Jun 23, 2022

A Real Naval Aviator Separates ‘Top Gun’ Fact from Fiction

Boom’s Chief Test Pilot tells us what flying supersonic fighters and experimental aircraft is really like

If you’re one of the many people who have seen Top Gun: Maverick, you may have walked out of the theater wondering, “Just how real was that?”

Enter Boom Supersonic’s Chief Test Pilot Bill “Doc” Shoemaker, a former U.S. naval aviator and a graduate of the United States Naval Test Pilot School, who is able to discern fact from fiction in the latest aviation-themed film. He’s flown more than 5,000 flight hours in 50 aircraft types and has 900 carrier-arrested landings (landing on an aircraft carrier deck).

We hosted a recent Twitter chat with Doc to get his take on what it’s really like to be a test pilot. Here’s what he said.

What are some of the common mistakes you notice in movies when it comes to depicting aviation?

Doc: Fighters are often shown to be very close together. Even in a gunfight, it would be rare to have two modern jets in the same shot. It does make for more dramatic cinema, though.

In Top Gun, pilots are seen flying without oxygen masks on. There are times when you would do this, but nobody would be able to understand you because the microphone is at the front of the mask. All the person on the other end of the radio is gonna hear is the air blowing by.

Also, I would always take off my dog tags along with my shirt before playing volleyball.

Doc sits in the cockpit of the F-18 Block Super Hornet.

In the original Top Gun, Tom Cruise’s character was a Naval aviator, and he starts off the new movie as a test pilot. In real life, most test pilots are ex-military. Why is that?

Doc: The training and experience it takes to become a test pilot can be very expensive. Few can afford to get that experience unless the government is paying for it.

How would your experience as a Naval aviator differ from that of pilots in other branches of the military?

Doc: The aircraft carrier is a unique operating environment that really changes the nature of flying, particularly at night. Operating environment aside, each service has a distinct culture, and that culture finds its way into how that service flies airplanes.

Doc piloting an F-18 Super Hornet over a snowy landscape.

What are some of the most important aspects of your military training that you’re putting to use today as a test pilot for Boom?

Doc: By flying across a wide range of challenging environments, you get an appreciation for all the ways things can go wrong. You also develop a feel for how to keep things from going wrong.

What are some of the aircraft you flew during your time in the military?

Doc: I flew the T-45, T-2, T-38, F-18, AV-8, JAS-39, H-60, MiG-15, AN-2, and HU-16.

AV-8

Let’s talk call signs. How are call signs assigned and how did you get yours?

Doc: Call signs are typically a product of deep-seated animosity. I have both OCD and dyslexia.

He also has his doctorate in aeronautics & astronautics from Stanford.

Are there any special preparations for supersonic test flights that differ from sub-sonic flying?

Doc: Supersonic flight tends to be more efficient at higher altitudes. High-altitude flying involves some considerations and risks that aren’t an issue at lower altitudes.

There are also some changes in aircraft stability at supersonic speeds that need to be considered. One of the biggest challenges is: aircraft designed to fly well at high speeds often don’t fly very well at low speeds, and you typically want to fly slowly for takeoff and landing.

Here’s a post where you can learn more about some of the unique aspects of supersonic flight.

Doc sits in the cockpit of XB-1.

For anyone who goes to the movies and gets inspired, what are some of the key aspects of becoming a test pilot?

Doc: The things that make someone a good test pilot are not necessarily things that create excitement on the big screen. The impulsiveness highlighted in the first Top Gun is not likely to lead to a long career as a test pilot. That said, the flying a military pilot gets to do along the road to becoming a test pilot can be very interesting, challenging, and rewarding.

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