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Book Review – Topgun Days: Dogfighting, Cheating Death, and Hollywood Glory as One of America’s Best Fighter Jocks

By Dave "Bio" Baranek; Skyhorse Publishing; 368 pages

The U.S. Navy officially retired its last F-14 Tomcat in September 2006, (the actual last flight was Oct. 4) but the twin-engined, supersonic, variable sweep fighter enjoys a permanent place in lore, due in part to its starring role in the Tony Scott film Top Gun (1986).

Baranek puts the reader into the cockpit of the Tomcat in real-world crises and in the fight scenes in the movie.

Although many of today’s naval aviators weren’t yet born when Tom Cruise and the Tomcat blazed across cinema screens, the legend refuses to go away. “There’s hardly a night when you can’t find Top Gun on some television channel,” said retired Cmdr. David “Bio” Baranek, who was a back-seat radar intercept officer on the F-14.

F-14 Tomcat

An F-14D Tomcat from Fighter Squadron Three One (VF-31) takes off at full afterburner for the last F-14 airshow demonstration ever, Sept. 8, 2006. Retired in 2006, the F-14 still is known as an iconic fighter aircraft thanks to its role in Top Gun. U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Julian R. Moorefield III

That’s why Baranek wrote a book about it.

Topgun Days: Dogfighting, Cheating Death, and Hollywood Glory as One of America’s Best Fighter Jocks is Baranek’s memoir of naval aviation, the F-14, and especially Baranek’s role doing some of the flying seen in the spectacular dogfighting sequences in the film.

Baranek seems more comfortable in the air and more awkward being chauffeured in a limousine for the Hollywood wrap party.

Baranek puts the reader into the cockpit of the Tomcat in real-world crises and in the fight scenes in the movie. For the film, Baranek also flew in an all-black F-5F Tiger representing the enemy’s MiG-28 fighter. Though Baranek doesn’t say so, the producers pick the name to keep their enemy aircraft fictitious: Real Soviet MiG fighters are given designations that use odd numbers.

Topgun Days tells us how the producers and Navy flyers crafted the mishap scene in which Maverick (Cruise) ejects safely while back-seater Goose (Anthony Edwards) is killed bailing out of their crippled jet. In this memoir, Baranek seems more comfortable in the air and more awkward being chauffeured in a limousine for the Hollywood wrap party.

Topgun Days; Dogfighting, Cheating Death, and Hollywood Glory as One of America's Best Fighter Jocks

Topgun Days; Dogfighting, Cheating Death, and Hollywood Glory as One of America’s Best Fighter Jocks, by Dave “Bio” Baranek; Skyhorse Publishers; 368 pages

Made with serious support and some direction by the Navy, the movie Top Gun, produced by Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer, grossed $350 million worldwide, brought swarms of young Americans to Navy recruiting offices, and inspired Fire Birds (1990), a feeble attempt to accomplish the same thing for Army AH-64 Apache pilots. The movie continues to sell well in DVD, but has its detractors. In the March 2010 Aviation History magazine, Walter J. Boyne, a former director of the National Air and Space Museum, placed Top Gun at the top of his “10 Worst Aviation Movies.”

“I know that many are enamored of this film, and some fighter pilots even suggest that it is a true representation of the cocky fighter pilot spirit,” wrote Boyne, “but to me it was an embarrassing waste of time and money. The airplanes are gorgeous, but they are slavered over with the hot spittle of guys who think they are really cute in flying gear, especially when they have neato names. I cannot imagine that anyone of their ilk would be tolerated in any military unit.”

Baranek’s breathtaking still photography will, by itself, lure many readers to this book.

That minority view is unlikely to dampen prospects for Topgun Days. (At the real Navy Fighter Weapons School, the term Topgun is one word, not two).

A Floridian who built model airplanes as a child, joined the Navy in 1979, and eventually commanded a squadron, Baranek is also an air-to-air photographer. His pictures have appeared in aviation magazines, including The Hook, the journal of the Tailhook Association. Baranek’s breathtaking still photography will, by itself, lure many readers to this book.

