On Tuesday, movie buffs and aviation nerds alike were treated to yet another (and this time final) trailer for the long — and I do mean long — awaited “Top Gun: Maverick.” The thrice-delayed premier is now set for May 27, 2022.
This sequel to the 1986 classic puts America’s favorite irresponsible fighter pilot back in the cockpit to train a new group of young aviators tasked with what seems to be some sort of extremely dangerous mission.
The “Top Gun” franchise is obviously a work of fiction set in a universe with very different Navy regulations and even geopolitics (the conclusion of the first film probably should have started a new World War otherwise). In this trailer alone, you’ll find good reason Pete “Maverick” Mitchell wouldn’t be allowed to fly in our world’s U.S. Navy, as he egregiously violates one of the more basic tenets of fighter pilot training, the 1,000 -foot safety “bubble” of empty space maintained around each fighter in training engagements, while he introduces himself.
But even if the rules don’t seem to apply to Mav and the physics of this universe seem to allow for some maneuvers our own might strictly forbid… aviation fans like me are genuinely pumped for this movie. It’s been a long time since we’ve been treated to a high-budget action flick centered on real-world tactical aircraft and the incredible men and women tasked with flying them at the hairy edge of both human and technological capability. “Top Gun” (the movies) may not be real, but the fighters these pilots take into the fight are, and movies like this offer us a way to sneak a peek into the incredible world of fighter aviation—even if it comes with some tongue-in-cheek exaggeration.
The first Top Gun featured very real fighters (even if some were made up)
The original “Top Gun” was more than a blockbuster film, it also ushered in a golden age of recruiting for U.S. Navy aviation. The movie did such a good job of selling young Americans on the idea of flying fighter jets that some recruiters even set up tables outside theaters to engage with movie-goers as they came walking out of the film. The allure of the F-14 Tomcat’s incredible performance alone was enough to inspire many a would-be aviator to consider donning a Navy uniform.
The Tomcat’s competitor in the film, however, was not quite as real as the F-14A. The MiG-28 Maverick squared off against, sporting a black paint job and seemingly Soviet red star on the tail, never actually existed.
Okay, so that’s not technically true: The aircraft you see depicted as the MiG-28 in “Top Gun” is a real aircraft, it’s just not a MiG. Heck, it’s not even Russian. It’s actually another fighter in the U.S. arsenal called the Northrop F-5 Tiger II.
Obviously, Paramount Pictures couldn’t get their hands on a real MiG-29, which was purpose-built to square off with capable American fighters like the F-14, and in the days before visual effects could turn practically anything into reality, they needed something to stand in as a capable opponent. Compared to the massive and powerful F-14, the F-5’s small and nimble airframe made it an excellent response to Maverick’s brute strength.
“Top Gun: Maverick” will feature Russia’s 5th-generation fighter, the Su-57
This time, it looks like Maverick and the rest of the Navy crew in “Top Gun: Maverick” will be squaring off against an actual foreign aircraft in the Sukhoi Su-57, NATO reporting name Felon. We previously reported that this seemed likely, based on the toy lines that reached stores ahead of the film’s original release date in June of 2020. Of course, just like in the first movie, the filmmakers couldn’t get their hands on a real Su-57—after all, Russia only has about 14 of them in total—so the villainous stealth jet is a CGI recreation.
It seems all but likely that “Top Gun: Maverick” will paint the Su-57 as a formidable foe, potentially even a straight-up over-match for Maverick and co’s F/A-18 Super Hornets. This would be perfectly in keeping with popular perceptions of this aircraft, even if not necessarily in keeping with the Felon’s mediocre reality.
As we’ve discussed in the past, the Su-57 is easily the worst of the world’s 5th generation fighters, thanks in no small part to Russia’s struggles to develop the means to mass-produce aircraft with the incredibly tight production tolerances required of radar-wicking jets. The aircraft was originally a joint venture between the Russian and Indian governments, but India backed out of the program in 2018 as rumors swirled that the new fighter (known at the time as the PAK FA) just wasn’t stealthy enough to justify its expense. To that very end, expert assessments have placed the Su-57’s radar cross-section at approximately .5 square meters—about 5,000 times larger than the F-22 Raptor, and nearly on par with Maverick’s own new F/A-18 Super Hornet.
