Top Gun the movie, is a fanciful account of Naval aviators doing things that would never happen in real life. The jets are the real stars. Reality is something different.
The Navy Fighter Weapons School (“Top Gun”) is the result of a performance problem. The performance was aerial combat. The problem was that Naval Aviators were not doing as well as expected. The performance measure was the “kill ratio” that compared the number of our pilots who were shot down .to the number of enemy pilots they shot down.
Top Gun Rule 1. Performance measures can tell you that something’s wrong. In Vietnam, the kill ratio for Naval aviators was about 2.5:1. That was, far worse than in any other war.
Top Gun Rule 2. Research can clarify the issue. The Navy assigned Captain Frank Ault to research what was going on and recommend solutions. The Ault Report recommended changes in the way the Navy trained the men who flew fighters.
Top Gun Rule 3. There must be enough training. Ault discovered what he called the “Ten Mission Principle.” Pilots who flew ten or more combat missions far more were far more likely to succeed than their less experienced peers. The training was designed to create the equivalent of ten mission-worth of experience.
Top Gun Rule 4. It must be the right training. Most Naval aviators learned their combat skills by flying against other Naval aviators flying the same kinds of fighters. That was easy on the budget, but it was lousy training because it wasn’t realistic.
The Naval Fighter Weapons School developed “aggressor squadrons.” They fly aircraft like the ones the aviators are likely to encounter in combat. They use the tactics that the enemy uses.
Top Gun Rule 5. Good training has clear objectives and frequent, quick, and helpful feedback. In the beginning, trained professional observers did the job. Today, digital technology makes it easy. No matter how you do it, you need frequent and helpful feedback.
The Navy Fighter Weapons School is one of the great successes in training. Naval aviators who were trained at the Fighter Weapons School during Vietnam had a kill ratio of 10:1. You may not be a fighter pilot, but those training principles will work for you, too.