Retired Navy pilot Frank Weisser, the real Top Gun Maverick, to be honored guest at banquet
The Capital February 16, 2023
ANNAPOLIS, Md. (Tribune News Service) — Actor Tom Cruise is famous for insisting on performing all of his action scenes. There is no stunt double when Cruise jumps out of an airplane during the Mission Impossible franchise or runs away from a fiery explosion in the movie “Edge of Tomorrow.”
However, not even Cruise is allowed to pilot a $70 million fighter jet owned by the U.S. government.
In “Top Gun: Maverick,” the sequel to the 1986 classic “Top Gun,” Cruise reprises his starring role as Naval aviator Capt. Pete “Maverick” Mitchell. For the movie, the highest-grossing domestic release of 2022, Cruise was forced to enlist the expertise of U.S. military professionals to film the flight scenes. The results were spectacular with some of the most realistic aerial acrobatics ever recorded on film.
Typical of his reputation, Cruise insisted that all actors portraying pilots in “Top Gun: Maverick” had to fly in the fighter jets. They did so, but as passengers in the back seat, which is normally occupied by the weapons systems officer.
In all of the F/A-18 Super Hornet scenes, the individual in the front seat of the plane bearing Maverick’s name is actually a highly decorated pilot named Frank Weisser, a 2000 graduate of the Naval Academy.
Weisser, 44, who served two separate stints as a pilot with the Blue Angels flight demonstration squadron, will be in Annapolis Thursday night as the honored guest for the Touchdown Club of Annapolis’ 68th annual football awards banquet.
Weisser, who retired from the Navy in September 2021, will discuss the filming of “Top Gun: Maverick” and his role as a stand-in pilot. He will have an audio-visual presentation showing some of the hair-raising scenes in which he is flying the fighter jet with Cruise as his wingman.
The movie centers on a dangerous mission in which a strike force of fighter jets must destroy an unsanctioned uranium enrichment plant located in an underground bunker located at the end of a canyon before it becomes operational.
The secret plant is defended by surface-to-air missiles, GPS jammers and F-14 Tomcats. Maverick is tasked with training an elite group of Top Gun graduates to destroy the plant.
It is a harrowing run through a twisting canyon with the jets flying uncomfortably close to rocky cliffs and the ground at lightning speeds. To execute the mission, the strike force had to fly extremely low to avoid detection by enemy radar.
In reality, Weisser was at the helm of the Super Hornet during one of the most memorable scenes in the movie, filmed in a canyon that is part of the Toiyabe Mountain Range in Nevada with the jets taking off from Fallon Navy Base.
“I would say that a portion of that flight had a very small margin of error,” Weisser told The Capital this week. “What was most challenging was that we had to do it multiple times until the director was happy with the final footage.”
Weisser was impressed with Cruise’s ability to withstand significant gravitational force equivalent, commonly known as g-force, and avoid suffering motion sickness. It helps that Cruise has been a licensed pilot since 1994 and flew his own P-51 propeller-driven fighter plane in the movie.
“Many of those scenes were very, very challenging for an actor,” he said. “Tom has solid skills as a pilot and took a very professional approach every time we were in the jet.”
Naturally, Weisser spent considerable downtime with Cruise on the various sets and described him as down-to-earth.
Weisser, who grew up in Atlanta, initially attended the Naval Academy with the hope of becoming a special warfare officer. He wound up getting Navy pilot as a service assignment and was sent to Naval Air Station Pensacola for training.
“I loved flying right away. From the very first flight, I could not believe what I was doing,” he said. “I was not a naturally gifted pilot, but I really enjoyed it and worked harder than anyone to develop.”
After earning his wings, Weisser flew the single-seat F-18 out of Naval Air Station Oceana in Virginia Beach for three years. He was then sent to Pensacola for his initial stint with the Blue Angels from 2007 to 2011.
Weisser rejoined the Blue Angels for a second time in 2018, replacing a pilot who was killed in an accident during an air show. On the verge of retirement, Weisser’s final assignment was as test pilot for the newly commissioned Boeing F/A-18 Super Hornet. He handled testing in the flight simulator and the actual aircraft.
When “Top Gun: Maverick” began filming in the fall of 2018, none of the other Blue Angels pilots had been certified to fly the cutting-edge Super Hornet. Weisser was and that made him the obvious candidate to fly the fighter jet for filming of the movie scenes.
“I had a lot of experience with how this new airplane flew,” he said.
Top Gun instructors did a lot of flying in other fighter jets, such as the legacy aircraft the Grumman F-14 Tomcat. Most of the dogfighting scenes featured Top Gun instructors.
The movie begins with Maverick taking off in the so-called “Darkstar” hypersonic scramjet. That is Weisser performing the unusually low takeoff that causes a guard shack to disintegrate.
In another scene in which there is a Blue Angels flyover for the funeral of Maverick’s former nemesis — Admiral Tom “Iceman” Kazansky, Weisser flew an older version F-18 for that taping.
One of Weisser’s favorite scenes is when Maverick is flying his fighter jet inverted over another. Weisser is flying the inverted jet, while former Top Gun commanding officer Chris “Pops” Papaioanu is below him.
“Without a doubt, the footage is remarkable. It’s very rare to film a movie of that nature without using any computer graphics,” Weisser said. “It was a great experience getting to see behind the curtains of the making of the movie.”
Weisser, who has amassed more than 5,000 flight hours and more than 500 carrier-arrested landings, said he was “privileged to be part of a platform that promotes Naval aviation.”
“The original Top Gun was a boon for the Navy and Air Force as it motivated a generation of young people to want to become military pilots,” said Weisser, who has received multiple Meritorious Service medals and Strike Flight Air medals. “I think the Top Gun sequel will wind up being just as valuable of a recruiting tool.”
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