Russia’s entire fleet of Su-57s is comprised of just 12 hand-built prototypes and only two serial production fighters. Russia would have had three now, but the first Su-57 to roll off of Sukhoi’s production line promptly crashed during its very first flight.
Stealthy woes aren’t the Su-57’s only problem—delays in Russia’s 5th generation engine program has left its Felon fleet operating the same AL-41F1 engines found in Russia’s non-stealth but highly capable 4th generation Su-35S. A Rand Corporation analysis of the aircraft’s advanced 360-degree sensor suite posits that the system itself remains incomplete as well, likely hindered by international sanctions placed on Russia following its 2014 invasion of Ukraine, and these issues are sure to be exacerbated by deeper-cutting sanctions and financial penalties levied on the nation after it’s recent large-scale invasion of the same nation.
However, despite the Su-57’s problems, it should be remembered that Russian air warfare doctrine does not lean as heavily on stealth as America’s, and the Su-57 remains extremely difficult to detect when approaching from head-on, as one might during a fighter intercept. Combine that with thrust-vector control allowing for fantastic maneuverability once targetted and a thrust-to-weight ratio about comparable to the Super Hornet and it becomes clear that the Su-57 would be no slouch in a scrap with practically any 4th-generation fighter.
The Su-57 is said to top out at around Mach 2, with the ability to carry 6 weapons internally without compromising its stealth profile.
Maverick’s new ride is an F/A-18 Super Hornet
The original “Top Gun” may have left moviegoers pining for the cockpit of the F-14, but with the Tomcat’s retirement in 2006, Maverick’s five-decade spanning career now has him behind the stick of the Navy’s F/A-18E Super Hornet.
The Super Hornet is a direct successor to the successful F/A-18 Hornet, but despite how similar they appear, the Super Hornet is practically an entirely different aircraft. With a 20% larger airframe, the Super Hornet carries 33% more fuel and burns it more efficiently, granting it 41% more range or 50% more loitering endurance (ability to hang in a fight without having to refuel). It can carry 15,000 more pounds than its Hornet predecessor, making room for a slew of avionics upgrades, and its improved General Electric F414 engines (an upgrade over the Hornet’s F404), provides 35% more thrust throughout most of the aircraft’s flight envelope.
In other words, Boeing took a very capable aircraft and made it significantly better. As we’ve already discussed, the Super Hornet is widely claimed to carry a radar cross-section of somewhere between .5 and 1 square meters, which puts it not far off from Russia’s Su-57 in a head-on comparison. However, the Super Hornet must carry its munitions externally, which is sure to make it much easier to spot on radar than the Felon.
The Super Hornet, or Rhino as it’s known by Navy pilots thanks to its heavier weight and the rhino-like protrusion sticking out of the front part of the fighter’s radome, has been called an “80%” solution to the Navy’s long list of problems at the tail end of the F-14’s service life. It lacked the sheer power, speed, and range of the Tomcat, but with a top speed of Mach 1.5 and enough hardpoints to carry 11 weapons (five more than the Su-57 when maintaining stealth) it has proven to be a very capable multi-role fighter. In fact, it was a Navy pilot in a Super Hornet who scored America’s only air-to-air kill in decades when he shot down a Syrian Su-22 in 2018.
“Top Gun: Maverick” will also feature the F-35C
Another assumption we were able to make thanks to the Matchbox toyline was seemingly confirmed by Paramount film crews working aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln: “Top Gun: Maverick” will very likely feature the Lockheed Martin F-35C.
The F-35C is the Navy’s carrier-capable iteration of the stealth Joint Strike Fighter, boasting a larger wing area than its sister jets, more robust landing gear, and of course, the requisite hook for carrier landings. That extra wing area allows for slower approaches to the carrier, but also provides the added benefit of extra internal fuel storage—granting the carrier version of the JSF more than 8% more fuel than the landing-strip reliant Air Force version and a whopping 35% more fuel than the short take-off/vertical-landing F-35B used by the Marine Corps.
