The pilot who gets “flipped off” by Tom Cruise in the 1986 Hollywood blockbuster Top Gun has gone on to become the commander of the US Pacific Fleet, the world’s largest fleet command. Admiral Robert ‘Rat’ Willard, the film’s flight choreographer, chuckles when asked if he was the enemy pilot who was given “the bird” (shown the middle finger) by Cruise’s character Lieutenant Pete ‘Maverick’ Mitchell.
Willard, who is on an official visit to India, flew the enemy fighter identified as ‘MiG-28’ in the movie that glamorised the dogfighting capabilities of the F-14. The MiG-28 designation was never used for a Soviet fighter in real life.
Willard, who was Top Gun’s executive officer in the 1980s, said: “The black helmet I wore as a ‘MiG-28’ pilot sits in a glass cabinet at my office in Pearl Harbour.” The aggressor aircraft used by Top Gun, US Navy’s Fighter Weapons School, as the fictional MiG-28s were Northrop’s F-5s.
Willard, who assumed the command of the Pacific Fleet in May 2007, was the aerial coordinator for all flight scenes in the movie. “I have a vivid memory of flying inside the frame of the camera. I was flying lower, slower and closer to accommodate the limits of the camera...,” said Willard.
The F-5s used as the “MiG-28s” maintained their black paint schemes and served as “aggressor” aircraft simulating enemy planes in the real-life Top Gun programme. Tom Cruise was allowed to take three rides in the F-14 Tomcat to get a feel of fighter flying. Not many know he vomited during the first sortie. Most of the actors who portrayed F-14 crewmembers received backseat rides in the aircraft.