“Top Gun Maverick”: A Peek Behind The Curtain, Part 1

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The new “Top Gun Maverick” movie by most accounts is a runaway success. It has grossed more than $1 billion so far at the box office, and, maybe more impressive, has been embraced critically by the aviation community. This reporter has seen the flick multiple times, despite having had initial misgivings. The original “Top Gun’’ didn’t impress me as much as it did the rest of the world. But Tom Cruise has matured tremendously as an actor. How could he not? He was just 22 when the first movie was made; he turned 60 this month. The cockpit action scenes are more realistic, too. You can see the intense G-force strain on the actors’ faces. They, of course, weren’t flying the U.S. Navy F-18 fighter jets, but were riding in the backseats.

There have been many interviews with those actors, including Cruise, since the movie release, which was delayed a few years because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Fewer have been done with the Blue Angels pilots who fly the planes, and with members of the film’s behind-the-scenes production crew. We thought it would be interesting to attack the movie from the latter angle. Using my connection with Major Michael “Thorny” Brewer, a recent U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds pilot who has taken me supersonic in an F-15, I was able to secure interviews with three former Blue Angels pilots: LCDR James “Tootsie” Cox, LCDR James “Rocket” Haley, who were not in the movie, and CDR Frank “Walleye” Weisser, who was. I was also able to chat with the film’s aviation stuntman Kevin LaRosa through a contact provided by aeronautics photojournalist Mike Killian. LaRosa was instrumental in setting up, and filming, the flick’s intense flight scenes.

This is the beginning of a four-part series. First up is Cox, 39, a married father of three who lives in Virginia Beach, Virginia. Cox graduated from the Navy’s Top Gun school in 2016, then later went on from 2019-2021 to pilot plane No. 4 for the Blue Angels. Following are edited excerpts from a longer phone conversation.

Jim Clash: First, Jim, what did you think of “Top Gun Maverick”?

James “Tootsie” Cox: Both from an entertainment and exposure-to-the-Navy standpoint, I thought it was fantastic. No kidding, but part of the reason I’m doing what I am today is the first movie. My dad was a Navy helicopter pilot for 30 years. When my parents showed me that first movie, I was four years old, and I couldn’t get enough. The feeling pretty much stayed with me until I joined the Navy. So, for the second movie’s release, I’d never been so excited. It’s cool how they tie in the old characters, but add modern twists. I’ve been in Naval aviation for almost 15 years, and the flying, the Gs and what they are saying and doing actually make sense. The producers wanted it as realistic as possible, which is why they partnered with Top Gun staff members in Fallon [Nevada].

Jim Clash: I heard that you gave “Hangman” (actor Glen Powell in “Top Gun Maverick”) a ride in the backseat of your F-18. What was that like, and what is he like?

Cox: He came with a few others to Pensacola [Florida] to hang out with the Blue Angels for a couple of days. He’s in another Naval aviation movie that I think is coming out next year. He worked out with us in the gym in the morning. Unfortunately, the first day I flew him in a Blue Angels demonstration, it was rained out after 10 minutes and we had to land. But Glen stayed an extra day, and got in a full practice of 35 minutes. He did great. He gets aviation. When I would tell him, “Here comes some Gs,’’ he knew what to do. We pulled 7.5 Gs and he didn’t even have a G-suit on.

Clash: His character is a bit cocky in the movie. Is he like that in real life?

Cox: Not at all. He’s very humble, down-to-earth and respectful, at least during my limited time with him. It’s funny, when he came to the team briefing, we’re all thinking it’s going to be so cool to hang out with him. Then he tells us just the opposite - that it’s going to be so cool to hang out with us!

Clash: You actually went to the Top Gun school. What was that like?

Cox: It’s the most incredible experience and tactical training that the Navy and Marine Corp offer. I never thought that in 100 years they would pick someone like me. Why am I able to do this when so many people are more qualified and smarter? The school itself is predicated on the Vietnam War due to the losses we had over there. It’s not only teaching tactics to new students, but developing the students to become teachers. I have so much respect for those guys out in Fallon because they not only teach three classes per year, but develop new tactics and stay up-to-date on current threats.

I went through the class from January to April 2016. The first phase is BFM - basic fighter maneuvers, two weeks’ immersion into what we know as dogfighting, with briefing and debriefing in between flights. The latter is to create instructors, then have them go back to their weapons schools or stay on staff to teach. After BFM, there’s an air-to-surface ordnance phase, then an air-to-air phase with the integration of not only F-18s, but F-22s and F-35s. After initial training, I went back to Strife Fighter Tactical Weapons [SFTW] school Atlantic in Virginia as an SFT instructor for two and a half years, teaching the Navy fleet how to employ the F-18 in all areas.

Clash: As you implied earlier, getting into the school is a big deal. Where were you when you found out?

Cox: We were in workups for deployment in the fall of 2015, and had just gotten off of the aircraft carrier. I was at home, and saw my commanding officer’s name pop up on my phone. Your first reaction is, “Oh no, why is the CO calling me?” He told me I was accepted to the Top Gun school. I don't remember being more excited in my life, my wedding aside [laughs], but also nervous because I realized now was the time people would see all of my weaknesses and self-doubts.

Clash: Let’s face it, you’re in a dangerous line of work. How do you handle fear?

Cox: I try to mitigate being scared by exposure to different situations for experience on which to stand when a difficult scenario arises. Basically, it’s being really prepared. What makes a good pilot a great pilot is situational awareness - knowing what’s going on around you, and in your cockpit, at all times. The biggest thing one would ultimately get scared of is not knowing what to do. And often those situations come in high-stress environments. You know what [boxer] Mike Tyson said: “You’re prepared until you get hit with the first punch.” In simulators, we’re put through pretty aggressive situations where the aircraft is failing left and right. You must think smoothly, quickly and effectively to manage the fear of what could potentially happen by using your foundation of training.

Clash: What’s a big takeaway from being a Blue Angels’ pilot for two years?

Cox: The Blue Angels represents 75 years of excellence. The opportunity to be on that team is humbling. Not many people get to do it. The flying is incredible, the jets and the maintenance are top-notch. So me being able to operate that low to the ground, inspiring people young and old, flying through cities during the challenges of COVID, is a blessing. I remember at one of our shows over Kansas City in 2019, I was flying between buildings like they were field-goal posts. As it was happening, I was thinking, “What on earth am I doing? How in my life did I arrive here?” There were many takeaways, but being humbled is one of my biggest from being a Blue Angel.

Clash: A pilot’s call sign is something endearing your fellow pilots bestow upon you. Where the hell did “Tootsie” come from?

Cox: We were in Florida doing a squadron thing and went out to a place called Tootsie’s. I had a grand old time [laughs], and afterward became known as “Tootsie.”