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Top Gun Days,
The Real Pilots in the Movie, Top Gun.

Dava Baranek, Top Gun RIO

Top Gun Days is about the real stoy in the making of the movie Top Gun.

Making the movie Top Gun, This is the real story from the real pilots who actually flew the Top Gun Airplanes. Dave Baranek is the man that Tom Cruise flipped off in the Top Gun Movie

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Top Gun Days
Inside Story of the Movie, Top Gun. 
Dave Baranek, callsign: Bio 

Dave Baranek was the RIO, Rear Intercept Officer, who was in the real planes that flew in the Top Gun Movie.


Top Gun Movie

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Topgun Det to China Lake - 1986
“Miramar Tower, Topgun 50.

Four F-5s for takeoff; split the duals.”
It was 6:59 AM. Like many airfields Miramar didn’t allow aircraft to takeoff until 7:00, to minimize the noise impact on the surrounding community.

The Topgun class fighters were headed to China Lake and we instructors were taking four F-5s and four A-4s to provide the air-to-air opposition. I was Dash Two in the flight of F-5s.

The China Lake trip meant two full days of intense flying so Instructors always wanted to go. But based on the number of planes we could take, each of us went roughly half the time, or three times per year. We would be simulating fighters defending their homeland, so we pre-positioned at NAS China Lake for the first event. That meant an early brief for the 200-mile flight up from Miramar, but since it was just an administrative flight the brief was short. It also gave us a lot of flexibility in terms of launching a lot of bogeys against the class.

This time of year and this time of day it was cold outside, so we sat in the hold short area with our canopies down. I was finally waking up. I had heard Don Henley’s “Boys of Summer” on the radio driving in – it was a favorite among Instructors and the tuned replayed in my mind, apropos as the dusty orange sunrise lit the gray overcast.
Miramar Tower replied to lead's request: “Topgun 50 flight, cleared for takeoff.” We had the field to ourselves this morning.

The F-5Fs took the right runway, the single-seat E-models took the left. We went through our pre-takeoff checks, looked at each other’s aircraft, and gave the thumbs-up. 50’s pilot put his head down and held the brakes, advanced his throttles, raised his head, and we were off.

It was overcast and gray as we took off, and actually seemed to get darker as we climbed out over the ocean. On some of these flights we got together with the A-4s for a giant formation, but today we just went up as four F-5s. We flew northwest off the coast then turned right and flew over Los Angeles to head toward China Lake. The city below looked enormous, you can't hide that, but unusually muted during the transition from night to day, the landscape dotted with just a few lights.

A few minutes later Topgun 50 contacted China Lake and announced our arrival, telling them we would be flying in the uncontrolled areas for about 20 minutes. We could have landed at the field 30 minutes after leaving Miramar, our fuel tanks more than ½ full. But there was no hurry: the class was just starting their tactical brief back in Classroom 1 and wouldn’t be up for a couple more hours, so we had planned to do some flying over the Sierra Nevada mountains. 50’s pilot gave the speed-brakes signal (similar to the hand signal people use when they imitate someone talking, only he held his hand facing backward), then popped his speed brakes and the flight descended from our enroute altitude of 21,000’. He aimed for a valley west of the naval air station.

We all kept a good lookout for other aircraft as we descended. The likelihood of any in this airspace at this time of the morning was low, but everyone wanted to be the first to see one. There were none. As we descended to a few thousand feet above the ground, the lead pilot took a shallower dive angle, gently bringing us to an altitude of just 1,000’ above the ground. We stabilized there, advanced the throttles, then descended further.

It was about 7:25. In contrast to the flight up, the sky was clear and the sun was bright even though it was still near the horizon. We flew low over the radiant white surface of a flat dry lake – the same one that Jaws and I had flown over a few years before as Topgun students. This time no one was chasing me. To my right, the two F-5Es surged forward to fly alongside us. We had all switched to a private squadron frequency on our radios, and when we saw a small cabin ahead someone said on the radio, “Wake up call.”

The A-4 flight lead came up on our frequency to say they were a few miles behind us. The F-5s made a sweeping left turn to head west, directly toward the mountains that rose sharply to define this valley. The two F-5E pilots wanted to look at a specific area, so 50’s pilot detached them from the formation. They turning south, lit burner, and climbed, disappearing into the mountains. The A-4s said they would work in a different area. That left the two F-5Fs to ourselves; we climbed steeply out of the valley and leveled off above the snow-covered terrain.

