You probably remember those aviator glasses, that “take my breath away” chorus, and maybe even Tom Cruise’s cute, crooked smirk (you know, in the years before he got Invisalign) from the original Top Gun.
But what Sarasota native—and U.S. Navy captain—Brian Ferguson, who was 17 at the time, remembers most from the original movie is the finesse of landing supersonic fighter jets on a speck in the ocean. That memory was part of what propelled him to become the Navy’s technical advisor on the sequel, Top Gun: Maverick, which hit the big screen late last month.
Those scenes from the iconic 1986 blockbuster sealed Ferguson's career path—even though he credits his big brothers for helping him with some early training. They would throw their toddler brother between them in a well-intentioned game of catch.
There were other key moments of inspiration too.
Ferguson's father was friends with Walt Wallin of Walt's Fish Market and Restaurant "about 40 years ago," he recalls. Walt owned a small airplane and took him flying.
"I was about 10 years old at the time, and I don't remember the type of airplane. But I remember the feeling was amazing," he says.
The Riverview High grad went to Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona to study aviation and became a Navy fighter pilot, flying F-18s off aircraft carriers. He flies for Delta now, and when first approached about working on the set of Top Gun: Maverick, he turned down the role amid a busy family and career.
But his wife of 28 years told him he'd regret not stepping in as the Navy’s technical advisor on the film and influencing a new generation of Navy pilots. After all, it would be a full-circle moment, since the original movie had had such an impact on Ferguson's own career choice. Plus, he'd be part of the production right before retiring, which he plans to do next year.
Ferguson coordinated a Navy survival course for the film, which saw the cast dragged through the water, dunked upside down while blindfolded and forced to exit an enclosed space.
The course lasted months so that the actors could acclimatize to the physical effects of flying in an F-18, including G-force.
"For a civilian not acclimated to this, it's grueling to the body," Ferguson explains. "When the cast had to do water survival, we spun them and dragged them in a pool while they were in a parachute. Everyone—including Tom—did it and did great."
One of Ferguson’s many other jobs on set was to ensure the Navy's values and interests were represented. He was also in charge of ensuring the equipment wasn’t damaged, that the cast and crew were safe, and that the flying scenes were done as authentically as possible.
So were the actors actually flying the planes?
No. But they were in the aircraft—and you can tell by the distortion on their faces, their cheeks being pulled down as they pulled up to 7.5 times the force of gravity in flight–not something you can act or simulate. Actors sat in the rear cockpit of two-seat F-18s, behind their Navy pilots, and carefully placed cameras made it appear like the actors were flying the jets.
Even so, "it's hard in the back," says Ferguson. "You can't see through the front and you have no control." On top of that, the jets that were used in the movie go roughly 1,200 miles per hour.
And get this: Ferguson says the F-35 in the opening scene is new and very highly classified, and the camera people had to be strategic about where to place the cameras so they wouldn't reveal certain details about it.
After a lifetime of flying, Ferguson hopes a new generation will join the life "not just because of jets, but the experience of the Navy family. It's a unique bond with lifetime friends like no other."