter jets (though not controlling them). The jargon was nearly spot-on.

There were nitpicks, of course: turns during climbs that would have ripped an F/A-18 apart, pilots flying with masks off and a seemingly endless supply of fuel. Maverick himself would not only be disliked, but arrested.

And they retained no memories of volleyball or beach football, a la jean-clad Tom Cruise. Instead they recalled a pilot game called “crud” involving pool tables and plenty of elbows, or higher-adrenaline pursuits like rafting and downhill skiing. Even golf, which they agreed fighter pilots love, always devolved into intense competition.

Throughout an aviator’s career, every aspect of every flight from takeoff to landing is scored and every name ranked daily on a board in the ready room for all to see. “From the moment you get to flight school, everything,” Dozer said, “is competition.” Another point for “Top Gun” realism.

Less authentic, Rock said, were the call signs. Everyone in “Top Gun: Maverick” has a cool one, like Phoenix, Coyote and Hangman. “In reality, that’s not even close. … It’s usually related to some buffoonery that you did. In fact, the thing that locks in a call sign is if the guy doesn’t like it.”

“Right,” Dozer said. “There aren’t a bunch of Mavericks flying around.”

“I did actually know a real Iceman,” Rock said, nodding to Val Kilmer’s character.

“Really?” Dozer said. “Did he give himself that one?”

“Dozer” was earned on a night in the Pacific involving a bottle of whiskey and a bulldozer. There’s a story, “but I don’t want to embarrass the nation of Japan in any way, shape or form.”

In “Top Gun: Maverick,” Cruise refers to his crack squadron as the best in the world at dropping bombs from high altitude, but laments their inexperience in dog fights. That, Dozer said, tells the true story of modern aerial combat.

He’d trained for air-to-air fighting, of course, but never engaged in it during his forward deployment from 2001 to 2004. A U.S. Navy F/A-18 shot down a single Syrian Su-22 in 2017, marking the first American air-to-air kill in decades, but the last time American fighters really did what’s seen in “Top Gun” was Desert Storm.

Dozer thought about that, and for the first time all night, seemed slightly sheepish about what he wanted to say. “Is it great to be able to cruise at 35,000 feet, drinking out of your water bottle, dropping things with zero threat? Sure. But did you, maybe, want a little opposition? I don’t know. It’s very easy to say that sitting here at 1 G.”

The night tapered off. Plans were made to get a drink sometime. It turned out they all live in the same neighborhood. Dozer had a ticket to see “Maverick” again in a week. Ratso had one for two days later.

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