Scream of Eagles – Happy Birthday TOPGUN (1)

As the first of two parts recognizing 50 years of training fighter pilots/instructors the below is a modified version of the article written for TOPGUN’s 40th anniversary and serves as introduction for a book review of TOPGUN; An American Story by Captain Dan Pederson USN, Retired, the founder and  first Officer -In -Charge.


Fifty years ago,  the first Fighter Weapons School -TOPGUN – class  was in their second week of“graduate level” fighter pilot education and training in an old trailer next to the  VF-121 hangar at Naval Air Station Miramar. (3 March 1969 start date) They were there because eagles screamed.

They were there because fighter pilots will not accept failure. In 1966 North Vietnamese fighter pilots (flying MiG 17 Frescos and MiG 21 Fishbeds) had accounted for only 3 percent of U.S. air losses. In the first three months of 1968, the MiG pilots now were responsible for 22 percent. The U.S. kill ratio was just about 2 to 1 (Air Force a little below, Navy, a little above) – as compared to the 10 to 1 of WWII and the Korean War – notably the worst ratio in the history of Naval aviation. Air crews were getting killed or becoming Hanoi Hilton residents, missiles and tactics developed to shoot down Russian bombers at long range were useless against an enemy intending to engage at close range coupled with U.S. rules of engagement prohibiting firing until positive ID obtained (which therefore put your aircraft inside the missile launch parameters.)

Eagles screamed. Sometimes leaders listen and do what they’re supposed to do – pay attention to those who’ve been in the crucible, and then act to take care of their people. This time they did.

Vice Admiral Tom Connolly (Deputy Chief of Naval Operations (Air) and Rear Admiral Bob Townsend (Commander Naval Air Systems Command) together representing both the operational and technical sides, assigned former Commanding Officer of the USS Coral Sea, Captain Frank “Whip” Ault to find out what was wrong. Ault was the right man. His nickname/call sign, “Whip,” came from Korean War days as Executive – soon to be Commanding – Officer of VA-55 on USS Essex. He had told his squadron pilots “I can out-drink you, out-fight you, and out-fly you,” and there’s nothing more obnoxious than a guy who can back up what he says. When being interviewed for consideration to be Executive Officer of the Navy’s first nuclear powered aircraft carrier, USS Enterprise, he so outraged the interview game playing Admiral Hyman Rickover, that Rickover called his boss and told him Ault was the most irreverent Naval Officer he’d ever interviewed – but he got the job.

Ault was joined by another fighter pilot, former CO of VF 191 and 124, the F-8 Crusader training squadron, Captain Merle Gorder. By January 1969, they had delivered a report identifying 242 problem areas. Ault stated

… we sent our people out there not trained for dogfighting. We sent the aircraft out there not equipped for dogfighting… and we got into nose-nose combat situations where neither the guy flying the airplane nor the airplane itself had ever fired a missile.  Further, based on the expected nature of air war and our technical developments to intercept bombers at long range, we have lost expertise and continuity in ‘being dogfighters’ … there is a need to establish a fighter weapons school to reverse this trend and to eliminate aircrew and ground personnel error…

Under Officer-in-Charge LCDR Dan Pedersen they worked and taught out of an old construction site type trailor, coming in at 0430, sleeping in the trailor, researching, writing, lecturing and most of all flying. They teamed with Captain Jim Foster’s VX-4 and his project officers like Mugs McKeown (2 MiG kills in 1972) and Tooter Teague (MiG kill in 1972) for access to the highly classified Have Doughnut and Have Drill groups flying the MiG 17 and 21 out in the desert.  They learned to fly like the enemy in his own aircraft and what they learned they passed on over and over again.


Indeed, they created a “different context, different narrative, different imagination” and they changed the Navy fighter pilot paradigm.

By January 12, 1973 when the last air-air MiG kill occurred (by TOPGUN graduate Vic Koveleski, VF-161, CAG 5, USS Midway) Navy fighter pilot kill ratio had risen to 15 to 1. Air Force, (had not yet established any higher level training) ratios remained throughout the war at 2 to 1. These statistics helped to create a virtual revolution in air combat training.  They had proven that what had been originally thought to be battlefield Darwinism can be a function of learning.
It is possible to train to the “ace” level without bloodshed

Happy 50th

Fly Navy, The BEST Always Have

In 1975, the Air Force initiated “Exercise Red Flag,” a graduate level tactical aircraft  course.

