New Book Celebrates 50th Anniversary of the US Navy Fighter Weapons School

March 8, 2019 – When American fighter jets were being downed at a disturbing and unprecedented rate during the Vietnam War, the U.S. Navy turned to a young lieutenant commander, Dan “Yank” Pedersen, to figure out a way to reverse their dark fortune.

Pedersen, aka “the Godfather of Topgun,” was the Hollywood image of a fighter pilot, seldom appearing without his Ray-Ban sunglasses, when a report about the shocking casualties foiling Navy air operations in Vietnam prompted a wholesale reevaluation of American fighter strategy.

On a shoestring budget and with little official support, his mission was to challenge the status quo and determine the weapons systems and tactics that would once again make America’s fighter jets the masters of the sky.

Pedersen selected eight of the finest pilots to develop a graduate curriculum and train a new generation to bend jets like the F-4 Phantom to their will and learn how to dogfight all over again. The new graduate Fighter Weapons School was credited with raising the air combat kill ratio from two Vietnamese planes downed for every American plane lost to more than 12 to 1.

Pedersen’s mantra: “In combat, second best is dead last.” He and his superb team established a legacy that has been carried on for six decades by some of America’s greatest subsequent leaders.

In “TOPGUN: An American Story” (Hachette Books; March 2019), the founder of the famous program tells the inside story for the first time, from Miramar to Area 51.

Pedersen’s vivid anecdotes are wide-ranging, touching on how the financial support for the Topgun was so limited and the red tape so thick that his team had to resort to stealing furniture to build Topgun’s first headquarters. One of his RIOs (radar interceptors), Steve Smith, found a dilapidated modular trailer and convinced an off-duty crane operator to move it to their part of the base for a case of scotch; then they scrounged for office furniture to fill it.

The book details the secret trip Pedersen and the other original instructors took to Area-51 in 1969 to study MiG-17 planes captured from Vietnam, and how Pedersen ignored the orders of the three-star general in charge of them who insisted the planes were not to be used for dogfighting and had a dogfight in it anyway.

Pedersen’s cinematic prose also weaves a heart-wrenching backdrop: from falling in love with his high school sweetheart to penning letters throughout combat training to losing touch as he struggled to survive the demands of the thirty-year career to finally reuniting and marrying his soul mate as a seasoned veteran.

On the heels of the 50th anniversary, Jerry Bruckheimer is producing Top Gun: Maverick, a sequel to the 1986 blockbuster with Tom Cruise, which is scheduled for 2020. Top Gun was the highest-grossing movie of 1986, earning $356.8 million worldwide. “TOPGUN: An American Story” touches on what was different in the movie from real life, i.e. how the Topgun instructors were so competitive—some things about the movie were true!—that they tried to dogfight each other, and how Pedersen, fearing that a fight could result in a lost plane that could put the program at risk, intervened.

A riveting narrative in the tradition of bestselling military reads, “TOPGUN: An American Story” is sure to delight history buffs, movie-fans, and general audience alike.

Dan Pedersen entered the U.S. Navy in 1953 as an enlisted mechanic. He was later the senior officer in the group of nine men who formed the Navy’s legendary “Topgun” graduate program at Naval Air Station Miramar in March 1969. He served in combat during the Vietnam War, with two flying cruises on USS Hancock (CVA-19) and two on USS Enterprise (CVN-65). He commanded the super aircraft carrier USS Ranger. He ultimately retired as a captain, having accumulated 6,100 flight hours and 1,005 carrier landings while flying 39 types of aircraft. Pedersen is an accomplished public speaker, having presented to many varying audiences, large or small, from school children to very senior military or corporate executives. He has also been inducted into the Aviation Hall of Fame in the Palm Springs Air Museum and San Diego’s Air and Space Museum.