Defense Media Network

Book Review – TOP GUN: 50 Years of Naval Air Superiority

By Dwight Jon Zimmerman; Motorbooks; Hardback, 160 Pages; 116 color & 89 b-w photos

The title TOP GUN: 50 Years of Naval Air Superiority fails to adequately describe the scope of this new book by our friend Dwight Jon Zimmerman, because its subject matter ranges far beyond U.S. naval aviators and the U.S. Navy Fighter Weapons School.

The title is also a clue to the contents: While TOP GUN was the title of the Hollywood movie, the United States Navy Fighter Weapons School (now the United States Navy Strike Fighter Tactics Instructor program) is more popularly known as  TOPGUN (“one word, all caps” as the saying goes). The pages of TOP GUN: 50 Years of Naval Air Superiority encompass both the real and fictional worlds of fighter pilots and their aircraft.

This large format, well-illustrated book certainly covers the origins of TOPGUN in the plummeting air to air kill ratios over Vietnam, and lays out in detail the conclusions of the resultant Ault Report and the steps taken after its release. Zimmerman goes on to cover the development of the U.S. Navy Fighter Weapons School as well as new tactics and weapons. While the book is not confined to a history of this subject, it concisely details the problems and the solutions that followed.

Top Gun spread

TOP GUN: 40 Years of Naval Air Superiority is not both a history and cultural study of fighter pilots and their aircraft. Quarto image

Where the book truly shines is in its venturing far beyond TOPGUN. The book covers not only the hit movie, including a behind-the-scenes account of its production, short bios of its stars, trivia, and even information on its sequel, but goes well beyond that, describing how fighting aircraft and their pilots came to hold a place in the popular imagination.

TOP GUN: 50 Years of Naval Air Superiority describes war in the air and those who fought it from the first World War I-era “Knights of the Air,” to today’s 21st century pilots. It details the most iconic aircraft and technological developments, notable aces from several nations, and the evolution of fighter tactics.


A spread depicting covers of comics devoted to fighter pilots and air combat, illustrating the book’s look at “Top Guns” in popular culture.

Further, it shows how the public fascination with air combat and ace pilots was expressed in popular culture through movies, books, comics and magazines. This is one of the most enjoyable aspects of the book, with rich illustrations and Zimmerman’s engaging text showing how the historical and continuing interest in air combat has changed over the years through its depictions and interpretations in various media.

There are other books out there that record the history of TOPGUN or the development of fighter tactics in great depth. There are likewise those that cover particular aircraft, air to air weapons technology, or record the histories of particular aerial battles or campaigns. There are even books devoted to TOP GUN, the movie. What this book uniquely does is touch on all of these things, showing the intertwining influences of fiction and reality, and depicting the melding of pilots and machines into aerial weapons of war; both in reality and in the public imagination. Two decades into the 21st century, the very concept of the manned fighter may be on the cusp of passing into history. When – and if – it does, this book will be a worthy reminder of all that the idea came to represent.