When it comes to theatrical aerial combat and realistic dogfights, there’s no other movie like Top Gun. Directed by Tony Scott, the movie follows the top one percent of all American pilots who earned a spot in the US Navy’s prestigious military academy: the Fighter Weapons School, aka Topgun
The movie focuses on the skilled but rebellious pilot Pete “Maverick” Mitchell (Tom Cruise) and his co-pilot Nick “Goose” Bradshaw (Anthony Edwards) as they enter Topgun in the hopes of making it to the top. While the two make a great flight team, they’re not the only pilots in Top Gun. Here’s every pilot in Top Gun ranked from worst to best, including one of Tom Cruise’s most iconic roles.
8 Special Mention: Duke Mitchell
For the longest time, Maverick believed his father died “screwing up” when his fighter plane was mysteriously lost in the Vietnam War. Because of this, Maverick tries to prove himself every time he gets in an F-14. But in reality, Duke Mitchell went down a hero.
As told by Viper, Duke saved three planes despite his being severely damaged before getting shot down. The only reason why the details behind his sacrifice are hidden is because he unknowingly flew over the wrong line on the map, relegating his heroics unknown to the public and to Maverick as well.
None of this is shown in the actual movie, hence Duke's special mention.
During the climactic dogfight, Hollywood and Iceman are sent to deal with the enemy MiG-28 threatening an American vessel. However, Hollywood is quickly overwhelmed by the MiGs and goes down fast, leaving Iceman alone until Maverick comes in.
Hollywood is the only pilot to be shot down by an enemy pilot in Top Gun. The only reason he and his co-pilot Wolfman survived–outside of ejecting on time–was thanks to the US Navy’s involvement in the film’s production, who most probably wanted the fighter pilots depicted in a positive and safe light during the combat scenes.
Though a trained pilot, Cougar was still rattled by his encounter with an enemy MiG fighter jet that could’ve turned deadly at any given moment. If not for Maverick’s interference, Cougar may have left his family without a father and husband.
Even if he was visibly shaken, Cougar–after much coercion–successfully lands his plane on the aircraft carrier despite incurring some damage along the way. His fear was understandable, although he did have to learn that he wasn’t cut out for military service the hard way.
Maverick’s mentor and friend is Viper, a retired pilot who’s described to have been at the top of his class back in the day. Though currently an instructor, Viper gets to show off his skills when he takes his students by surprise in training and distracting Maverick long enough for another pilot (more on that later) to get the drop on him.
The only reason why Viper isn’t higher up on the list is because the movie doesn’t show everything he’s capable of, saving his flights for training and his experiences to the stories he tells about the Vietnam War.
Viper’s fellow flight instructor and wingman is Jester, who doesn’t say much because he lets his skills do the talking for him. Even if Maverick defeated him during their first sortie, Jester gets even when he sneaks up on the hotshot with Viper’s help.
It should also be noted that during said sortie, Maverick’s wingman Hollywood was presumably taken down by Jester offscreen. The moment Maverick focused on Viper, Jester was free to take out Hollywood, whose absence during the sortie’s end may confirm this theory.
3 The MiG Pilots
The main opposition of Top Gun are the unnamed MiG pilots who live up to their reputation. Every time the pilots from “the other side” (i.e. probably the Soviet Union) are brought up, they’re treated as legitimate threats. Though their appearances are limited, these pilots show why it’s not a good idea to mess with them.
When they first appear, the faceless pilots give Cougar the scare of his life by never letting go of him once he was in their sights. It took Maverick and his daredevil stunts to scare them off, since it would only be near the movie’s end when they actually fire on the American planes.
During the climax, they not only sneak five fighters under American radars but they also take down Hollywood while keeping Iceman on the defensive. If the US Navy wasn’t directly involved in the movie, Hollywood and Iceman may have been killed for good.
Cold, calculating, and extremely efficient, the ace pilot known as Iceman has a reputation for wearing down his targets and striking when they make a costly mistake. By-the-books to his core, Iceman is without a doubt his batch’s best candidate for Top Gun.
Every time he got into a plane with his trusty co-pilot Slider, Iceman got the job done as procedurally as possible. Given how much he adheres to the rules, it’s hard not to see why he butted heads with the reckless Maverick early in the movie.
The only time he lost a bit of his edge was when he was up against five MiG planes, where his signature rigid style of aerial combat wasn’t enough to accomplish the mission. His lack of imagination is what ultimately cost him the top spot.
He may not officially be his batch’s Top Gun, but Maverick is the pilot to beat. Described as a genius pilot by Charlie, Maverick constantly gets on the nerves of his superiors for his antics and unpredictability but even they acknowledge his skills in the cockpit.
Known for taking risks that no sane pilot would even dare think about, Maverick revels in his self-made reputation of being a dangerous yet irreplaceable fighter pilot. At his worst, he’ll pull off pranks using his issued aircraft but he always accomplishes his mission.
Despite suffering the movie’s worst setback after his co-pilot Goose dies from their plane’s fatal technical difficulty, Maverick bounces back and flies his fighter jet better than ever before. He may be the go-to example for loose cannons in the cinematic military, but Maverick’s unpredictable instincts are what saved the day.