The F-35C is powered by a Pratt & Whitney F135-PW-100 afterburning turbofan engine capable of pushing an impressive 43,000 pounds of thrust under afterburner, and it boasts a tiny radar cross-section (though larger than the F-22’s) at around .0015 square meters. It can carry only four weapons internally while maintaining a stealth profile, however, and because of concerns about damage to its radar-absorbent coating, this jet is largely limited to subsonic speeds except in emergency situations. If called upon to do so, the F-35C could potentially best the Super Hornet in a race, with a top speed of Mach 1.6, but it would come at the cost of some of its low observability (its radar absorbant coating begins to crack and flake off under the intense heat caused by air friction at these speeds).
But what the F-35C lacks in old-fashioned dogfighting power, it more than makes up for with incredible data fusion and computing power. The F-35 offers greater situational awareness than any other tactical aircraft on the planet, pulling in data from a wide variety of land, sea, air, and even space-based sensors and fusing it all into a single, easy-to-navigate display right in the pilot’s field of view. In a very real way, flying the F-35 is almost like a video game, complete with red squares appearing around bad guys, green squares around good ones, and a variety of real-time data displayed both on a heads-up display and the aircraft’s massive touchscreen console.
The F-35 is widely touted as a “quarterback in the sky” thanks to its vast computing power that allows it to build a complete view of the battlespace, which F-35 pilots then use to help improve the awareness of all friendly aircraft in the area. The F-35 raises the informational tide for all friendly assets, making its 4th generation wingmen deadlier than they could be otherwise.
The Su-57 may be a bit stealthier than the Super Hornet, but as compared to the F-35, the Felon might as well be a glowing neon sign. How this aircraft will fit into the fighting we’ll see in “Top Gun: Maverick” remains to be seen, but it will likely be flying in support of Mav and his friends in their Rhinos.
The crazy looking jet you see in some trailers is called “DarkStar” and it may be a hypersonic SR-72 clone
Here’s another sneak peek we found in the toy section of our local Walmart. The Darkstar aircraft shown only briefly at the end of some of the movie’s trailers is very clearly not based on anything in operation today… but that doesn’t mean it’s without an analogous real-world platform
Based on the shockwave visible as the jet passes overhead in the trailer, it seems likely that this exotic-looking aircraft will introduce hypersonic platforms to the Top Gun universe. Supersonic aircraft (like “Top Gun’s“ F-14 Tomcat and F/A-18 Super Hornet) are capable of flying faster than the speed of sound (Mach 1). Hypersonic aircraft travel much faster — in excess of Mach 5, or around 3,838 miles per hour.
As we highlighted in a previous story, “Top Gun: Maverick’s” Darkstar bears a striking resemblance to the real effort to field a successor to the legendary SR-71 Blackbird in Lockheed Martin’s SR-72.
The SR-72 is meant to be a Mach 6-capable hypersonic aircraft that relies on dual-mode ramjet propulsion, not unlike Hermeus’ more recent efforts to field a Mach 5 passenger aircraft. Much like the (perhaps overly-hyped) hypersonic missiles being developed by nations like China, Russia, and the United States, vehicles moving at these incredible speeds would be almost impossible to intercept using existing air defense technology.
Lockheed Martin confirmed that engine testing had already taken place for the SR-72 all the way back in 2018. In fact, the Air Force announced work on a scaled-down technology demonstrator as far back as 2013, but despite very optimistic statements out of Lockheed Martin over the years, no real SR-72 has ever manifested (at least to the public’s knowledge). Darkstar certainly appears to be based on Lockheed Martin concept art for the SR-72, suggesting that it too may be capable of reaching hypersonic speeds.
There are some differences between the two — most notably the use of two vertical stabilizer fins on the back of the “Darkstar,” with only one central stabilizer on the SR-72. However, because the Lockheed Martin image is nothing more than a conceptual drawing, the final platform (if it ever comes to fruition) could feasibly have either.
Maverick’s P-51 Mustang actually belongs to Tom Cruise
“Top Gun: Maverick” doesn’t only feature advanced new fighters and aircraft, it’s also got an appearance from Tom Cruise’s personally-owned P-51 Mustang.
