A handy glossary to all the military aviation terms in ‘Top Gun: Maverick’
From barricade to WSO, here are 11 terms that come up in the new film. They just might take your breath away.
Planning on catching Top Gun: Maverick? If so, there’s no need to do any pre-flight homework to prepare, besides perhaps screening the 1986 original first. You can expect fighter jets, beach sports, an aircraft carrier, and plenty of references—through dialogue, music, and visuals—to the ‘80s classic.
But anyone with a fascination for military aviation might be interested in learning more about the flying elements of the new film, which The New Yorker concluded “far outflies its predecessor.” Popular Science caught up with Vincent Aiello, host of the Fighter Pilot Podcast, a former F/A-18 pilot, TOPGUN instructor, and current commercial airline pilot, to ask him about his thoughts on the new movie and how it stacks up against real Naval aviation.
Although Aiello describes it as “a good tribute to the hardworking men and women of the United States Navy,” he notes that also, “it’s a movie, not a documentary—so they take some liberties.” (Apparently the uniforms aren’t quite right.)
One of those liberties is a maneuver you can see in a trailer, when one F/A-18 flies up between two others. “You just wouldn’t do something like that,” he says. “History is full of examples of people that have tried silly maneuvers, and bump into each other, and it’s usually not good for the airplane, or your career—sometimes your life.”
Stunts like that are “needlessly risky,” he reflects. “Military aviators are very used to taking risks, but they are calculated risks—so, when we fly, when we land on aircraft carriers, or take off from aircraft carriers, that’s already very inherently risky.”
Flying on and off an aircraft carrier does indeed feature in the new film, of course, and you might also hear terms thrown around like “Gs” or “fifth-generation fighter.” Here are some phrases and concepts that come up in the movie in different ways—don’t worry, there won’t be any pushups if you forget.
From ‘barricade’ to ‘G-LOC’
Barricade: The typical way that a jet lands on an aircraft carrier is by catching one of the heavy, thick cables stretched across the deck with an arresting hook. But in a highly unusual event, an aircraft, its engines at idle, can also just smash into a raised barricade to stop. “It’s like a badminton net, where when you come down, you land in it, and it grabs you and pulls you to a stop,” Aiello says. “It’s very rare,” he adds, saying that one alternative to using a barricade is to have the pilot fly next to the ship and eject.
F/A-18: These fighter jets are the film’s shining metallic stars, and they have come in multiple variants over the years. F/A-18A, B, C, and D models are known as Hornets, and the F/A-18E and F models are the larger Super Hornets the Navy flies today. Those E models have just one seat, and the Fs have two. “The missions can be flown in either a single- or two-seat model,” Aiello says. More on what those back-seaters are called, below.
Fifth-generation fighter: If you think about jet fighter aircraft as falling into different generations over the decades, the most advanced ones of today are stealth machines like the F-35 or F-22, which are low-observable to radar. Those are fifth-generation aircraft, which Aiello summarizes as having “better sensors” and a “lower signature” as well as other attributes. Meanwhile, a fourth-generation fighter would be a craft like an F-16 or F-15. An example of a non-US fifth-generation fighter is Russia’s Su-57 Felon.
Gs: If you’re currently reading this while sitting motionless on Earth, you’re feeling one G—as in gravity—pulling you straight downwards. Now imagine that that force suddenly doubles, and boom, you’re feeling 2 Gs. In a fighter jet, aviators may pull as many as 9 or more Gs, but they don’t experience that during steady, normal flight, when they’d just feel 1 G pulling them down. The Gs come during maneuvers like a hard bank and turn in one direction or another, or a strong nose-up pull. (Pilots in training can practice for these by being spun in a centrifuge.) Here’s more on what it’s like to pull 6 Gs:
G-LOC: This abbreviation, pronounced “gee lock,” makes an appearance in the film when an aviator experiences it during a training exercise. It stands for G-induced loss of consciousness, and it can occur when a pilot experiences Gs but doesn’t successfully manage them—the blood drains away from their head, and they pass out, sometimes just momentarily. It can be deadly. A member of the Air Force demonstration team, the Thunderbirds, died due to G-LOC in 2018, and Aiello recalls it claiming a life at TOPGUN, too. Some aircraft, like F-16s, F-22s, and F-35s, have ground-collision avoidance software on them to automatically pull them up if they’re about to crash because the pilot is unconscious or disoriented. Aviators also try to mitigate the pull of the Gs by doing a muscle exercise and utilizing a piece of equipment called a G-suit that squeezes them.
Hypersonic: Anything that’s traveling five times the speed of sound or more is hypersonic, like in this recent Air Force test.
From ‘hard deck’ to ‘WSO’
Hard deck: You’ll hear lots of angry discussion about the “hard deck” in both the original film and this one, and it’s a real training term. In actual combat, Aiello says, “you’ll fight down to the ground.” But that’s dangerous. “You can’t train to that without really accepting a lot of risk,” he adds. The hard deck is 5,000 feet above the ground, or the average terrain altitude, Aiello says. If someone just above the hard deck has a problem, they have thousands of feet of buffer to recover or eject. Above the hard deck by another 5,000 feet is a “soft deck,” which is a type of “warning” level.
RIO: This is an acronym for the Radar Intercept Officer in an F-14, which was Goose’s job in the original film. This was, unsurprisingly, a “dedicated operator for the radar,” Aiello says. The F/A-18s of today do not have a RIO, but some of them do have a backseat.
Tomcat: This is the name for the F-14 aircraft of the original film. These larger aircraft had a vibe to them, as Aiello told PopSci in 2019: they were “biggish, brutish, in your face, loud, American muscle.” A former Tomcat pilot remembered that while taxiing it, it had a truck-like feel. The US Navy no longer flies them.
TOPGUN: This is the general way that the actual Strike Fighter Tactics Instructor Course, located in Fallon, Nevada, is written. It’s technically housed within the N7 division of the Naval Aviation Warfighting Development Center. If you’re thinking about the California setting of the original film, that’s because the program was located in Miramar at the time. It moved to Nevada in 1996.
WSO: While no RIO rides in the back of Super Hornets of today, a two-seater F/A-18F variant can host a weapons system officer, or WSO, in the rear. “Certain missions are better done with a back-seater,” Aiello says. One job the WSO could do is positioning a laser on a target to “designate” it as such, as part of an aircraft system called ATFLIR.
Find a more complete glossary here, and here’s more on how the film came together: