“It was a process that was integrated and heavily driven by Tom Cruise. They had me build the training program: we ran them in Cessna 172s – my dad and I were actually the first cast flight instructors – and these little single-engine planes are entry-level planes that anyone would learn to fly.
“It gave the actors spatial orientation and an understanding of what flight was like, where to look where, where to move your hands, what all the gauges do, the basic things. How to turn, how to land, how to take off.
“From there we moved on to a plane called the Extra 300. Their new instructor was Chuck Coleman, a great friend of mine – again, this is all closely watched by Tom Cruise every day, every step of the way. [Cruise earned his pilot license in the mid ‘90s.]
“It’s the plane the general public would have seen at the Red Bull Air Races or other stunt shows. It’s an extremely maneuverable single-engine piston plane capable of pulling a plot by Gs. This part was about developing their G tolerance.
“From there we moved on to the L-39 Albatross, a Czechoslovakian fighter trainer imported into the United States – it’s readily available, very maneuverable, very fun. And that was for the actors to learn how to shoot heavy Gs. By the time they graduated from it and entered the F-18s, they were seasoned pros.
“This process took three months, all in parts of southern and central California. That’s why even for a guy like me, who can look at something and take it apart, I looked Top Gun: Maverick and they look like real naval aviators.
Before Top Gun: Maverickthe technology to film it did not exist
“The Cinejet rig is something I dreamed of: I needed a camera rig that matched the quality of the story of Top Gun: Mavericksomething that would allow us to really get into it, into the dogfights and the canyon descents, to really give the audience a thrill.
“I was struggling to find the right platform and again landed on the L-39 Albatros. I put a picture of a camera gimbal on the nose of the jet – in an old program called Microsoft Paint – and I said, you know We had to work with the manufacturers to make it a reality but, a year later, the L-39 Cinejet was a real thing.
“Previous jet rigs worked with partially stabilized camera technology, which meant that if I flew this plane and swayed my wings, it could mess up the shot. It was much harder for the director aerial photography, or the cameramen sitting in the back of the jet — they had to stabilize my movements, which is very difficult to do.
“With the Cinejet, the gimbal is fully stabilized. No matter what I do while I’m flying, this thing is going to be stable as a rock. Now you can get really aggressive, really put the camera in there, so we’re pushing the public faced with these afterburners.
In the cockpit, the actors became their own directors, make-up artists and cameramen
“We were working with F/A-18 F models, which are two-seat F-18s – basically a pilot in the front and usually a weapon system operator in the back seat. forward-facing cameras on the shoulder of actual Navy Airmen in the front seat at the controls, and four rear-facing cameras [facing the cast] in the back.