TOPGUN commander talks about his rise and his role
By MATT TROWBRIDGE | Rockford Register Star | Published: July 2, 2020
(Tribune News Service) — Cmdr. Timothy Myers, the commanding officer of TOPGUN, doesn't have a cool call sign like Tom Skerrit's "Viper" in the iconic Tom Cruise movie.
He barely has one at all.
"My call sign is Ain't," Myers said in a phone interview. "I wish I had a great story for it, but I don't. When we were handing out call signs, my squadron said: You haven't done anything that merits a call sign, so we're just going to call you Ain't, for ain't got a call sign."
Nor is there a "Maverick" under his command, a pilot who bucks convention and makes his way on raw talent as Cruise did for most of the movie.
TOPGUN teaches its students how to get the best out of each other working as a team, the way Myers did as a Boylan soccer goalie and his younger brother, Jeff, did as an NCAA Division I point guard at Richmond.
"My family is very interested in sports and I have often equated naval aviation with being on a high-level sports team," Myers said. "There is certainly a place for individual excellence. There are ways to distinguish yourself as an individual within the team, but really the way to distinguish yourself in the most laudable way is to raise the level of the people around you on the team."
The teamwork even extends beyond TOPGUN. Only the top 1% of Navy pilots are invited, but all Navy pilots reap the benefits.
"We are a graduate education program," Myers said. "Our instructors go through a rigorous training regimen that includes subject matter research, doctorate-level writing and lectures that are part of our ground school. Our instructors also train in the aircraft so that we are able to bring in graduate-level students and still challenge them, taking their training to the next level.
"Almost immediately after finishing TOPGUN, our graduates will go back to the fleet concentration centers and take the cutting-edge knowledge they achieved through the 13-week course and start training the next generation of aviators there. It's a master's-level program where those master's students go back and train the undergraduates and graduates in the fleet."
Watching the 1986 movie helped Myers pick his career. But the real clincher was touring the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., with his family in sixth grade.
"I looked at my parents after that tour and said, 'I am going to come here one day.' I knew what I wanted to do with my life and set my goal with a single purpose," he said.
That same type of focus helped him make Boylan's soccer team as a junior.
"He had to come in in the best shape of his life to make the team, and he did," said former Boylan soccer coach Mark Couper. "If he has a goal, Tim will do whatever it takes to get there.
"Tim being the head of TOPGUN is no surprise to me. That's the best of the best, but that's how hard he has always worked. What a great career! He's such a great role model. And I don't think he is done there. He's going to be in a leadership position for a long time."
Myers was sponsored for a nomination to the Naval Academy by Don Manzullo, the who represented Illinois' 16th Congressional District in the U.S. House from 1993 to 2013.
"It's a real salute to Rockford and Boylan to have someone of that character be in charge of TOPGUN," Manzullo said. "That's quite impressive. But I am not surprised. When you met him, you knew he was going to be an instant success."
Myers, who graduated from Boylan in 1996, got his start at TOPGUN by being in that top 1% of pilots to earn an invitation. When his 13 weeks were up, he elected to stay on as an instructor rather than return to the fleet.
"He was basically 'Jester,' the guy everybody chased in the movie," Couper said of the fictional lead instructor.
That stint lasted three years.
"My career path is a very typical one for those who are part of TOPGUN," Myers said. "The vast majority of the TOPGUN staff are people that have done a complete sea tour and have been in the Navy for about five to eight years. We have 42 instructors here, and 40 of them are in that window.
"One of the beautiful things about the organization is it is run by innovative, creative, passionate junior officers, most of them the rank of lieutenant. They are the ones who keep the engine of TOPGUN running, as well as driving innovation and creating a ceaseless desire for excellence in the organization."
Each instructor has a different specialty. Myers was "a within visual range subject matter expert," which included becoming a "blue hardware" expert on the AIM-9 Sidewinder and other close in weapons systems.
"It took me almost a year building briefs, writing chapters and tactics manuals and simultaneously going through the flying syllabus that allowed me to be an instructor," he said.
In 2009, Myers returned to the fleet. After four consecutive flying tours — including being named the Navy's Atlantic "Attack Aviator of the Year" in 2012 — he reported to the White House in January 2015 and served two years as the U.S. Navy military aide to President Barrack Obama. One of his duties there was to carry the "nuclear football," the briefcase with the codes that could allow the president to launch a nuclear strike.
"I describe that entire tour as hundreds of once-in-a-lifetime experiences," Myers said. "As a kid from Rockford, Illinois, I had never set eyes on a president of the United States, even at a distance, until I was serving the president of the United States and standing next to him."
A new movie, "Top Gun: Maverick," is scheduled to come out Dec. 23. Many things have changed at TOPGUN since the first movie. Naval Aviation has become a more diverse force over the past decade, with upward trends in the numbers of both female and minority officers. And not everyone is paired up like they were in the movie. Only one of the current 10 crews is a two-seat crew, with both a pilot and a weapons systems operator, although five of the next scheduled class of 12 crews will be two-seaters.
TOPGUN also moved from "Fightertown USA" in Miramar, Calif., outside San Diego, to Fallon in western Nevada in 1996. And instead of flying all two-seat F-14 Tomcats, as they did in the original movie, pilots are now trained in a variety of jets — most notably the F-35C Lightning II and the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet — most of which no longer need a radar operator/navigator, so Tom Cruise's "Maverick" no longer needs a "Goose."
Oh, and you know that trophy Maverick was determined to wrest away from Ice Man?
There is no such thing as a TOPGUN trophy for the best graduate. There never has been.
TOPGUN isn't about standing out. It's about standing together to be the best and working as an unbeatable team.
"The tactics that are developed and promulgated here at the Navy Fighter Weapons School, as well as the techniques we use to team them, are standard across the entire fleet," Myers said. "There are not different locations and different squadrons. We have a very standardized way of doing things. That leads to efficiency. You can rely on the people serving next to you and work in the same way and manner."