You just saw the blockbuster “Top Gun: Maverick” and you may have some technical questions. AlloCiné met a French Navy fighter pilot to see things more clearly.
You have just seen Top Gun: Maverick in theaters and, still out of breath, you may be asking yourself some more or less technical questions about the adventures of Tom Cruise and his students at high altitude. What is a call sign used for? Can we really reach Mach 10? What is the Cobra maneuver? Good news: AlloCiné went to interview a real fighter pilot to get the answers to these questions and a few others.
Meeting with frigate captain Etienne, Deputy Commander Operations of the Landivisiau naval air base and pilot of Rafale Marine (on-board fighter) within the French Navy. A sailor, like Captain Pete Mitchell played by Tom Cruise!
Stephen: Yes, exactly, I am a sailor like him, in the French Navy. And like him, after an operational career, I am a flight instructor, in this case on Rafale Marine. My daily life is divided between operational preparation, that is to say that I am responsible for the runway and air traffic control at our Landivisiau base, and my function as a flight instructor, with the aim of training young pilots who have just had their patent in the United States, who come back to us and who start on Rafale.
When we saw “Top Gun: Maverick”, we ask ourselves a lot of questions. We have listed a few. First of all, how is a call sign chosen? What’s the point ?
A call sign, in the Navy, we call that a nom de guerre. The nom de guerre is used, when we make communications on the radios, if we are intercepted by an enemy, so that the latter cannot know our real identity. It’s a bit like an assumed name.
When we arrive in the first unit, in an embarked fighter flotilla, it is the group that chooses our nom de guerre for us. It will be final for the rest of the career the day we are qualified for landing on the aircraft carrier.
The nom de guerre is chosen either in reference to the temperament of a young pilot, or to a small mistake that he is going to do. Often it’s a little pun on his name or the English translation of his name. It is always on the humorous side that the call sign is chosen.
Can we really reach Mach 10?
Today, I don’t know any pilots who have done it. It may be possible, but to my knowledge, it has not been done. The last time we sent pilots very fast was in the 1950s and 60s when we were making very fast piloted objects like the X-15. Today, what goes very fast are often uncontrolled objects. This is the dilemma at the start of Top Gun: Maverick, between piloted aircraft and remotely piloted aircraft or drone.
What is a 5th generation fighter? And why doesn’t Maverick pilot one?
The 5th generation fighter is typically the F-35. The hunters, we classify them by great generation to compare them. The Rafale is more of an intermediate aircraft between 4th and 5th generation.
Indeed, Maverick does not fly the F-35, he flies the F-18, which is 4th generation. Why is he flying this plane? I think it’s due to the script. This is to show that even with an old, less modern device, we can still carry out the mission.
Since what year can female fighter pilots take part in combat?
For the year, I don’t know. In any case for us, it is not a subject. We had Americans on the Landivisiau base about a month ago, there was a female F-18 pilot and a female navigator, weapons systems officer. Man, woman… There are only pilots and navigators, it’s really not a question we ask ourselves. Men and women are fully capable of both flying a fighter plane and going into battle, that’s no problem.
From what age can a pilot no longer fly in combat?
There is no age limit. That’s what’s nice: as long as we are fit and we are in a position where we are needed to fly, well we continue to fly. Me, I know a reservist pilot in the Navy, out of the armies but who comes to fly and do an instructor as a reservist, well he is over 50 years old. It still flies on Rafale… and very well!
Are the instructors all former pilots?
The instructors are necessarily pilots who have experience and have completed an entire operational career. Their objective is obviously both to teach combat maneuvers technically to young pilots, but also to provide them with their combat experience. We bring them both very technical things but also skills, a state of mind. A bit like in the movie, finally.
Why, in some planes, there are two pilots and in others only one?
In Top Gun: Maverick there are single-seat planes and two-seat planes, in which there is a pilot and a navigator responsible for weapon systems. These are both technical and tactical choices of the different armies. For example, we in the French Navy only have single-seat planes, only single-seat Rafales. The pilot is both in charge of flying and managing his system, because the Rafale has a sufficiently integrated system for the pilot to be able to do both functions at the same time.
What is the Cobra maneuver that Maverick performs in the film?
The Cobra maneuver is a maneuver that is almost more air show than combat. The pilot will pull very hard on the control column to take on a lot of load factors, increase very strongly in angle of attack to literally stop in the sky. That’s what Maverick does when it passes over the other plane. It’s still cinema. It’s very pretty, very spectacular, but I don’t know anyone who uses it in combat.
