John Gillespie Magee, Jr., an American serving with the Royal Canadian Air Force flying in a Spitfire squadron in Britain during the Second World War, wrote eloquently of having “[S]lipped the surly bonds of earth, and danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings; … wheeled and soared and swung high in the sunlit silence” and “flung my eager craft through footless halls of air.” Though he was tragically killed in a midair collision at the tender age of 19, Magee's poem “High Flight” remains a favorite of pilots the world over. What his moving prose fails to adequately describe is the stark brutality of aerial combat. It’s akin to a knife fight in a phone booth, only with the combatants’ knives worth multitudinous millions of dollars.
Read the full article on Hagerty.com: https://www.hagerty.com/media/opinion/a-fighter-pilot-tells-us-what-the-real-top-guns-drive-to-work/
as a young teenager in the era of Tom Cruise and Kelly McGillis, I have imagined fast jet combat as "sport", where you "race" against your opponent. I know about life and death a bit more today, but I still see your job as "driving your vehicle at the limit against other guy".
Could you, in future article, elaborate somewhat about potentially transferable skills for driving (sorry for the terminology) fast jets and cars? Do capabilities that make someone good race driver help with flying fast jet, and vice versa.
Thanks for a well written article. I'll have to add my own bit of second hand insight. My first wife's father was a career Air Force man and so she got to meet quite a few fighter pilots. She said they were very competitive and she said they were all assholes. Her own father would go through all the cards in the Trivial Pursuit game so he would always win. She didn't like playing games with her father because he was such a poor loser. Here's hoping today's generation of Air Force men are different.
Sounds like the mix of fast cars is about the same as when I went to flight school a few years after Top Gun came out. I had my 4 cylinder notch back Mustang which I figured was a bit cooler than a Ford Tempo which was the same price.
I went from Boot Camp to Blue ID (Retired) in a 1985 Pontiac Fireo SE with a four banger and a 5 speed. It was fast enough for weekend trips all over Florida and when I did three month deployments on a Submarine I never worried about that car while I was away. When I joined the Navy a Vietnam era Marine I worked in a garage with told me he would sell me his Corvette convertible for less that I was going to pay for the Fiero. He then told me that if I bought the Corvette I would spend more time worrying about it when I was deployed and that car would probably get me killed without being behind the wheel. I sometimes wish I had taken the Corvette but I am absolutely sure I made the right decision. He did let me drive the Corvette when I was home on leave a few times so it was all good.
It might just be (mis?)perception or confirmation bias, but I thought the fast car syndrome affected military helicopter pilots as well. Maybe I just never noticed the "regular" cars.
I used to live near NAS Miramar, in San Diego. I had pilots for neighbors. They all drove sports cars of some sort. One had a 1970 Mercedes 280 SL and his room mate had a BMW 3 series. I can't remember a single one who drove a truck or sedan. Living in a condo though, these were all single guys. Personally, I think they chose their cars by sex appeal factor. I drove a VW Vanagon and a FIAT 131 Brava. One of the older pilots influenced me though. It was the one with the old Mercedes SL. Old Mercedes held their value. I ended up buying a used Mercedes 280 sedan to replace the FIAT with. It had very low miles and was in mint condition, but 9 years old. He was right. I drove that car for 5 years and sold it for almost as much as I paid, about $10K, even though it had 30k more miles by then. A few years later "Top Gun" came out. I lived in another state by then, so it was kind of cool seeing the old stomping grounds again. The pilots who lived near me made good neighbors. Better than the movie portrayed, I thought. I was in my early 20s and all of them were older than me, so maybe because it was a relatively expensive condo complex, they were a little older and more mature than the younger ones.
Not every pilot is a daredevil. At the end of the day they may want to safely drive home in their pickup and stop at Home Depot along the way.
There are Old pilots, there are Bold pilots, there are no Old-Bold pilots.
I would like to see more photos of the cars that he describes (especially his Nissan Sentra GXE). Great descriptive writing. Would love to see more. When I was photographing at the 1991 Indianapolis 500 they had Carrol Shelby driving General Herbert Norman Schwarzkopf Jr and General Chuck Yeager around the track in the new Viper. The car was a prototype and prone to overheating. After a few fast laps the Viper crew were desperately trying to get Shelby to bring the car back as they desperately waved their arms as he passed. He would wave back and keep driving. It began to rain so he finally brought the car back and the three spent a couple of hours in the garage sharing stories. It was an awesome day. General Yeager gave me an autographed copy of his book.
In the mid-1970s I refurbished a 1963 Fairlane Sports Coupe to my liking which had a 289-4V with Ford's 1969 "Impressor" kit from the Ford's Muscle Part program (a hydraulic 289 HiPo), 3.89:1 9-inch rear, dual exhaust, 4-speed, and fender skirts. Then it was just a fun old car and much better than the offerings of the mid-70s. In the early 80's it was considered an old car and not worthy -- according to my CO when I was flying A-6 Intruders with VA-145 -- of aviator status. By the late 1980s and early 1990s it was considered a "classic" with lots of thumbs up. The car satisfied my "ground" passion, while jets did the same for my "flight" passion.