You can really buy these incredible World War II-era fighters, though they tend to cost between $2.5 and $4 million apiece… so how exactly Captain Pete “Maverick” Mitchell managed to afford one on his active duty Navy salary is a real mystery (it’s probably classified). Tom’s was gifted to him by his then-wife Katie Homes, so maybe Mav’s got himself a well-funded lady friend as well.
The North American P-51 Mustang first took to the skies in 1940, and despite being an American aircraft, first entered service with the British Royal Air Force in 1942. Though, it didn’t find its way into the fight until 1943. It soon proved to be an extremely effective bomber escort, and by 1944, Major General James Doolittle (who gained fame during the Doolittle Raid) was adjusting U.S. air doctrine to send these capable fighters out far ahead of bombers to hunt down German aircraft, rather than keeping them in tight formations with the bombers they were supporting.
The P-51D Mustang, with its legendary 1,490-horsepower Merlin engine, was the most well-known iteration of the aircraft, matching its acrobatic performance with exceptionally long range. That was a game-changer for the Allies who had suffered significant losses in bombing missions over the European theater to that point. With a top speed of 437 miles per hour, six .50 caliber machine guns, and the ability to carry ten 5″ rockets (or 2,000 pounds worth of bombs), the P-51 gave the Allies an aircraft that could stand and swing with the advanced German fighters of the day. By the end of the war, P-51 Mustangs would be credited with an astonishing 5,000 kills on enemy aircraft.
The P-51 Mustang featured in “Top Gun: Maverick” is not a P-51D, but rather a P-51K (different propeller and canopy shape), but that’s just a bit of picking nits.
The king is back in “Top Gun: Maverick” – The Grumman F-14 Tomcat
While Tom Cruise got top billing in the first film, the Grumman F-14 Tomcat was the real star. Now, it looks a lot like the F-14 is making a comeback in “Top Gun: Maverick,” and in what may be the craziest split-second of footage you’re apt to find on television today, it might be squaring off against Russia’s Su-57.
Despite a troubled start and problematic engines plaguing the aircraft throughout much of its service life, the F-14 was a marvel of Cold War technology. With a top speed in excess of Mach 2.3 and the ability to carry an astonishing six massive AIM-54 Phoenix long-range air-to-air missiles into the fight, the Tomcat was purpose-built to dominate the skies for hundreds of miles around carrier strike groups, engaging Soviet bombers from triple-digit ranges.
The Tomcat was such an incredible aircraft that a proposal to overhaul the platform into the ASF-14 Super Tomcat very likely could have kept it at the top of the 4th-generation fighter heap all the way into the modern era. Its variable-sweep wing design gave it excellent handling at both the low speeds required for carrier landings and the high speeds needed to intercept Ivan before he could deploy his anti-ship missiles toward an American carrier.
When the F-14 Tomcat first entered service, it was powered by a pair of Pratt & Whitney TF30 engines that had been designed for the F-111B, which was more multi-role bomber than fighter. Each engine could produce 14,560 pounds of thrust under military power, with the afterburner kicking output up to 25,100 pounds. These engines were powerful, but incredibly problematic, ultimately leading to the loss of as many as 40 Tomcats over the years. Eventually, the TF30 engines were replaced by General Electric F110-GE-400s which effectively solved all of the TF30’s problems, but many F-14s continued running the old engines well into the 2000s.
How would an old F-14 fare in a fight against the latest and greatest fighter Russia has to offer? Well, that’s hard to say. The F-14’s variable-sweep wing design was a relic of a pre-stealth era, and the aircraft is said to have a radar cross-section comparable to that of the still-in-service F-15.
That might not sound too bad… but it is. The F-15 famously has a massive radar cross-section—bigger, in fact, than the heavy payload B-1B Lancer bomber at a mind-boggling 25 square meters (bigger than the aircraft itself). Suffice to say, the Su-57 would see the Tomcat coming long before even the Tomcat’s massive AN/AWG-9 radar could see the Felon.
The F-14’s AIM-54 Phoenix missiles were designed for air-to-air combat and can close their hundred-mile range extremely quickly thanks to a top speed of Mach 4.3… but these weapons were designed to shoot down Soviet bombers, not highly maneuverable fighters. Russia’s avionics may be dated, but the F-14 has been retired for 16 years, so this time, the Russians likely would have the technological advantage.