Topgun 50 said he was just going to fly around and look at the snow cover, and we said that sounded fine to us. Two sleek fighters roamed above the craggy terrain and snow, just sightseeing. The radio occasionally carried comments from the A-4s or the F-5Es, but they were brief and rare. Everyone was flying, not talking. My pilot and I didn’t say anything on the ICS.

We cruised and banked over that remote portion of the Sierra Nevadas, looking at nothing in particular but enjoying the fabulous view of everything.

After ten minutes, 50 gave us a fuel check signal and we all realized it was time to land. The RIO signaled to switch the radio to China Lake Tower. We made a descending and accelerating left turn to set us up for the break and landed about 8:00.

We walked to the small cafe near the flight line and had egg sandwiches for breakfast. The F-5E pilots had gotten there ahead of us and the A-4 pilots came in after. Everyone was awake now; ten Topgun Instructors who had just enjoyed one of the best perks of the job and were looking forward to a full day of pure work. We talked about the snow cover and remote cabins we had just seen, as well as how the jets were doing. Meanwhile our small ground crew was preparing the bandits for the morning mission.

We finished our sandwiches and went to a briefing area for the mission brief: launch times, control frequency, formations, altitudes, weapons load, maneuvers, areas of emphasis for these students, and dozens of other details. I had done this for two years and easily absorbed each comment. The new pilots paid close attention and then flew as wingmen anyway, but they were coming along quickly.

After takeoff we flew to our stations in minutes, then waited for the fighters. Some of us orbited in forward positions and were either killed quickly or survived and engaged the fighters. Others orbited behind, to attack as a second wave. We didn’t worry about the simulated radars and missiles on the Echo Range below – they were all aimed at the class fighters. When “knock it off” was called we reset and made another run. We had to plan our timing and presentation so that our ten aircraft could challenge four sections of fighters. The first two fighters reached bingo and left the range for China Lake, and the second section reported on station and ready. The third section would be over LA and the fourth had probably just cleared the coast off San Diego.

The bandits that launched first worked at least two sections before we were at bingo. A few stayed for the third section. Other bandits waited on deck and sequenced in to challenge Topgun 5 and 6, and then Topgun 7 and 8. It was a large complex exercise. It was also a great way to spend an hour!

In waves we landed and debriefed, then went to lunch.

We sent a bandit representative to the afternoon brief. When the rep came back we completed the bandit mission brief and walked out to the jets. The fighters were given time to discuss their gameplans and review tactics, and it took them longer to start their aircraft, which meant we had about 45 minutes before the first bandit launch. It was now sunny and reasonably warm so everyone climbed up on their plane to relax. A few guys actually took the opportunity to nap. I was reading The First Deadly Sin by Lawrence Sanders and was so engrossed in it that I had tucked it in my g-suit pocket for this trip. I sat on the wing of my jet, flight suit pulled down around my waist and my light blue Topgun t-shirt off to catch some rays, and read for more than 20 minutes before we decided to start. By that time the fighters were starting their engines so it got loud anyway.

The afternoon flight was another great session of flying and fighting. That evening the students and Instructors went to dinner in a huge gaggle, then went out for beers in the tiny town of Ridgecrest, California.

The next day we completed three flights, managing our fuel on the last one so everyone could fly back to Miramar. At only two days, the China Lake detachment was short. But with six great flights it was a sought-after prize.

Top Gun Days

Links to Top Gun and Dave Baranek



Harpoon Cruise Missile Escort 11 July 1981.

VF-24 was again operating from USS Constellation in the Pacific, southwest of San Diego, for "work-ups," the USS Constellation CV-64standard training before a lengthy deployment. This time we were out for one month, but the trip would include three days in Pearl Harbor, which was always nice.

I had been in the squadron two and a half months, and my regular pilot was LT John "John Boy" Alling, who had completed one deployment.

