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byPeter Suciu

Move over Maverick. While the coronavirus pandemic may have delayed the upcoming Tom Cruise movie Top Gun Maverick, in real life the United States Navy’s training course has gone forward.

This week the Navy announced that two pilots, one from Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 125 “Rough Raiders” and another from VFA-147 “Argonauts” have become the first F-35C Lighting II pilots to graduate from the thirteen-week Navy Strike Fighter Tactics Instructor course—otherwise known as TOPGUN. 

The pilots included Maj. Derek Heinz from the Rough Raiders and Lt. William Goodwin, III from the Argonauts. They are the first to successfully complete the thirteen-week Navy Strike Fighter Tactics Instructor (SFTI) course at the Naval Aviation Warfighting Development Center (NAWDC) at Naval Air Station Fallon, Nevada. Both men were already F-35 pilots prior to taking part in the advanced Navy program. 

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The SFTI course, otherwise known as TOPGUN, is an individual-level training course loaded with classroom lectures and labs, as well as simulated and live-fly events that are focused on the newest advanced tactical recommendations, and designed to create newly-minted tactics instructors who are ready to return and train the fleet. 

“Our focus on the students that go through TOPGUN is not limited to teaching them the tactics, techniques, and procedures that are required for them to successfully employ their aircraft, integrated into a larger force,” explained NAWDC TOPGUN Department Head, Cmdr. Timothy Myers. “We are also in the business of teaching our graduates how to instruct other students so that when they go back to the Fleet, they are able to instruct at a very high level.”

The Navy aviators flew the F-35C Lighting II Carrier Variant (CV), which has larger, foldable wings and more robust landing gear than the other models of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.

In addition, while all of the F-35C instructors had undergone the thirteen-week course, this is the first time that TOPGUN students graduated from the program using a syllabus that was developed from the ground up specifically for the F-35C integrated operations. The program was developed by the gradual introduction of F-35C tactics into the training curriculum for previous classes. The Navy said the result is a cadre of highly trained instructors executing a fully-integrated F-35C syllabus that provides a well-rounded “graduate-level” training for the fifth-generation fighter to take back to the fleet. 

“Graduating Strike Fighter Tactics Instructors allows us to accelerate learning by feeding TOPGUN training back to the Fleet, elevating the lethality and survivability of both the individual aircraft as well as the Carrier Strike Group,” added Myers. “The Lightning II proved its value to the Navy during every phase of the TOPGUN course, and its integration with the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, E/A-18G Growler and E-2C/D Hawkeye demonstrated that the powerful combination of 4th and 5th generation fighters, with advanced electronic attack, and command and control, is a force-multiplier against advanced threats.”

Since completing the TOPGUN course, Heinz and Goodwin have returned to instruct and train the fleet in the latest TOPGUN tactics, techniques and procedures. There will a particular emphasis on ensuring that pilots will have the requisite skill sets to effectively employ the Lighting II during its first operational deployment. 

Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers and websites. He is the author of several books on military headgear includingA Gallery of Military Headdress, which is available on