The Naval Strike and Air Warfare Center at Naval Air Station Fallon in Nevada is most famous for its connection with the 1986 movie Top Gun. Its TOPGUN program — which turned 50 on March 3 — went by that nickname long before the movie, which was made with the cooperation of the military, introduced the terminology to the wider public. The movie was a hit, prompting a surge in real-life recruiting as well as interest in a sequel (which was supposed to come out this summer, but is now not expected to hit theaters until the summer of 2020). And the school is still teaching American pilots to fly.
Originally called the United States Navy Fighter Weapons School, it was founded after a 1968 study determined that U.S. pilots needed better training, with the intention of changing the way those pilots flew and fought. And that it did, says Capt. Dan Pedersen, who is considered the “godfather” of TOPGUN for helping start the program. With his new memoir TOPGUN: An American Story out Tuesday, he spoke to TIME about the history of the program and how true to life the movie really is.
TIME: How were you involved in the founding of TOPGUN?
Pedersen: We were losing a lot of great talent in Vietnam. When I was on the USS Enterprise in 1967, we lost 11 guys in 17 days. We were getting two enemies, North Vietnamese, for every one of us that was shot down out there.