When fighter jets soar across a movie screen, it’s almost impossible to not get excited. Whether the film itself is focused on these pilots or highlights them in a thrilling battle sequence, awesome air combat is always an attention-getting addition to a story.
But how do the flying scenes shown in movies compare to the real thing? Fandom spoke to U.S Air Force F-22 Raptor demo pilot Major Joshua ‘Cabo’ Gunderson to get his expert takes on some of Hollywood’s most famous flying sequences. Whether it’s a historic moment recreated on screen, iconic cinematic aerial dogfights, crazed combat against alien invaders, or even Tony Stark propelling himself through the air via Iron Man suit, Gunderson was game to let us know what these movies got right and what may have been dramatized just a bit – or more than a bit – for our enjoyment.
Tony Scott’s Top Gun, starring Tom Cruise, arguably popularized jet flying like no other movie before or after. One aspect that stood out from this ‘80s classic were the Navy characters’ callsigns – Maverick, Goose, Iceman, etc. But what goes into a callsign? Speaking from the Air Force tradition, Gunderson had this to say. “It’s not anything you pick yourself, usually. In a combat squadron, you’ll go through about three months of initial combat training and when you complete that training the squadron will certify you in a legal fashion to use their airplanes in combat. That milestone is typically when a squadron will name you.”
“There are three ways to get a callsign,” he added. “One is that you have a funny name. So like a buddy of mine – whose name is Buddy – has the callsign ‘Nacho’ as in ‘Nacho Buddy.’ And then another buddy’s name is Nelson so his callsign’s ‘Full’ as in ‘Full Nelson.’ Another way is that you could look like a certain character. Another guy, ‘Shrek’ Palmquist, looks like the human embodiment of Shrek, so that absolutely 100% made sense. The last way is usually through a funny story which, typically, we keep those stories between the people who are there at the meeting and my callsign [‘Cabo’] kind of came from that third way.”
One thing Gunderson wanted to highlight here, in the final battle of Top Gun, is that Tom Cruise’s character, Maverick, with his want for personal glory, is not what you find in the Air Force, and is someone designed to create a dramatic story for a movie. “That’s not a traditional or typical characteristic of someone who flies fighter jets. We work as a team and that rogue, maverick act doesn’t really succeed in our community. If people aren’t a team player then we’ll make sure they go elsewhere because succeeding as a team is what really matters.”
Of course, Top Gun is about Maverick learning to not be as much of a maverick, and that’s what’s on display in the final act. In addition, one thing that could happen is Maverick’s trick at the end that forces the enemy fighter to speed ahead of him so he could take the winning shot.
“Yes, you can float,” Gunderson shared. “It’s an ever-changing environment and you have airplanes going 400 miles an hour in very close proximity, so things are happening quickly and it’s a matter of the training and repetition and seeing what’s possible for your airplane to do. Not only knowing your airplane but also what you’re fighting against and seeing where you can exploit that. The F-22 is a great example of that because it can get really really slow and it can also get really really fast, so learning to exploit those differences between what you’re flying and what you’re fighting against can get you into a scenario where you can slow down a lot and for somebody to overshoot and then transition from that defensive line into an offensive line.”
“It’s like a Major League Baseball player standing at the plate and seeing a curveball or a slider or whatever it is enough times and taking advantage of it.”
From jets vs. jets we went to the sci-fi extravaganza of 1996’s Independence Day, in which the United States launched a massive air assault on invading alien hordes, who also flew their own fast-moving aircraft – from space! “It’s funny, I haven’t watched that movie in about 15 or 20 years, and so it’s interesting to rewatch that clip now after doing what I do,” Gunderson remarked. “It’s one of those things where you see a lot of Hollywood effects for many things. Like when you see a character in a movie pull the pin out of a grenade with their teeth, when in real life you’d lose a tooth if you tried that.”
“A lot of things in the film are dramatized to appeal to the audience,” he continued, “which is totally understandable. We do have networks that can transmit information and allow people to have visibility on our airplanes for kinetic control purposes so some of the clips in that scene showcase that a little bit. Obviously, the funnier things are the more glaring differences. But in terms of similarities, yeah the kinetic control is somewhat represented in terms of what we use for combat.”
When the Air Force jets arrive at the giant alien mothership in ID4, there seem to be hundreds of planes all clustered together. Gunderson was quick to notice that this formation was meant to be a cool visual since typically jets wouldn’t be that close together.
“We would space ourselves much further apart,” he shared. “There maybe are even times when I take off and the last time I see the person that I’m flying with on my team is when we take off. I may never see them again until we come back to land because we’re flying so far apart from each other. A lot of the stuff we do, because of the advancements in technology, has allowed us to move out at farther distances. We have a lot of sensors that do a lot of work so I may fly entire training missions and never see another person.”
Movies, of course, like to shine a spotlight on visually impressive air maneuvers but are any of those tricks actually useful in combat? “Yeah, you bet,” Gunderson answered. “We train for all the spectrums of conflict, whether it’s long-range stuff or whether it’s a close-quarters dogfight that you see. Whether it’s in Top Gun or this movie. And there are versions of that, even, based off the airplane. We try to optimize our training in what our airplane is really good at. The F-22 is the best air fighter in the world. Its capabilities and performance and maneuverability are incredible. So we try to exploit those advantages in visual combat. If you think about the history of air combat in the last 60 plus years, the vast majority of the fights have gotten into that realm of you actually seeing the person you’re shooting at in some capacity, so we train for all the spectrums of combat.”
