‘How absurd is it?’ and the rest of your Top Gun: Maverick questions answered

Paramount Pictures

Article written by Valius Venckūnas and Clément Charpentreau.

The original Top Gun (1986) is one of the most iconic aviation films. And after years of production hell, its sequel Top Gun: Maverick is finally here.

To celebrate it, AeroTime decided to answer some of the most pressing questions viewers might get after – or even before – watching the movie.

Starting with:

How absurd is it?

Quite absurd. Just as the original, Top Gun: Maverick sometimes does away with realism for the sake of drama, excitement, and lingering shots of military hardware glistening in the light of the rising sun. The aircraft do tricks they would not attempt in real life, and the pilots behave the way real ones do not, but it all serves the purpose of squeezing as much excitement of its runtime as possible.

Is it worth a watch?

It depends. The film is somewhat similar to the original one in its execution, which should sound like an endorsement for any aviation geek out there. Yet, for those who do not view the original Top Gun through nostalgia-tinted glasses, the sequel might not have anything new to offer. In short, it is an entertaining action flick and nothing more.

AeroTime still gives it a lukewarm recommendation. The time flies by, the boring parts are few, and the cinematography is impressive. Taking a pedant’s eye to it might count as yet another reason to watch the film, as every second is jam-packed with hand-picked reality-defying stunts.

In the answers to the following questions, we will try to dive down into those explaining the elements that might raise an eyebrow to anybody watching the film. Be careful, there are some spoilers ahead.

Does the Darkstar hypersonic plane exist?

Yes and no. While the aircraft was invented for the sake of the film, it was conceived by Skunk Works, the legendary design bureau of Lockheed Martin behind iconic aircraft such as the U-2, the F-117, the F-22, and the SR-71.

A well-informed eye might even see a resemblance with the SR-72, the “Son of Blackbird”, that Lockheed Martin has been working on since 2013. Much like the Darkstar, this aircraft is supposed to combine a turbine engine and a ramjet to reach hypersonic speeds. The main difference, however, is that the SR-72 will likely be uncrewed, an innovation that the movie alludes to.

Is this what hypersonic flight looks like?

While testing the limits of the Darkstar at high altitude, reaching speeds as extreme as Mach 10 (over 12,000 kilometers per hour or 7,600 miles per hour), Tom Cruise’s Pete “Maverick” Mitchell is seen taking his aircraft into a long curve. It makes sense from the cinematic perspective, as flying in a straight line can look boring. However, at such speed, maneuverability becomes a problem. For example, the SR-71 needed over 145 miles (or 230 kilometers) and over 4 minutes to complete a U-turn at top speed. Additionally, any maneuver – even a gentle curve – increases the drag and makes picking up the speed a bit more difficult. Thus, we can assume that if Maverick wanted to reach Mach 10 as quickly as possible, he would have flown in a straight line.

The aircraft also seems to reach Mach 9 with no effort whatsoever, and only making that last step towards Mach 10 presents a problem, as exemplified by its skin heating up. In reality, heat buildup would have been substantial at much lower speeds. The skin of the North American X-15 – the experimental rocket aircraft from the 1960s which holds the record for the fastest human flight to this day – reached a temperature of up to 1,200 Fahrenheit (650 Celsius) at its top speed of Mach 6.7. For reference, iron starts glowing at 900 °F (460 °C) and titanium – at 850 °F (455 °C). It can be assumed that the skin of the Darkstar is made of something more heat-resistant, but there is no denying that the problem of extra heat would have manifested itself much earlier.

Can the F/A-18 do the Cobra?

Yes, although that is debatable. Pugachev’s Cobra is an aerobatic maneuver which features an aircraft rapidly decelerating by raising its nose at an extremely high angle, often described as being over 90 degrees. In one of the scenes, Maverick does just that with his F/A-18 Super Hornet, evading a simulated attack and earning a citation.

There is no shortage of videos showing F/A-18s of various air forces performing similar maneuvers at airshows. However, their angles of attack do not exceed 90 degrees, which might not count as a true Cobra to some. The result is similar though, and it shows that F/A-18 can fly at such angles of attack.

Is this how anti-aircraft missiles work?

No. The third act of the film depicts Maverick and his crew dodging a swarm of what appears to be Soviet-era S-125 short-range anti-aircraft missiles launched point blank. While the scene is undeniably exciting, the portrayal slips squarely into the cliché territory.

The real S-125s have a minimum attack range of 3.5 kilometers (2.2 miles) and a speed of Mach 3. If depicted correctly, these features would have resulted in an entirely different kind of scene.

The S-125 is also radar-guided, a feature alluded to in the film, but entirely forgotten later. Maverick and the team launch flares to lure those missiles away – a countermeasure designed for an entirely different kind of threat. To be fair, the F/A-18 has an appropriate kind of countermeasure against a radar guided missile – it is called chaff and is dispensed together with flares. However, the film refers to flares specifically, and displays the missiles locking on the bright-glowing objects.

