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Navy goes all in for 'Top Gun: Maverick'

The Navy is banking on "Top Gun: Maverick" striking gold twice for naval aviation.

Capt. Brian Ferguson has been a Navy pilot for 28 years. After nearly four years of secrecy imposed by Paramount Pictures, he can finally talk about his role as the Navy’s technical advisor for the film. Standing with an F-18 Super Hornet in the background on Naval Base North Island, Ferguson says he was a fan of the original "Top Gun."

“So my career essentially started in 1986 when I saw the first movie and I said, 'I want to do that. I want to land on ships in a jet and go into combat,' ” he said.

So, he went into the Navy right after college, eventually becoming one of the adversary pilots at TOPGUN. When the original film was made, the Navy TOPGUN school was in San Diego. The actual name of it is the US Navy Strike Fighter Tactics Instructor Program. At the time, Marine Air Station Miramar was a Naval air station. The actual TOPGUN school moved to Fallon Naval Air Station in Nevada in the 1990s, but the filmmakers still wanted the new movie to be set in San Diego, Ferguson said.

“So Top Gun is acknowledged universally to be Naval Air Station Fallon Nevada,” he said. “They bring all these best of the best of the best — in the storyline — down to San Diego to train here. Would we do that? No, we wouldn't. We would train in Fallon, but...there's better beaches here than in the deserts of Nevada. So there was a little bit of artistic license there, and it doesn't bother me at all.”

There was a huge lag time between when the filmmakers were actually filming in and around San Diego and the premiere this week.

“We started filming in October of 2018, I think four years ago, COVID put a bit of a pause on it,” Ferguson said.

Navy officials say the original film was a recruiting boon for the Navy. This time around, the Navy went all out. It opened its doors to Paramount, providing F-18’s and Navy pilots. The filmmakers were allowed to shoot on the aircraft carriers USS Abraham Lincoln and USS Roosevelt, which were both based in San Diego at the time.

Navy Capt. Brian Ferguson
Roland Lizarondo
Navy Capt. Brian Ferguson was the Navy's technical advisor for "Top Gun: Maverick." San Diego, Calif. May 4, 2022.

“We started filming here along the runway using a fleet ready in a center airplane,” Ferguson said. “And then we moved on to various shooting locations to include two aircraft carriers, five bases, and (studios) in Los Angeles.”

When the filmmakers decided the real fighter pilot bars were too small, the Navy actually let them build one, on base, at North Island.

“They loved them, but they weren't big enough to put cameras in and back out and get the angles they wanted,” he said. “So being movie makers, they just built an entire huge complex on the beach at Breakers Beach.”

Ferguson insists the Navy billed the studio for everything.

Earl Wederbrook is a retired Marine colonel. He’s now a pilot with San Diego Sky Tours. At the time the first movie came out, he was stationed in Yuma, Arizona.

“(I was with) the Marine Aviation Weapons and Tactics Squadron, kind-of the Marine version of TOPGUN, if you will,” Wederbrook said. “I knew some of the guys who flew in the first film. Of course, we gave them a hard time.”

Wederbrook says he saw the surge in interest back in 1986 with his own eyes, just by going into the bar at Miramar at the time. He says it’s hard to imagine the new film having the same impact.

“At the time I mean it was kind of the cold war, there wasn't much going on,” he said. “A lot of patrols there (weren't) — there was no combat. You know ... (what's going to be) interesting now is, we've just gone through 30 years of essentially continuous combat in the Mideast. The audience can be a little different. I think they're going to look at it a little different.”

People watching this movie now are much more aware of the reality of war. Still, the Navy is banking on Maverick boosting the image of Naval aviation one last time.