A note on original article  sources:

516LscLO6kL._SX311_BO1,204,203,200_ 1) Friends and personal experience  while at the Naval Missile Center (NMC) Point Mugu (1970-1971) providing adversary support for Air Test and Evaluation Squadron Four (VX-4);

2) while flying with VA-56 off USS Midway in the Gulf of Tonkin, 1972-73 (MiG killers of VF-161 resided in Ready Room next to VA-56):

3) Robert K. Wilcox’s Scream of Eagles


TOPGUN today:

On 11 July 1996, The Navy Strike and Air Warfare Center (NSAWC) consolidated three commands into a single command structure under a flag officer  to enhance aviation training effectiveness. The Naval Strike Warfare Center (STRIKE “U”) based at NAS Fallon since 1984, was joined with the Navy Fighter Weapons School (TOPGUN) and the Carrier Airborne Early Warning Weapons School (TOPDOME) which both moved from NAS Miramar as a result of a Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) decision in 1993. The Seahawk Weapon School was added in 1998 to provide tactical training for navy helicopters.

Next Part 2 – Book review and recommendation for Dan Pederson’s TOPGUN

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FIGHT FIGHT – Book Recommendation

Highest recommendation for Kevin Miller’s (CAPT. USN, Ret) newest novel Fight Fight.
I was going to do a normal “book review”/recommendation but decided to just leverage my comments to Kevin along with  his response instead. fight fightI had done a recommendation on his first book Raven One in a somewhat normal/accepted manner, but this book has some deeper levels for me than just good naval aviation fiction so wanted to add some emphasis. Some bit ago the novel Ghost Fleet on a future war scenario was highly regarded.  The books are similar in some ways, but Kevin’s book strikes home (for me anyway) in a much more personal and directly  relatable way to the overall Blown Slick Future Airpower Analysis series and the sub-series on carrier battles in 1942 around the South and Southwestern Pacific island defense chain set up by the Japanese. Continue reading

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Remembered Sky: A Naval Aviator Lies in State

 You Only Live Twice

“My fellow Americans, whom I have gratefully served for 60 years, and especially my fellow Arizonians, thank you for the privilege of serving you and for the rewarding life that service in uniform and in public office has allowed me to lead. I’ve tried to serve our country honorably…” John Sidney McCain III

Navy Wings

A Naval Aviator lies in state  today – since 1852 only 30 people have done so before him. Yet social media continues to extrapolate their dislike and even hatred backwards to his military career, no matter the truth of those times – found in ample sources. You “only live twice” from the James Bond movie seems an appropriate description and vehicle for discussion of the certain elements in the first life of John McCain and the truth out there for those are interested in truth vs. politics. What follows addresses three issues wrongly stated: Continue reading

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1942- The Year of the Aircraft Carrier; Part 11 – Guadalcanal – Admin

Blown Slick Series #13 Part 11

Between the lines

The haste in putting Operation Watchtower together would prove problematic on many levels not the least of which was that this tasking was completely new – none of the commanders knew how to put it all together, from logistics, to air support of ground forces with long term  land, sea, and air opposition, to night battles at sea.

Neptune’s Inferno: The U.S. Navy at Guadalcanal, James D. Hornfischer


Lieutenant Commander Wallace M. Beakley, Commander Wasp Air Group, debrief of operations over Tulagi on the bridge wing of the USS Wasp (CV-7), during operations off Guadalcanal on 7 August 1942 after eight hours airborne. Present are (from left to right) Wasp Commanding Officer Captain Forrest P. Sherman, (wearing helmet), Rear Admiral Leigh Noyes, Commander Task Group 61.1 (facing camera), and CWAG Beakley.

The original intent of the Year of the Carrier series was to post discussions on the anniversaries of the major events – Doolittle/Hornet raid and the four ’42 carrier battles. While Hornet’s raid, Coral Sea and Midway battles were time span and focus relatively straight forward, Guadalcanal covers six months with a lot more areas and types of conflict. As such, several aspects of air operations need to be put forward throughout the remainder of the series with some addressed prior to discussion of the third major carrier battle – Battle of the Eastern Solomons . Therefore that will cause a delay in the 24-25 August anniversary post  .

Here are the anticipated areas of discussion:

  1. how new this  all really was
  2. Midway didn’t mean we had all the answers for carrier aviation or its support roles, particularly when tied to a “box” defined by staying close to an invasion/occupation site which created  significantly different requirements from open ocean ops
  3. perspectives – looking at the overall campaign in light of carrier capabilities and limitations and then the flip side of the coin…
  4. … looking at CV ops in light of need to support the land campaign
  5. the effort by both U.S. and Japanese commands to protect their carriers
  6. flight deck operations for multiple mission types and with multiple carriers
  7. criticality of land based air
  8. negative aspects throughout the overall campaign on both sides of  intelligence, reconnaissance and communications
  9. given that neither side knew where the other was, it was a constant game of blind-man’s bluff
  10. CAS was a new animal and comms were completely non-supportive
  11. night aviation was really sketchy and Japanese sea forces were a lot better prepared for night