What equipment is contained in an ejection seat to allow a pilot to survive in enemy territory?
Under the seat there is also other equipment to be able to survive a little longer. There are a few rations, a little bit of water, and then there can also be a weapon to defend yourself on the ground. There is everything to survive when the pilot has fallen to the ground, potentially in enemy territory.
Can we really land without landing gear?
Without landing gear, it’s for the movies. We never tried it, we never imagined it. The fact that the ejection seat does not work is something that would be unusual, but one would still try to leave the plane in flight, which is to say potentially by breaking the barrier, putting oneself on their back and by dropping from the plane rather than attempting an extremely risky landing.
Because there, we think of the risks for the plane and the crew of the plane but we must also think of all the people who are on the aircraft carrier. The aircraft carrier is a full city with lots of people, fuel, ammunition. The goal is not to recover an aircraft at all costs if it is to cause irreparable damage to the aircraft carrier.
Is there often dogfighting in today’s conflicts?
Currently, no. We recently intervened in countries that had no enemy air force. But we continue to train. We are always preparing for all eventualities, for future conflicts. We train every day and besides, in a few minutes, I will go to train and train young pilots in aerial combat.
Do you find “Top Gun: Maverick” faithful to reality?
I want to tell you that everyday life is even better than the movie, it’s the enthusiast who speaks! It’s cinema, but yes, you can feel the state of mind, the united group, and that’s really what you find in the French Navy’s hunting fleets with the crew. I also like Pete Mitchell’s relationship with his mechanic. It’s very representative of what we do in the Navy, that is to say that the pilot without the mechanic or the mechanic without the pilot, that doesn’t make sense. We are really a real team, so it is quite representative.
For the record, personally, more than two years ago, I participated on my modest scale, as an expert, in the translation of Top Gun: Maverick, so that the terms used in the VO are well subtitled , well translated into VF. It was necessary that the translation of some very technical parts of the script be as close as possible to the reality of the flight and the Navy, so that there are not the small errors that one sometimes finds. So the translation is very faithful to reality. It was quite a funny experience.
How does it feel to see your job, and almost finally to see yourself portrayed on screen?
It’s fun. I really enjoyed watching Top Gun: Maverick. We’re on the plane with him, we’re on the deck of the aircraft carrier. Me, it makes me want to recommit myself for twenty more years when I see this film. It’s so captivating, you want to go back there, to relive these feelings as he saw them at that time.
The film reminds us that the character is part of the Navy. Many must think that Maverick is a member of the Air Force…
This is often the case. If you ask the question to many French people, for them, airplane pilots are necessarily part of the Air Force. Well no, we’re from the Navy. We have complete knowledge of both what is happening in the air and what is happening at sea. And then our job is to be a pilot on the aircraft carrier. We go to sea, as a crew, all together, we are the sailors of the sky as the admiral says in the film. Sailors when we’re on the carrier and sailors in the sky when we’re in the air.
Are you a fan of the “Top Gun” movies?
Yes of course ! I watched the first film when I was a teenager and even after! It’s still a fun movie. When you are passionate about aeronautics, the images are beautiful, it makes you dream, you are captivated by these images, by this story. But I almost have my slight preference for Top Gun: Maverick, which is a current film, more representative of what we are experiencing today. I take a lot of pleasure in the cinema, the cinema offers us dreams, and it does us good to dream. And then when we go to fly, we take advantage of it, we say to ourselves that what we saw at the cinema, this dream, we can live it.
It is an absolute chance to be French. Like the Americans, we have an aircraft carrier, we have a Navy which has naval aeronautics, these are unique things. We can be proud to be French, proud to belong to the Navy which serves missions with our American friends. We do the same missions as them, we are Band of Brothers with our American friends, we train with them, we work with them, we have the same techniques and procedures as them. I have been living a waking dream for twenty years.
Glad also, I imagine, that the film can arouse vocations?
We may see it in a few weeks. In any case, if it arouses vocations, so much the better. It helps to tell young people that it is possible. You can do that job, you can go on an aircraft carrier and it’s a great job. These are beautiful professions, because there are many of them. We don’t see a lot of things in Top Gun: Maverick because it’s very “pilot-centric”, but there are lots of different professions, lots of passionate people who work, and working in a professional environment when you’re passionate, that doesn’t seem to work.
Interview by Clément Cuyer on June 9, 2022 – Warm thanks to the pilot Etienne and Etienne Baggio for their availability, their kindness and their enthusiasm.
Top Gun Maverick: looking for Tom Cruise on the aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle