March 5, 2019
Forget the movie “Top Gun.” This book,
Top Gun: An American Story, by Dan Pedersen,
soars into the readers' minds. On the 50th anniversary
of the creation of the "Top Gun" Navy
Fighter Graduate School, its founder shares the
remarkable inside story of how he and eight other
risk-takers revolutionized the art of aerial combat.
Pedersen, known as the "Godfather of Top Gun,"
is credited with establishing the Navy Fighter Weapons
School with the help of eight other passionate and
talented officers known as the "Original Bros."
(For consistency, the spelling will be Top Gun instead
book is an autobiography as Pedersen reflects on
his childhood, why and how he decided to be a flyer.
There are also bits of his love life and family
life, his military career, and his post-military
life. He stated why the book was written, as “a
legacy for the Top Gun school and teachers and what
His soul mate, Mary Beth, who Pedersen has been
married to for twenty-seven years noted, “They
are very opinionated guys. Very, very intelligent.
Handsome with a certain swagger. They are natural
leaders. Very disciplined, focused, confident, humble,
self-assured with a good sense of humor. At the
time of Vietnam, they did not get any recognition.
It was horrible that they could not even wear their
uniforms when they came home because people would
spit on them.”
But the most interesting parts of the book is the
discussion on how he became the man assigned to
creating the school. Many today, can reflect on
similar situations with the War on Terror. The bureaucrats
and many high-ranking Generals thought they knew
gave as an example, “McNamara and Secretary
of State Dean Rusk, on orders by LBJ, sent the next
day’s targets to the Swiss Embassy in Hanoi
to let them know where the US would be bombing.
The rationale was that there will not be collateral
damage and civilians killed. But the Vietnamese
used the information for other purposes, instead
of moving the civilians away from the targeting
areas. But in reality, they moved the guns and missiles
into those targeted areas to shoot at us. The high
command was rigid and inflexible. They cared more
about the headlines than protecting American pilots.
At the time, we never knew we were being used like
of the problems included pilots fighting in Vietnam
receiving limited training, having faulty Sidewinder
and Sparrow missiles, and not learning the skills
they needed to outmaneuver the enemy. This became
abundantly clear with the kill ratios: In World
War II the kill ratio was approximately 14 to 1,
during the Korean War about 10 to 1, but in Vietnam,
before the Top Gun program it was as low as 2 to
1. Captain Pedersen (then a lieutenant commander)
was the first officer in charge of Top Gun. He was
chosen because of his experiences in the air battles
over Viet Nam where he received first-hand knowledge
of the shortcomings of American tactics and equipment.
The "high tech" weapons failed about 90%
of the time, and the latest fighter plane didn't
even have a gun! American fighter pilots were being
shot down by a third-world air force using Soviet
aircraft, MiGs. The Navy moved toward radar-guided
missiles and aircraft to fire them instead of dogfighting.
He wants Americans to understand, "Industry
designs our weapons and planes. This is still going
on today, where no one ever goes into the cockpit
and faces the enemy. Those doing the actual fighting
do not have a lot to say. The planes did not even
have guns because someone in the design industry
decided they were not needed. There was a reliance
on the missiles, but they never worked. This is
what we changed with the founding of the Top Gun
graduate school. If a war is to be fought guys are
asked to risk their lives flying an airplane, competing
in real life combat, decisions should not be made
by politicians, but by people on the ground. Robert
McNamara, the Secretary of Defense during the Vietnam
War, and President LBJ mandated what went on. World
War II was fought completely different where the
war in the Pacific was run by two 4 star admirals
and carrier skippers. They had a lot to say in the
daily operations and tactics. The motto should be
never to send an American into combat unless the
intention is to win."
The Top Gun School ended up being very successful.
The 2 to 1 ratio changed to a 24 to 1 ratio. It
became and still is run by people with combat experience.
It is obvious that Top Gun saved lives and turned
the air war around.