The Story of Top Gun

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.”

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

But the most interesting parts of the book are the discussions 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 officers thought they knew best until the candid USS Coral Sea Commander Frank Ault spoke out. Already in line for admiral and with nothing to lose, the World War II attack pilot put his concerns on paper in 1968 and sent them to the Pentagon. He listed in detail the problems and the solutions with aerial engagement in Vietnam, in what became known as the Ault Report, and recommended the formation of a school specializing in aerial combat.

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 Vietnam where he received a firsthand 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 MiGs. The Navy moved toward radar-guided missiles and aircraft to fire them instead of dogfighting.

Defense contractors were more concerned with profits and plausible deniability than providing the best weapons. Pedersen commented to American Thinker, “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.”

Pedersen’s other big gripe is that the war was “run by a bunch of politicians 8000 miles away in Washington D.C.  Guys were asked to risk their lives flying an airplane and competing in real life combat. Yet, decisions were made by politicians, not 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 four-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.”

An example given in the book and during the interview conveyed the incompetence of U.S. leaders.  Robert McNamara and Secretary of State Dean Rusk, on orders from LBJ, sent the next day’s targets to the Swiss Embassy in Hanoi to let them know where the U.S. 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,  Pedersen noted, “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.”

As today, many who did the actual fighting in Vietnam complained about the unfair rules of engagement (R of E)  “I knew the F-4 was designed for us to be able to shoot ten miles away, but the R of E said we had to visually see the plane before we could shoot. Flying became a dangerous game of risk versus reward. The R of E negated the capability of what the plane was designed to do.  I think with better equipment and better rules of engagement we could have won the war in six months. If America’s best is sent to war then the strategy should be to win decisively.” 

There was also the influence of the Israeli pilots, who Pedersen refers to as the elite pilots. Israel sent five pilots to train with the U.S. group. Pedersen asked them why they were all so serious. “I will never forget their response.  ‘When you are fighting the enemy and roll over, looking down you see you are right over your home where your wife and children are. It becomes very serious.’ I also asked them what they did differently than the U.S. I was probing them for information I could use in the Top Gun School.  They told me how they had categories of tactical strategy and that each pilot had a specialty.  I used that to make sure each of my guys found a tactical area to work with and were good in a particular way.”

The Top Gun School ended up being very successful.  The 2 to 1 ratio changed to a 24 to 1 ratio.  The school became and still is run by people with combat experience.  It is obvious that Top Gun saved lives and turned the air war around.  As Pedersen says, “My eight bros and I are patriots.  This country needs more patriots that put America first.  Anyone willing to defend their country should have a voice in combat and should have some control over their own destiny.” Thanks to Dan Pedersen and others that followed, the Top Gun School remains the standard of excellence for providing air combat and weapons systems training.

The author writes for American Thinker.  She has done book reviews, author interviews, and has written a number of national security, political, and foreign policy articles.

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.”

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

But the most interesting parts of the book are the discussions 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 officers thought they knew best until the candid USS Coral Sea Commander Frank Ault spoke out. Already in line for admiral and with nothing to lose, the World War II attack pilot put his concerns on paper in 1968 and sent them to the Pentagon. He listed in detail the problems and the solutions with aerial engagement in Vietnam, in what became known as the Ault Report, and recommended the formation of a school specializing in aerial combat.

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 Vietnam where he received a firsthand 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 MiGs. The Navy moved toward radar-guided missiles and aircraft to fire them instead of dogfighting.

Defense contractors were more concerned with profits and plausible deniability than providing the best weapons. Pedersen commented to American Thinker, “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.”

Pedersen’s other big gripe is that the war was “run by a bunch of politicians 8000 miles away in Washington D.C.  Guys were asked to risk their lives flying an airplane and competing in real life combat. Yet, decisions were made by politicians, not 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 four-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.”

An example given in the book and during the interview conveyed the incompetence of U.S. leaders.  Robert McNamara and Secretary of State Dean Rusk, on orders from LBJ, sent the next day’s targets to the Swiss Embassy in Hanoi to let them know where the U.S. 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,  Pedersen noted, “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.”

As today, many who did the actual fighting in Vietnam complained about the unfair rules of engagement (R of E)  “I knew the F-4 was designed for us to be able to shoot ten miles away, but the R of E said we had to visually see the plane before we could shoot. Flying became a dangerous game of risk versus reward. The R of E negated the capability of what the plane was designed to do.  I think with better equipment and better rules of engagement we could have won the war in six months. If America’s best is sent to war then the strategy should be to win decisively.” 

There was also the influence of the Israeli pilots, who Pedersen refers to as the elite pilots. Israel sent five pilots to train with the U.S. group. Pedersen asked them why they were all so serious. “I will never forget their response.  ‘When you are fighting the enemy and roll over, looking down you see you are right over your home where your wife and children are. It becomes very serious.’ I also asked them what they did differently than the U.S. I was probing them for information I could use in the Top Gun School.  They told me how they had categories of tactical strategy and that each pilot had a specialty.  I used that to make sure each of my guys found a tactical area to work with and were good in a particular way.”

The Top Gun School ended up being very successful.  The 2 to 1 ratio changed to a 24 to 1 ratio.  The school became and still is run by people with combat experience.  It is obvious that Top Gun saved lives and turned the air war around.  As Pedersen says, “My eight bros and I are patriots.  This country needs more patriots that put America first.  Anyone willing to defend their country should have a voice in combat and should have some control over their own destiny.” Thanks to Dan Pedersen and others that followed, the Top Gun School remains the standard of excellence for providing air combat and weapons systems training.

The author writes for American Thinker.  She has done book reviews, author interviews, and has written a number of national security, political, and foreign policy articles.