John Boy and I had a 5 AM brief. I was up at 4:00. Yes that is early, even on a carrier. But our mission was to “escort” a Harpoon missile launched from a submarine, which was something different so I had plenty of energy. The Harpoon people told us that test missiles such as this had extensive instrumentation but no way of indicating missile heading, so they needed a fighter to escort each missile and ensure it was not going off-course. As part of this test a P-3 patrol aircraft would launch another Harpoon in an attempt at simultaneous impact on the target ship; fellow VF-24 crew Cowboy and Ice were to escort that missile. A third missile was to be launched by a destroyer and escorted by an F-14 from VF-211.

The Harpoon's profile was for a low altitude flight to the target, 200’ or less guided by a radar altimeter, at the high speed of 0.9 Mach – about 540 knots. Those flight parameters would be exciting. I thought it was great that VF-24 would assign me (a new RIO) and Cowboy (a new pilot) to this high-visibility mission, but of course we both flew with someone more experienced. This was a major exercise, with three launch platforms and an abandoned US Navy ship anchored in the open ocean as a target. The flight brief was thorough – how to contact the submarine, air refueling support, and dozens of other details – but still the actual flight would require a great deal of resourcefulness. We called this “headwork.”

We launched at 7 AM, and Cowboy and Ice rendezvoused on us. The first thing we did was aerial refuel from a KA-6 tanker so our tanks were topped-off, then we flew to the missile shoot area about 200 miles south of the Constellation. Once in the area we split up: the VF-211 jet flew to the destroyer, Cowboy found the P-3, and we headed for the submarine’s location. John Boy descended to 10,000’ where we found that it is very difficult to spot a submarine when only the periscope is above the water…but not impossible. After a few minutes we gained sight. We then flew a circle around the tiny wisp that the sub’s periscope left on the surface of the ocean. High winds whipped up small whitecaps that made the periscope wake blend in so we paid constant attention. Cowboy and Ice were flying formation at 250 knots on an aircraft 116’ long with a 100’ wingspan while John Boy and I chased a wispy submarine periscope wake…but I was glad we had the sub.

We stayed in orbit above the sub about two hours while various factors were evaluated for this test shot. The destroyer had a problem with their Harpoon launcher, causing a delay. We eventually reached bingo fuel for the missile escort. After all, we had to plan on five minutes at high speed and low altitude, which would mean very high fuel consumption, and then add a fuel reserve. Another KA-6 tanker was sent in our direction and all F-14s aerial refueled again. Then we had to find the submarine’s periscope again.

After about three hours someone made the decision that the missiles would not be launched that day, and we headed back to Connie. I wasn’t really disappointed, as all of the coordination and flying had been interesting. The weather was perfect, too. We landed and logged 3.7 hours of flight time. We then learned that the missile shoot was rescheduled for the next day and the same crews would fly escort. …Yes!!

The next day we briefed at 5:15 AM and followed the same routine: launch, rendezvous, aerial refuel, then fly south and find the Harpoon launchers. It was another beautiful, clear day. By this time the destroyer was out of the exercise with continuing launcher problems, so it was just the sub and the P-3. Things went smoothly and John Boy and I found ourselves comfortably orbiting the submarine periscope. The radio was very quiet, with occasional brief comments telling us to keep waiting. After two hours we refueled, then two hours later we did it again. Finding the periscope wake never became easier, but we became less stressed each time because we knew we would eventually find it.

Suddenly there was a new voice on our radio announcing two minutes until launch from the sub. After more than six hours of just waiting (over two days) we could hardly believe it! Soon the voice announced one minute. John Boy descended to about 200’ above the ocean and tightened his turn. The F-14 at low altitude and high speed is very responsive. With thirty seconds to go we were headed away from the launch direction in a hard left turn – this was the perfect position. As we completed the 180-degree turn and approached the periscope we got a countdown from ten seconds…three…two… one…op away (the code for missile launch).

There was a short delay before the Harpoon missile broke the surface a few yards ahead of the sub’s periscope, climbing at a 45? angle with a sense of purpose and a trail of white spray and smoke. “206 has a visual on the weapon” I transmitted over the radio, trying not to sound excited.

The missile climbed to several hundred feet, then arced over and quickly descended to its cruise altitude, gaining speed. John Boy instantly added power to max burner and we accelerated from 350 knots to 540 in just seconds. (Even with everything else going on, going to full burner in a Tomcat at low altitude got my attention. It is an inspiring demonstration of thrust.) As we approached the missile he reduced throttles to military power and we maintained a loose formation.

