The sun rises over Nevada. A rumble rolls across the desert, but it’s not the sound of a rare rainstorm. It’s two U.S. Navy F/A-18 Hornets engaged in a close-range combat training exercise. One is the haze-grey color of fleet squadrons. The other sports desert camo with a red star on its tail, one of the paint schemes used by the Navy Reserve’s adversary aircraft squadrons to mimic those used by America’s adversaries.
From a long way off, the jets seem serene, like birds of prey gliding the updrafts. But up close, it’s a hell storm. The jets pump out swirling vortices of scorched gases. The sound can literally be felt, and the acrid smell of jet fuel permeates the air. The two aircraft maneuver furiously, both attempting to establish positional advantage against the other. Finally, one gets the upper hand. “Copy Kill”—a successful engagement.
Capt. Brian “Ferg” Ferguson has spent a significant portion of his career involved with air-to-air combat training exercises. Ferguson attended the Adversary Instructor Course at the Navy Fighter Weapons School, also known as TOPGUN. He also commanded the “Fighting Saints” of Fighter Squadron Composite (VFC) 13, based at Naval Air Station Fallon, Nevada, the same installation as TOPGUN. VFC-13 is one of the Navy Reserve’s adversary aircraft squadrons dedicated specifically to providing the highest quality adversary training for Navy fleet squadrons and other units, a Navy role provided only by the Navy Reserve. These and numerous other career experiences helped make Ferguson an ideal candidate to serve as the Navy’s technical advisor for “TOP GUN: Maverick,” Paramount Pictures’ new sequel to its 1986 blockbuster-hit feature film, “TOP GUN.” Ferguson described how he came by the job.
“Toward the end of my tour of duty as the Deputy Commander, Naval Air Force Reserve, the Chief of Staff for Commander, Naval Air Forces, contacted me,” Ferguson said. “He said he thought I might be the right person for the role of advisor for ‘TOP GUN: Maverick.’ At first, I declined because I had been focused on so many other things professionally, and I knew there would be many other people well-qualified for the job. However, the Chief of Staff kept pinging me, and eventually my wife, Susan, was the one who changed my mind. She told me, ‘If they get it wrong and you had a chance to make it better that you didn’t take, you’ll be complaining about it for the rest of your life, and if they get it right, you’ll regret that you weren’t a part of it.’”
Ferguson served on active-duty orders for just over a year while filling the role of the Navy’s technical advisor for “TOP GUN: Maverick,” during which he also performed the critical role of aerial coordinator for the Naval Aviators and aircraft involved in the film.
“I wore many hats,” Ferguson said. “Primary was safety. The things we did in the jets were not necessarily any more risky, complicated or difficult than any given fleet training mission or combat duty, but they were different and required a great deal of careful and deliberate risk management. It was clear to me that any benefits the Navy hoped to gain from the film showcasing our profession to the nation and the world would be more than erased by a mishap. I also coordinated the aerial sequences, knowing the capabilities and limitations of the F/A-18 and aircrew. Tom Cruise, Jerry Bruckheimer or Joseph Kosinski would want something, and perhaps it was not attainable safely within our comfort margins. I would work with them and the civilian aerial cinematographer, to find a way to make it work safely and still be spectacular. I was also responsible for assisting with realism in the script, storyline and uniform accuracy, minus a few scenes that were filmed prior to my arrival.”
Although Ferguson stipulates that not every part of the film is 100-percent accurate to the realities of Naval Aviation, he said that, overall, it provides an extremely realistic vision of what being a Naval Aviator is like.
“The film makes very limited use of CGI—it’s almost all real-life Navy pilots in real Navy jets doing real maneuvers,” Ferguson said. “We’re taking the audience into the jets with us, onto the ship and into combat. Various people who saw the film with me all said the exact same thing: ‘I felt like I was in the jet!’”
Working on “TOP GUN: Maverick” was coming full circle for Ferguson. Like many others, he was inspired in a major way when he saw the original “TOP GUN” in theaters when it was first released in 1986, his senior year of high school. He attributes watching the film, as well as seeing the Navy’s Blue Angels and other Navy aircraft at airshows, to his decision to enter Naval Aviation. Now, 36 years later, he’s working on film projects that will help to inspire a new generation of Naval Aviators, including another Hollywood film named “Devotion,” the renowned story of Naval Aviators and brothers-in-arms Jesse Brown and Tom Hudner during the Korean War, scheduled to be released in the fall of 2022. Ferguson explained the lasting legacy that films about the Navy can have.
“I think that films can have a dramatic impact.” Ferguson said. “For example, the original ‘TOP GUN’ film did three things. First, it helped boost Navy recruiting a tremendous amount. It allowed the Navy to enjoy a massive influx of applications from some of the best and brightest young men and women in America. Second, it helped remind the Naval Aviation community that we literally have the coolest job on the planet. Like every job, there are parts of it that are mundane, but the film celebrated the most thrilling parts of it and reminded people that when they look back on their time in the service, those are the parts they are going to remember, not the long hours or paperwork. Third, it helped connect much of the American public to the Navy in a way in which they hadn’t been before—in a contemporary way that gives them some familiarity with what the Navy does today. I am confident that ‘TOP GUN: Maverick’ will have the same effect, which is why the Navy and the Department of Defense supported the project at the highest levels.”
Ferguson described more about the impact he thinks the new film will have.
“I am confident this film is going to help re-energize pride in the Naval Aviation community and the military at large. It can really pull people in and connect them to a Navy that they may not realize has been continuously involved in combat operations around the world for most of the last 30 years. This film will bring Naval Aviation to screens in front of hundreds of millions of people and allow them to experience how it looks from the cockpit, and more importantly, what it feels like to be an aviator in the U.S. Navy.”
Ferguson also discussed the critical role the Navy Reserve plays in supporting Naval Aviation and the Navy at large.
“The Navy Reserve provides a strategic depth for warfighting readiness during these times when we are challenged by near-peer adversaries. We stand ready to surge combat-capable end strength…whether the demand signal is tactical airpower, strategic lift, unmanned systems, watch-floor manning, seapower, medical support, Seabees, logistics, Naval Special Warfare, or any number of other specialties, the Navy Reserve maintains a readiness to mobilize, to fight and win anywhere in the world.”
Ferguson offered the following advice to Navy Reserve Sailors in the early parts of their careers:
“Be proud of what you do. The Navy cannot do its job without the Navy Reserve. Take care of the person on either side of you and the person in the middle, and lean on each other. Also, listen to your Chiefs, whether you are junior enlisted or an officer.”