The plan is to cover these elements in the following parts:

12) First days air support

13) Henderson Field, Cactus Air Force and Operations

14) Battle of the Eastern Solomons and aftermath

15) Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands

16) Conclusion – Thinking on carrier operations as driven by the Guadalcanal Campaign

And on a personal aside

Exploration of the Guadalcanal Campaign has provided insight into the career of a distant relative – VADM William Morris Beakley. When I joined the Navy through NROTC, my Dad related that we had a distant relative who had been a naval officer in WW II but that was all he knew. Several years later, while at Pt Mugu, my boss LCDR Patterson asked if I were related to the admiral and shared a couple of items. Then when I joined VA-56 on the USS Midway, I saw Captain Beakley’s name on the listing of commanding officers on a brass plate on the quarterdeck.  Remember this was well before “Google Search.”

With this effort I found multiple references to his time as the airwing commander on the USS Wasp and was finally able to fill in some blanks on his career. He had previously been CO of VF-5 flying F-4F Wildcats. Shown in the picture above, he had just  directed and controlled all carrier air strikes on Tulagi, Gavutu, and Tanambogo and would receive a Navy Cross. When the Wasp was torpedoed he had to swim for his life.C7F

He went on to serve on the staff of Admiral Nimitz, was the eighth commanding officer of USS Midway (still a straight deck), serve as Commander Seventh Fleet, and on the staff of the Joint Chiefs of Staff where under President Kennedy he was instrumental in the stand-up of the Navy SEAL program.

While I cannot directly trace the family tree, what was initially striking and remains so, is that if his picture were placed with my Dad Bill and his two brothers Ben and Glen, the likeliness is undeniable.

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1942- The Year of the Aircraft Carrier; Part 10 – Guadalcanal Campaign Major Events Overview

Blown Slick Series #13 Part 10


Guadalcanal is no longer merely a name of an island in Japanese military history. It is the name of the graveyard of the Japanese army.

—Major General Kiyotake Kawaguchi, IJA
Commander, 35th Infantry Brigade at Guadalcanal

As noted in Part #9, unlike Midway which was almost entirely a carrier vs. carrier battle, the fight to gain and hold Guadalcanal was a land, sea, land-based air, and sea-based air six month give and take. Each element was dependent on the other and the equality of the Japanese and American carrier airpower played a major part in neither side gaining


lasting superiority and drove how each side chose to attack and defend. It was one thing to defend Midway operating in open ocean; being closely tied to the geography of the island and surrounding waters to provide air support was a whole other thing. With intelligence far inferior to that during Midway, staying in one general area exposed the carriers to submarine, land and sea based attack. There was much to be learned – at the expense of all participants.

While this series is focused on airpower and the sub-series on examining that first year of war in the Pacific and the emergence, growth, and operational use of the aircraft carrier, it is crucial to the endeavor to  comprehend the total land-sea-air conflict environment if one is to really appreciate the 1942 need for the capability of carrier airpower to be recognized and applied effectively. That particularly requires recognizing the limitations imposed by the threat environment, along with the emerging requirements to support expeditionary warfare (best example, close-air-support communications and coordination was non-existent and was not yet part of navy pilot training). Operational learning in this emerging warfare environment was also critical in regard to preparation for support of the planned operations of 1943-45 along the pathway to Japan itself. Indeed carrier aviation in 1945 would barely resemble that of ’42. Although somewhat lengthy, context and brief reference are necessary. Continued below are abbreviated summaries of the main battles of the Operation Watchtower campaign.

The Battles of Guadalcanal -

Continue reading

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1942- The Year of the Aircraft Carrier; Part 9 – Guadalcanal Introduction

Blown Slick Series #13 Part 9

On Land, on Sea, in the Air

9 February, 1943

Major General Alexander Patch, USA, Commander, U.S. Forces on Guadalcanal to Vice Admiral William Halsey, Jr., USN, Commander, South Pacific Area, 

Under extreme secrecy, on the nights of 1, 4, and 7 February 1943, the Japanese had completely fooled the ground and sea commanders, pilots, ships and PT boats of the U.S. South Pacific Forces and evacuated the 10,652  remaining of 36,000 soldiers from Guadalcanal.  Operation KE was  indeed a Pacific  Dunkirk. The Guadalcanal Campaign was over.