The proximity of the explosions is also fairly unrealistic. Anti-aircraft missiles such as those used by the S-125 have a warhead made of a mix of explosive and metal projectiles and detonate when in the proximity of their target, throwing the fragments at a perpendicular angle. Thus, even without a direct hit, the close detonations seen in the movie would likely have disabled critical systems and taken some of the Hornets out of the skies.

Who is the enemy in the film?

Just like the original Top Gun, Top Gun: Maverick does not refer to the enemy force by their name, and intentionally scrambles the details to avoid causing controversy.

Iran seems to be the closest match, as the country’s ambitions to develop nuclear weapons somewhat mirror the ones depicted in the film. Iran is also the only country in the world still flying the F-14 Tomcat, which narrows down the choice even more.

On top of that, there were some rumors that Iran was interested in the Russian Sukhoi Su-57 – the aircraft depicted as the main adversary in the film and referred to simply as a “fifth-generation fighter”. No Su-57s have been exported, though, and as of mid-2022, the Russian Air Force itself reportedly wields just three aircraft of this type, not counting the prototypes.

The terrain serves as another counterargument. The snowy mountains we see in Top Gun: Maverick do not match the terrain of Iran’s coastline. On top of that, several scenes give us a good look at the roundels on the enemy’s planes – and those do not match the ones wielded by any real air force.

So, we can state with a high degree of certainty that the enemy country portrayed in the film is entirely fictional, albeit somewhat inspired by Iran – just like the enemy country in the original Top Gun was inspired by Cuba and North Korea.

What’s up with pilots blacking out at 9 Gs?

During the briefing ahead of their daredevil mission, pilots are warned that they will face up to 9G. G is a unit of acceleration that corresponds to the acceleration of an object relative to its free-fall speed, known as gravity. Gs felt by pilots can either be positive or negative, depending on if their vertical axis is moving upward or downward. 1 G is equivalent to the weight felt at the surface of the Earth, 2 Gs twice that weight, etc… Thus, a pilot weighing 75 kilograms (165 pounds) exposed to 9 Gs would feel like they weigh 675 kilograms (1488 pounds).

While this might sound like an impressive number, fighter pilots are capable of sustaining such accelerations over short periods of time and would likely have faced 9Gs before entering Top Gun. Training to counter the effect of Gs on the body includes several techniques, such as clenching their legs and abdomen. To help them, fighter pilots are generally equipped with a special flight suit, called a g-suit, which also tries to prevent their blood from accumulating in their lower body.

However, even the best pilots cannot sustain high Gs forever. If a positive G-force lasts for too long, they can fall victim to g-LOC. This state, portrayed in the movie, results from a lack of oxygen in the brain, or cerebral hypoxia. Progressively, the pilot will be affected by tunnel vision, then a complete loss of vision, and eventually lose consciousness. Similarly, a negative long-sustained G-force will bring so much blood to the brain that it can cause retinal damage, and even brain hemorrhage.

So, it seems unlikely that fighter pilots would be able to deliver such dramatic lines or even casually converse while under high Gs, as depicted in the film. However, it also seems unlikely that they would treat reaching 9 Gs as something out of the ordinary.

Why were F/A-18s used in the film?

Unlike the first episode which relied heavily on editing during the flight scenes, the actors of Top Gun: Maverick were all recorded live in the cockpit. This was one of the selling points of the movie, as Tom Cruise himself – a connoisseur of aviation and one of the world’s most famous pilots – was one of the main driving forces behind the film.

To do so, the actors were placed in the back of tandem-seat F/A-18Fs, as real US Navy pilots piloted them. This allowed for better feedback of how aerobatic maneuvers and dogfighting affect pilots: the face of actors can be seen distorted in their helmet as they feel the full force of an accelerating fighter jet. Also, this adds that extra dose of authenticity to the movie.

However, the F-35C – the newest fighter jet in the US Navy’s arsenal – is a single-seat only, meaning that the actors could not be filmed in their cockpits without flying the jets themselves. Presumably, the filmmakers faced a tough choice: either discard the idea of showing actors in real cockpits or give the characters a no-longer-top-of-the-line jet. The second option was chosen.

If we take the story of the film at face-value, there is no reason the final mission could not be flown with the F-35: the stealthy aircraft would make a perfect choice for such an intrusion. It is even acknowledged in one of the briefing scenes, however, the F-35 is brushed off ostensibly due to GPS being jammed near the target. In reality, the electronic warfare component would make the modern F-35 even more relevant for the job.

So, the F/A-18 was definitely not chosen for narrative reasons, and the main point of showing it had everything to do with how the movie was intended to be filmed.

And betting on the cinematography paid off. With only the most whimsical maneuvers relying on CGI, Top Gun: Maverick pays proper homage to the fighter jets’ capabilities and their pilots’ skills.

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