The paragraph talking about a jet racing a car and the car would win is spot on. I worked at Al Udeid AFB which had either F16 or F15 fighters on base. The loaded takeoff weights of these fighters are 42000 and 68000 pounds respectively and it takes a lot of power and time to get that much weight to enough speed to take off. It's pure physics. But I loved to see them at night in full afterburner. We also saw the B1 Lancer occasionally and I remember that beautiful supersonic bomber just seem to lumber down the runway and wonder if it would ever get up enough speed.
Good writing and would like to see more. When I graduated from flight school my wife's family offered to buy a car, within budget. I bought a....Volvo 122, now a classic. But definitely not a classic sports car.
About 15-20 years ago I rode sport bikes with a group of guys aged 50-70. Most were ex. fighter pilots and some were still airline pilots (who likened flying an airliner to driving a bus). These guys were still adrenaline junkies and said that blasting down windy country roads or dragging a knee at the track was their 'fix'.
I agree with most points, but to declare that fighter pilots dislike "Top Gun" is near heresy. A sly interjection of a TG quote during a debrief or First Friday garnered respect or at least a suppressed laugh. The flying sequences were great, even if "Bingo" was comically misused when "Splash" would have been appropriate.
As the only pistonhead in the squadron, I was surprised to see mostly diesel 1-ton trucks plus a turquoise Ford Escort wagon in the parking lot. The closest analogue to flying a fighter would be a sport bike, supermotard, or dirt bike. The next nearest would be, of course, the original NSX patterned after the F-16.
After the Gs have destroyed your neck, some day you too will be relegated to life at 1 g with the only chance to again prang one on will be a bad landing on your Husqvarna (note from the RSU: incomplete flare, banged nosegear).
Excellent. Another vote for more from this fine contributor. One small quibble: “...the Kawasaki GPZ900R Tom Cruise drove along the runway...”; you do not “drive” a motorcycle— you “ride” it.
As an USAF retiree and Undergraduate Pilot Training (UPT) washout - nice article. I will say in my experience Air Force base parking lots had more sport cars than your average business lot. In the flying squadrons age and marriage status had a lot to do with what was driven. Single guys were way more likely to have a hot car. Senior Officers with grown kids also seem to have hot cars. In my day USAF Academy grads got deals from the local Chevy dealer on Vettes. So at UPT base that had a lot Academy Grads there were alot of Vettes. You mentioned High Flight my "dollar ride" (first flight) in a T-38 Talon my instructor quoted the entire poem while doing acrobatics in the cloud formations. Very cool. The thing I learned that help with my driving skiles is to keep you head on a swivel and your eyes moving. The second best is your mind has to be several miles in front of the aircraft. If you only keep of with the vehicle you are to late in your reactions.
Wow my smile is large, as I recall my own pilot training and cars. I started flight school in a cool Honda Prelude and finished in a cooler 1983 911SC. Great memories
Still love to see the fighters of the 177th "scramble" out of ACY when we are in the area. Had some "close encounters" with the big boys in flying as a private pilot. Was once vectored 500ft above a C5 at 3500 by the tower at Dover AFB. Cruising at night around 1800 AGL, I had a C141 run directly under me, on the deck, in the NJ pines at night near MIV (probably in an MOA). Even saw a Super Hornet nearly standing still, on its own thrust, a few hundred yards off the beach in ACY. And then, while taking pictures of the rear end of an F117 at McDill in FLA, the nice man in camo with the automatic weapon explained that THAT area could not be photographed. O.K. with me.
Somehow I loved (and miss) the awesome, in your face, reality and responsibility of flying. Any adrenaline junky can relate to that! As you might have guessed, I will absolutely be following Josh Arakes writings!
Thank you Sir.
In early 1969 we returned from Vietnam onboard the USS Hornet CVS12. We flew off in the early morning light, and landed at NAS North Island in the fog. I had 30 days leave, and when I rejoined the ship in Long Beach, I found a red/white 1959 Corvette on Long Beach Blvd, Auto row. After some bargaining I drove it off the lot for $850. Took it to TJ for a new top and new interior. Had that old classic for several years till I finally bought a new Camaro SS.
Those were the days.
Excellent article. Seems to me the challenge shared for airplanes, cars, and motorcycles isn't speed. Its pressing the envelope. No flight experience, but I imagine the adrenalin really pumps when you're able to make an airplane do things outside its envelope - to push it to the point it begins to protest and then stuff it back in the envelope. Same for driving or riding on the ground. A tenth of the speed, but getting that car or bike outside its envelope and then consistently getting it back in may be equally exciting.
Back in early '70's, I visited many bases as a Navy Brat. (Dad was career Navy). I always wanted to do a drive by the pilots Officer's Club to scout-out their rides. USAF were Saab Sonnets and USN Datsun 240Z's. Those "Fly Boys" were cool.
Good stories and great writing Josh! We are all waiting for more now. And Thanks for your service!!
And Thanks JB - this guy is yet another Lap Record you have set!!