This series is about the introduction of the aircraft carrier into naval warfare in the four 1942  carrier vs. carrier battles.  Two of those battles – The Battle of the Eastern Solomons and The Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands – were part of the Guadalcanal campaign. Tactically similar in many ways to the Coral Sea and Midway battles, the multi-faceted warfare context (land, sea, and both sea and land-based air) created a much different dynamic than the earlier battles. While this discussion of the Guadalcanal battles will not go into any great detail on the land and sea contests, the story of the carriers cannot be told without the broader context.

The battle for Guadalcanal had been a very close run thing. Continue reading

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1942 – The Year of the Aircraft Carrier; Part 8 – Midway Trilogy Epilogue

Blown Slick Series #13 Part 8

Decisive victory? Depends on how you look

… a fundamental transformation in naval power had just taken place. Carriers usurped the prime strategic role of battleships in that their principal opponents were their enemy counterparts, and they should only to be committed to battle in the proper circumstances .. 

Black Shoe Carrier Admiral: Frank Jack Fletcher at Coral Sea, Midway & Guadalcanal , Lundstrom, John B..

0. Carrier Warfare

Today, seventy six years after the battle, Midway still has its paradoxes and conundrums; Continue reading

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1942 – The Year of the Aircraft Carrier; Part 7 – Midway Trilogy (3 of 3)

 Blown Slick Series #13 Part 7

 “what did Midway really mean?” 

 “An aircraft carrier is a noble thing. It lacks almost everything that seems to denote nobility, yet deep nobility is there. A carrier has no poise. It has   no  grace. It is top-heavy and lop-sided. It has the lines of a cow. It doesn’t cut through the water like a cruiser, knifing romantically along… It just plows… Yet a carrier is a ferocious thing, and out of its heritage of action has grown nobility. I believe that every Navy in the world has it as its No. 1 priority the destruction of enemy carriers. That’s a precarious honor, but it’s a proud one.Ernie Pyle, 1945

Midway books2

On 13 June USS Enterprise returned to Pearl Harbor. Thus began the celebration, but also, evaluation of the battle operations, the impact on both US and Japanese capabilities and next steps, and of most importance, the beginning of planning to leverage the victory. And so…

“what did Midway really mean?”  Continue reading

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1942 – The Year of the Aircraft Carrier; Part 6 – Midway Trilogy (2 of 3)

 Blown Slick Series #13 Part 6

Into the Shredder

The Battle of Coral Sea had provided the first hints that the Japanese high-water mark had been reached, but it was the Battle of Midway that put up the sign for all to see. Midway also marked the gateway to the attritional war that would be fought in the Solomons, a campaign that would irreparably ruin the Japanese Navy by destroying its elite naval aviation cadres and wrecking its surface forces beyond redemption. Midway didn’t produce these consequences by itself, but it created the circumstances whereby the Japanese Navy would be fed into the shredder. *


The Japanese had the overall numbers, they had the experience, they had the initiative, and for all practical purposes they decimated three torpedo squadrons and annihilated the Army Air Corps, Marine, and Navy attackers  from the island. So why did they lose? Continue reading

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1942 – The Year of the Aircraft Carrier; Part 5 – Midway Trilogy (1 of 3)

Blown Slick Series #13 Part 5

 Paradox and Redemption: 4 to 7 June 1942               The Battle of Midway 

Among the many gems is a reminder to all who study mankind’s self-inflicted cataclysm: “Yet the overwhelming reality during the war…is that nobody knew how it would go.” Winds of War/War and RemembranceHerman Wouk

Before the battle was joined there was  no way the Japanese could have lost it…once it began, there was no way they could have won it. The Barrier and the Javelin, H.P. Willmott


The Battle of Midway occurred six months after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor and one month after the Battle of the Coral Sea. Under overall command in the Pacific of Admiral Chester Nimitz, Admirals Frank Jack Fletcher, and Raymond A. Spruance – neither a naval aviator – defeated an attacking fleet of the Imperial Japanese Navy under Admirals Isoroku Yamamoto, Chuichi Nagumo, and Nobutake Kondo near Midway Atoll, in the second only battle of aircraft carriers vs. aircraft carriers. Inflicting the loss of all four IJN carriers, the U.S. victory is arguably the most well known, researched, scrutinized and written about  naval battle in history. Military historian John Keegan called it “the most stunning and decisive blow in the history of naval warfare.”

Indeed, in the “common wisdom,” the battle has not only been considered the decisive battle of the Pacific war, it has evoked the words/terms miracle, incredible, tide-turning, and no right to win. As noted in 2005 in the much heralded book and basis for much of the re-thinking of the battle,   Shattered Sword,

the defining moment will always be the devastating and seemingly last-minute attack of American dive bombers against the Japanese carrier force at 1020 … hurling down from the heavens to drop their bombs on helpless Japanese  carriers, their decks packed with aircraft just moments away from taking off

Continue reading

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