I was nine years old when Top Gun came out, the Navy’s two-hour recruiting commercial. It wasn’t until the summer of ’89 that I saw the movie for the first time.
While all the girls at the time were drooling and falling in love with Tom I was falling in love with a different Tom, the Grumman F-14 Tomcat. I watched the movie over and over, fast-forwarding to the scenes that had a jet in it. It was not long until I had all the dogfights memorized.
I was still playing with Mattel Hot Wheels metal toys. They had a line of aircraft metal toys as well, so I bought a set of military fighter jets. After school and during Saturday morning cartoons I would fly my jets around and around, going supersonic and breaking the sound barrier, turning on my afterburners so I could save the day against America’s enemies.
As soon I was old enough I bought my first model airplane. I was so excited that I could not wait to get home. I tore the box open and started popping out the parts I needed to build my very own F-14 Tomcat model, with wings that rolled forward and back, just like the real thing. I put it together, carefully painted the body, and placed the stickers in the proper spots. When I glued the pilot into the front seat I knew that would be me one day.
I had always been told that I was not smart enough to become a pilot, any kind of pilot and that I would never fly a Tomcat, but I refused to listen. I studied aviation; I played every video game involving flying. I pushed myself; I read and read and read. I knew it was going to be a hard journey but I wanted those Wings of Gold and I wanted them to be for the Tomcat.
All that hard work paid off because after high school I enrolled in a college flight school that would teach me how to fly and earn me the degree needed to become a Naval officer. One day in flight school I had finished a test early and went out into the hallway to wait until class was over. I was looking at my two favorite pictures hanging on the wall. One was of a F/A-18C Hornet breaking the sound barrier. A circle of white surrounded the aircraft in the middle, showing where the barrier was broken. The other was the Tomcat flying above the surface of the ocean, causing two waves to splash up behind it, trying to catch up.
Imagining that was me, I was dreaming about flying low then pulling up slowly, climbing higher and higher into the sky, feeling freer than anything else alive. I knew that was the goal someday. The head flight instructor walked out of his office and seen me standing in front of the Tomcat.
“Too bad they just canned the Tomcat huh,” he said as he stopped behind me. “They just announced it this morning, no more Tomcats.”
My heart sank, I was crushed. The Navy would no longer accept new pilots to fly the Tomcat. The F/A-18 Hornet was now the future of the Navy. Two weeks later a Tomcat landed at the airfield and taxied in as I was walking out to my assigned aircraft. I froze. I had never seen a Tomcat up close. The pilot could see the love I had for this aircraft. He allowed me to climb inside and sit in the pilot’s seat. I had touched my dream, however brief it may be.
Slowly over the coming years, the Tomcat would be phased out and flew its last flight on September 22, 2006, the day the music died, well for me at least.