A web site with details about the book can be found at http://www.topgunbio.com/.

By

Robert F. Dorr is an author, U.S. Air Force veteran, and retired American diplomat who...

    li class="comment even thread-even depth-1" id="comment-205">

    As the author of TOPGUN DAYS, I eagerly look for reviews of the book. Mr Dorr hit the bullseye with this one. He acknowledges a truth that is especially relevant on a defense-related site such as this one: not everyone likes the movie “Top Gun.” But he gives my book a fair review and captures some of the parts of the book that I consider highlights, such as insights into how the real Topgun instructors affected the movie. This review serves readers well.

    li class="comment odd alt thread-odd thread-alt depth-1" id="comment-206">

    This entire book review left me wondering if Dorr had really read any of the book that he’s reviewing, considering that the book was more about the real Topgun than the making of the movie. Mr. Dorr, there’s usually a lot more to a book than what’s printed on the dust jacket. Quoting Boyne’s review of the movie has absolutely no significance here and does nothing to convince me that Dorr knows what he’s writing about.

    li class="comment even thread-even depth-1" id="comment-207">
    Robert F. Dorr

    It’s always helpful to have suggestions on ways to improve. I will try to remember that there is more to a book than its dust jacket. At the same time, try to succeed with a book that has a poorly designed dust jacket and see how far you get. I will also try to understand how quoting a comment on the movie “Top Gun” is irrelevant to writing a book that would not exist but for the role of the author and his aircraft in the making of the movie. It’s wonderful to have constructive suggestions on how to improve. They are always useful and helpful. I will continue to try to learn and to benefit from positive suggestions.

    li class="comment odd alt thread-odd thread-alt depth-1" id="comment-208">
    Jim Clinton

    Well personally, reading this, it doesn’t sound much like a review. What lingers in the mind most is the salcious quote about the Movie “Top Gun” which isn’t particularly relevant considering most people who are interested in finding out about real life flying (and yes admittedly, how the author was involved in the REAL FLYING behind the scenes). As such it might be more helpful to the reader of a review to simply leave that section out as most people with tv will at least have heard of the movie by now.

    Having read the book cover to cover in 2 days, I will say that it is a fantastic read. It offers insights into the demands involved in being a Naval Flight Officer, the love of a charismatic aircraft (if that can be accepted in reference to a suposedly inanimate object) and the rigours of operating it’s (at the time) cutting edge systems.

    The process of becoming a TOPGUN instructor is also discussed in detail providing illuminating information on the people and school that led the way in turning around the US’s poor showing in Air to Air combat over Vietnam and that kept America’s Naval Aviators at the top of the pile throughout the Cold War and beyond.

    The sections dealing with the making of the Movie are interesting too in terms of what was involed in capturing the footage that made the movie so spectacular on the big screen (and again on BluRay in your home).

    I’d like to thank the author for taking his time to relate his experiences, which made for an enthralling read for anyone interested in Naval Aviation, the F-14 Tomcat, TOPGUN, Top Gun, aviation photography, aviation in general, or any combination of the above.

    Thanks for your service Bio, not just for your country but to readers of aviation literature aswell.

    li class="comment even thread-even depth-1" id="comment-209">
    Brett Reistad

    I enjoyed Mr. Dorr’s article about this book and look forward to the opportunity to read it. While the movie “Top Gun” may have taken some liberties with naval aviation, it also created a lot of interest in the aircraft, the aviators and the mission.

    li class="comment odd alt thread-odd thread-alt depth-1" id="comment-210">
    David F. Brown

    I found Top Gun Days to be a well written, good summer read. It contains sufficient information and insight into Naval Aviation to satisfy the aviation layperson and aircrew alike.

    li class="comment byuser comment-author-admin even thread-even depth-1" id="comment-362">
    Stephen Carro

    Certainly, no box in the back seat on 3 September, 86. May God bless LT MW.
    -SC