Of course, we had to ask: How would the Air Force fare against an extraterrestrial attack? Gunderson laughed, “I know there are a bunch of Navy pilots out there who’ve seen a bunch of stuff. It’s always the Navy guys, it’s weird. But I’ve never seen anything like that, or anything suspicious. But yeah, it’s an unknown, so I couldn’t really give you a straight answer except to say when you don’t know who you’re fighting it’s kind of hard to plan and prep.”
In both Top Gun and ID4, Gunderson also noticed that, for the benefit of viewers, there’s a lot more talking in the air than would happen in real life. “We don’t really do that,” he explained. “We keep it short and concise, as to what we say on the radio, because that communication time is very valuable and there are a lot of things happening in the air that are oftentimes happening at the same time.”
Obviously, we’re way off the grid here with 2008’s Iron Man, a movie where a man flies in a personal armored suit, using technology that doesn’t exist. But when Tony Stark makes it back home to the United States safely and creates Iron Man suits in his lab, he takes his armor for a test flight to push its altitude limits. A test that doesn’t go very well.
“We still have to obey the laws of physics when it comes to the aircraft,” the major pointed out, “and as you get higher and higher in elevation, the density of the air goes down so there’s less oxygen to breathe and there are less molecules in the air. And those molecules in the air are what allows the airplane to fly. It creates lift, and that allows us to fly.”
In the scene, Tony’s Mark II suit experiences some drastic issues with temperature and pressure when it flies too high. “If you go higher and higher, the air becomes less dense and you have less ability to maneuver the airplane or fly the airplane. That’s why the F-22 has really big wings compared to the F-16 Fighting Falcon or F-35 Lightning II. The airplanes are really good in their respective regimes but they’re optimized for certain things. The F-22 is designed to fly high altitude, much like an F-15 Eagle. The bigger wings allow us to produce more lift and fly at those high altitudes.”
“As a pilot, when you go higher and higher in altitude you have to start thinking about your oxygen and your breathing,” Gunderson added. “And you also have to think about possibly having a rapid decompression. If you start losing pressure in the cockpit then you’re going to have a very limited time to find enough oxygen to descend back into thicker air so you can actually stay conscious. Because ultimately at a very high altitude you could lose oxygen and pass out and then you can’t control the airplane anymore.”
Of course, Gunderson’s love and passion involve flying jets but… would he ever sign up for an Iron Man flight, if suddenly the technology existed? “Sure, I’d give it a try,” he laughed. “Why not? I used to skydive as well so I love that element of being in the sky. Obviously, I don’t have a rocket motor or a booster strapped to me when I do that but I’d love that. But I also love flying airplanes and the F-22 is one of the most remarkable aircraft, and they can do so many incredible things. I’m very fortunate to be flying it.”
Our next trip into the fantastical was not only an alien attack movie, but a Michael Bay movie at that – which means operatic, dramatic visuals and an intense focus on action. The scene, from the first movie in the Bay’s Transformers franchise, shows the Air Force attempting a rescue under hostile Decepticon conditions. The major broke down these specific gunships for us.
“We have the A-10 Thunderbolt IIs, which are also known as the ‘Warthog,’ and they’re incredible. You know, I’d put gear in an A-10. They’re a phenomenal airplane with what they can do. And what they’re essentially doing is close air support. They’re working in close coordination with people on the ground and in the skies to coordinate fires. Figuring out where they need to employ these weapons,” Gunderson said.
“The other airplane I saw was the AC-130 Spectre. They’re going to have multiple guns on the side of the airplane and they can orbit over a target area and point those guns. It’s a modified transport airplane with guns on the side. It shoots a M102 105mm howitzer gun, which is basically just the size of that round. What they do well in this clip is that you hear the coordination between the people on the ground and those in the air. We don’t typically have ten layers of phone tag in that process, of course. We want to make sure to be as clear and concise as possible. You’ll have someone on the ground who’s a JTAC-qualified person. JTAC is a Joint Terminal Air Controller. That’s a qualification they have to receive through Air Force School that allows one to work directly with aircraft and call in airstrikes.”
It’s a long-standing rule that with Michael Bay comes explosions and things get pretty hairy for Josh Duhamel and Tyrese’s characters, Captain William Lennox and Sergeant Robert Epps. Said Gunderson, “You hear them also say ‘danger close,’ which is basically saying we’re going to drop a weapon or shoot something close enough to potentially cause harm to friendly forces. But some scenarios are so bad that they need the support right now and they’re willing to accept that small level of risk. Obviously not everything is accurate but they did a good job of telling the story about what was happening.”
The Right Stuff
We capped off this Q&A session with a movie actually grounded in aviation history – 1983’s The Right Stuff, about Navy, Marine, and Air Force test pilots, and the Mercury Seven. Pushing the limits of speed and altitude, these pilots put themselves at risk in ways that modern times don’t call for necessarily.
As Gunderson explained, “During that period, there were dramatic gains in terms of the abilities of airplanes to go higher and faster for a lot of reasons. It was about air travel and space travel and also because getting higher and faster allows you tactical advantages as well. There’s obviously been a massive change to the paradigm as to how we do test piloting now and how we conduct test missions. I’ve never been to test pilot school, but I will tell you that they don’t have this cavalier attitude where they just say ‘I’m going to take this airplane for a spin.’ That’s not how they operate.”
“There are very intelligent and capable pilots doing test profiles to look for certain limitations,” Gunderson further stated. “There’s a team of people and engineers and designers that go into these things, so the things we accomplish are highly controlled because, for one, they’re very expensive assets and we’re trying to get very specific data points to get more information.”
“With the test pilot days that are shown in this movie, there was kind of more of that cowboy attitude. And you know, when they’re in their world and flying jets there are times when you have to make the best decision you can with the information you have and it may not be written down somewhere in a book. But they were definitely a lot more cavalier about it, it seems from this depiction.”