A Harpoon is basically a tube only 15’ long and a little over a foot in diameter, with little stub wings that stick out about a foot on each side. So on the minus side it was much smaller than anything we had flown formation on before. Also on the minus side: it flies at 200’, which is low. On the plus side: it was painted bright white, and it flew a very steady airspeed and altitude since it was guided by an autopilot.

Just as we were settling into formation for our 50-mile flight to the target ship, I heard a countdown for the P-3’s missile, then the “op away” call. Ice made a brief report that they had their missile in sight. This was cool.

Just a few minutes ago, John Boy and I had been at max conserve wondering if this would be another canceled event…and now we were chasing a cruise missile skimming across the ocean. I know people have been lower and faster, but 540 knots at 200' is low and fast.

John Boy got close to the missile so I could take a few photos using the clunky US Navy camera we carried, then backed out a little for comfort. Our jet could stay in formation using military power (maximum non-afterburner) if we were smooth, but with any change such as getting close to the missile or adjusting our heading John Boy had to tap burner – select afterburner for a few seconds. After a few moments I became comfortable at this speed and altitude. But we didn’t chat casually on the ICS – we were focused on the tasks associated with the mission.

In three minutes we had covered almost 30 miles and were more than halfway to the target ship. Ice came up on the radio: “Cowboy is visual, your right 4 o’clock.” Ice always sounded like he was bored – but calm is good in fighters. That transmission meant they could see us and they were on our right side. John Boy concentrated on flying while I looked to the right and saw the distinctive silhouette of a Tomcat a few miles away. “John Boy visual.”

As our two Harpoons approached the same target their flight paths were bound to converge. What happened next was unexpected.

John Boy and I saw Cowboy’s jet, but didn’t gain sight of the small Harpoon he was chasing. Both fighters were flying formation on our respective missiles when Cowboy’s crossed directly behind ours, very close. Cowboy became concerned and called for us to execute a max-performance collision avoidance turn: “Break left!”
John Boy went to burner and made a max-performance left turn, appropriate response for the call to "break." He immediately reversed hard right to remain close to the action. Cowboy came up on the radio again, “Okay, mine’s stabilized on the left side now, you can go back to yours.” We normally tried to use standard terminology on radio communications, but cruise missile escort wasn’t in the manual. Cowboy’s Texan drawl was the perfect complement to Ice’s laconic but always-informative commentary.

Soon we had two Harpoons in a rough formation and two Tomcats stabilized alongside them. All four vehicles were quickly approaching the target hulk at low altitude and high speed. The human operators were once again calm.

At their pre-set range the Harpoons executed a sharp pop-up maneuver that was briefed but which was surprising for its abruptness. How did they do that with those little stubby wings? This was our cue to detach anyway; we could see the target just a few miles ahead and the missiles were in their terminal phase, so John Boy climbed and flew over the target to watch the impacts. Cowboy and Ice immediately joined on us. Below, the Harpoons hit the target hulk and created small blasts and fires even though they had no explosive warheads, simply due to the energy and friction of steel missiles hitting a steel ship.

I reported the impacts to the exercise controller, who cleared us to return to Connie. Our mission was complete. We had sufficient fuel to return without refueling.

Due to the maneuvering I had lost the two cans of soda that I brought. A little embarrassed, I told John Boy. He rolled our jet inverted and chopped the throttles. The soda cans came out of their hiding place, fell to the Plexiglas canopy, and started to roll forward where I grabbed them. We rolled upright and had a little refreshment for our flight back to Constellation.

We completed an uneventful day carrier landing and logged 6.3 hours of flight time.

I did not fly for five days because I had gotten 10 hours in two days and the Schedules Officer was trying to keep flight hours even. I didn’t really mind – those were two great flights.

Ground job…ACM flights…periodic requalifying for carrier ops...squadron parties…written tests on the weapons system…afterburner displays to burn down to landing weight...cross-country flights…night aerial refueling…missile shoots…the VF-24 group at the Officers Club. The middle of 1981 consisted of six months that seem intense upon recollection, probably because of all the new experiences. I became a member of an organization in which each member counted; together we made VF-24. We identified ourselves as the Fighting Renegades.

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