Tom Cruise's 'Top Gun: Maverick' not far off from real deal

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"Top Gun: Maverick", the long-awaited sequel to the 1986 Tom Cruise film, has taken off at the box office with $19.3 million in its Thursday preview and counting. The figure marks the biggest preview gross for Paramount Pictures and the highest preview for the Memorial Day holiday. The film is aiming to fly above $100 million in its domestic opening weekend. 

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While it's Hollywood at its best, the films are based on the real-life Navy's Strike Fighter Tactics Instructor program, commonly referred to as TOPGUN, which is designed to teach the fleet's aircrew advanced fighter tactics. The program, which was established in 1969 at Naval Air Station Miramar in California during Vietnam, produces graduate-level fighter pilots, adversary instructors and air-intercept controllers. 

According to its website, strike fighter tactics instructors are trained over the course of 13 weeks, while adversary students and air intercept controllers are trained over nine weeks. 

"The first couple of weeks you're spending in almost a pure academic setting," Former TOPGUN instructor and retired Navy Commander Guy Snodgrass tells FOX Business. "You're teaching them all the information they're going to need to succeed through the course. It's everything from information on missiles, airplanes and ships to how you do certain techniques and tactics." 

TOPGUN instructor and retired Navy Commander Guy Snodgrass (Guy Snodgrass)

Following the academic portion, students take to the skies to learn how to dogfight, where students will learn how to drop bombs, use a Gatling gun to strafe targets and practice in simulated multi-plane situations. 

"When you dogfight, typically it's one plane against another," Snodgrass says. "When you get into that multi-plane phase, now it might be two students against five, six, seven simulated bad guys. It could be four students against ten or more bad guys."

 TOPGUN instructor and retired Navy Commander Guy Snodgrass (Guy Snodgrass)

After students graduate from the TOPGUN program, the majority go back to the fleet's weapons schools at Naval Air Station Oceana in Virginia and Naval Air Station Lemoore in California to take what they've learned and pass it on through the rest of the fleet. Meanwhile, a small percentage are invited to become elite instructors in the TOPGUN program.

In 1996, TOPGUN moved to Naval Air Station Fallon in Nevada, where it was integrated into what is now the Naval Aviation Warfighting Development Center.

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During his tenure as a TOPGUN instructor, Snodgrass specialized in air-to-air mission planning, where he worked with agencies like the CIA and U.S. Air Force to learn more about the nation's adversaries and what their planes and weapons could do, which would then be used to create techniques to ensure that the Navy's aircrew would be prepared and successful in combat.

The first “Top Gun”, directed by Tony Scott. Seen here, in front from left, Anthony Edwards as Lt. Nick “Goose” Bradshaw and Tom Cruise as Lt. Pete “Maverick” Mitchell. Initial theatrical release May 16, 1986. Screen capture. Paramount Pictures. ( (Photo by CBS via Getty Images))

He notes that many elements of the Top Gun films are "relatively accurate" to the real experience due to the fact that the productions worked in tandem with the Navy on both films to get their actors and cameras in the cockpit and collect footage of actual flying and dogfighting scenes involving real TOPGUN instructors and naval aviators. 

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The latest installment follows Pete "Maverick" Mitchell (Tom Cruise) after more than 30 years of service as one of the Navy’s top aviators. Maverick is training a detachment of TOPGUN graduates for a specialized mission including his former co-pilot "Goose" (Anthony Edwards] who was tragically killed in a training accident in the first film. 

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Tom Cruise plays Capt. Pete “Maverick” Mitchell in Top Gun: Maverick from Paramount Pictures, Skydance and Jerry Bruckheimer Films.

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“Top Gun: Maverick” is based on the Navy’s Strike Fighter Tactics Instructor program, commonly referred to as TOPGUN. (Paramount Pictures)

While Snodgrass believes the film does a great job of depicting the sense of camaraderie within the TOPGUN program, he emphasizes it's not as competitive as the film portrays.

"There's not a number one graduate. There's no point system," he says. "Instead, it's more of a collaboration where every instructor and every student is working together to try to help them unlock their fullest potential."

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Ultimately, Snodgrass hopes audiences walk away from Top Gun: Maverick with an appreciation for the work that the TOPGUN program and U.S. military does on behalf of Americans every day. He also hopes that the movie will inspire more people to join the Navy and boost recruitment, just like its predecessor did. 

"The more we get people excited, the more they feel inspired by what they see in the movie, the better off America's military will be and the better we'll be able to serve the American public," he said. 

In addition to Cruise, the film's cast includes Val Kilmer, Jennifer Connelly, Jon Hamm, Ed Harris and Glenn Powell. "Top Gun: Maverick" is produced by Skydance Media and Jerry Bruckheimer Films and distributed by Paramount Pictures.

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