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Published: Hachette Books - March 5th, 2019
Dan Pedersen joined the Navy in 1953. In his book Top Gun, he tells the story of his life as a naval aviator and the story of Topgun (U.S. Navy Fighter Weapons School), which he founded with eight other men (the Original Bros) in 1969, in response to severe aviation losses over Viet Nam. Dan Pedersen, now 83 years old, has flown 39 different aircraft, made over 1,000 carrier landings and accumulated more than 6,000 flight hours. But this book is not only a history of that school and of Dan’s life. It also tells the story of Lyndon Johnson’s and Robert McNamara’s inept and intrusive micromanagement of our military’s efforts.
In World War Two, the kill ratio between U.S. and Japanese forces was 19 to 1, and in Viet Nam it was 2 to 1. Our Phantom jets had missiles that often failed, and no guns. The Soviet MiGs used by the North Vietnamese had no missiles, but they did have cannons. Perhaps most importantly, our forces were severely constrained by rules of engagement imposed by the U.S. government that prevented our forces from successfully prosecuting the war. For example, our pilots were required to drop flares (!) before releasing bombs and to visually identify targets before firing a missile. This often meant they would be too close to use a missile, but would be in range of the enemy’s cannons. Pilots were trained to use missiles which they often could not successfully employ.
Eventually, the Navy decided to take steps. A lengthy report was issued which included the recommendation to start an Advanced Fighter Weapons School. Dan Pedersen became the first officer in charge, and the school was soon called Topgun. Dan was tasked with creating a curriculum for the school. Some Israeli pilots, here to become acquainted with the Phantom, were being hosted by Dan. They made the suggestion to use division of labor in training, as Israeli squadrons did. Each technical specialization—radar, weapons, ordnance, aerodynamics, tactics—was led by the person with the best knowledge and skills. This method came to describe the way Topgun would operate.
One of the techniques the pilots learned was called the Egg. Typically, Phantoms would fly in a pair. One pilot could engage the enemy while the other would fly up in a nearly vertical path without cutting power. Then, he would plummet back to the engagement to destroy the opponent. Topgun training resulted in a 600 per cent improvement in kill ratio, eventually leading to a ratio of 12 to 1 by the end of the war.
This work is composed of the memories of a man who played a real part in protecting his fellow Americans during one of his country’s worst times. From flying a captured MiG at Area 51 to rescuing dying refugees from an overcrowded boat in the South China Sea, from the advent of guided weapons to the use of telemetry in training, his reminiscences inspire the imagination. He remembers: “God, How I loved flying. On a night like this, you could see for hundreds of miles at forty thousand feet. Crystal black sky overhead, lit with an infinite number of galaxies and their stars, the glittering cities below, like diamonds reflecting sunlight. Earth and life in all their beauty.”
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