The recent hit movie Top Gun: Maverick opens with Tom Cruise in a pickle. He’s test pilot for a next-generation stealth jet with a sleek black body reminiscent of the SR-71 Blackbird spy plane (which people my age might remember from growing up in the 1970s). Cruise is gearing up for a test-flight in which he’ll take the jet to Mach 9, when he gets word that the Navy brass intends to kill the project….
Someone comes up with a crazy idea. Jump ahead of the testing schedule — take the aircraft all the way to Mach 10, and the Navy will be bound by the terms of its contract to continue development. An audacious move, to which Tom Cruises signs on whole-heartedly. We watch as Cruise’s character pushes throttle and black jet hits Mach 9.0… 9.1…. 9.2. Ground support is holding its collective breath — no-one knows how the prototype will hold up. The display clicks up to Mach 9.9, which is, incidentally, almost 7,000 MPH.
The movie had caught my attention in part because the actors were filmed flying on maneuver inside real Navy fighter jets (although sitting in the rear seats, behind real Navy pilots). It dawned on me that flying a jet fighter is intensely physical, and I was curious about how the actors would experience high G’s. Regarding the original 1986 Top Gun movie, I remembered Cruise’s big boyish grin and that famous line – “I have a need…a need for speed.” And dramatic footage of F-14 Tomcats in action.
I’ve long been intrigued by fighter jets. As a young child once, dragging along behind my parents on vacation somewhere and feeling hot and out of sorts, I remember looking up and seeing an object on the horizon. It came scudding towards us over treetops, the roar trailing by a fraction of a section as it flashed overhead. I suddenly understood that high-risk missions are entrusted to people with special skills and training.
As a young man I briefly considered pursuing a career as pilot, but ended up going in a different direction. My need for speed was satisfied in other ways, such as running — and how I loved to run fast! For a year or two before graduate school, I drove a Ford Mustang. During a snowstorm once I gave it too much gas and spun off the road (fortunately the median was flat and wide).
Once or twice I visited an airshow, and sometimes travel would take me near a military base. The sound is so distinctive — the roar too low and loud to be a passenger jet. I’d look in every direction hoping to catch a glimpse. Such deadly powerful technology, operated at speed, by someone special.
Sometimes out of curiosity, I’d page through YouTube videos and marvel at the vapor cones forming around the wings as fighter jets whipped past at transonic speed. In one video, a Navy F-18 hurtles across the San Francisco Bay, engines screaming, a flume of water spurting in its wake. I watched that one over and over again.
Even today I feel the hunger. But my mindset is conservative. I’m disciplined and responsible, at least mostly so. Not only as a driver, but as an aging runner, for whom speed is a higher-risk proposition than it used to be. Whereas Tom Cruise’s character — Navy Captain Pete “Maverick” Mitchell – can’t resist the temptation. He gets the prototype successfully to Mach 10.0, and the craft is still holding together. The ground support crew breaks into cheers. And then, to their astonishment, he pushes it up to Mach 10.1.
Recently I signed up for a 10-mile race in the small town of Beacon, New York. The event was advertised as “flat and fast.” Flat seemed ideal for my aching knees (strained six months ago when running downhill too hard), although how fast would depend on my sore butt (proximal hamstring tendinopathy). I showed up early and saw a friend named Chris setting up the timing clock. When I asked about the course, he clarified that “flat and fast” applied to the 5k option – which I’d have understood if I’d read more than the first sentence on the website — whereas the 10-miler had a mountain in the middle. Mt. Beacon, to be precise, which I’d climbed once before, so now I had a flashback — the small park, the aluminum stairs, the steep switchbacks, the rocky washed-out trails. For a barefoot runner like me, this was very questionable.
Was there a time limit? Chris shrugged, thought for a moment, then opined that probably I wouldn’t be last.
He was right – although I had to punch the afterburners when a group of three runners appeared on my tail with a mile to the finish. I’d reached the turn-around point at the summit just steps behind them, and how they didn’t immediately overtake me on the descent (as I picked my way through the rocks one shaky step at a time) I cannot imagine, unless they stopped for a picnic or a nap.
I crossed the finish-line, slowed to a walk, and scanned body parts for damage, but knees, hamstring, and feet appeared all good. Cruise’s Maverick character didn’t fare as well. He couldn’t stop. From Mach 10.1 he nudged the prototype up to Mach 10.3 at which point the dashboard lit up with warning indicators — and a moment later the craft disintegrated in flames.
On the drive home from Beacon, my butt started aching (that proximal hamstring tendon), and then suddenly I couldn’t stop sneezing, while it stormed so hard I had to put the windshield wipers on max speed. The rain was a relief, however, from hot sweltering weather the day before. I’d felt listless and lost my appetite and that’s when I began to sneeze, while the dog languished on the sofa and stopped eating.
Mercifully the sneezing fit abated, although I was left feeling congested and stuffed up. But not so bad that I couldn’t smell something was wrong, when I got up the next morning. No, it wasn’t my gym bag. And it wasn’t a dead mouse (I’d found one on the porch the other day). Rather, it was the dog — and when I’d cleaned up after the accident and opened some doors and windows to air the place out, not one but two Carolina wrens flew in, and I had to chase them out. These birds are small, but very loud, so there was no mistaking it when I heard a third wren upstairs. Now I had to clear the bathroom and each bedroom, like a SWAT team member, closing each door behind me until I’d ushered the little bird downstairs again and out the door. And then it was back to work until a conference call was interrupted when a deliveryman wanted to draw my attention to a large snake – which he thought might bite the dog. Back on the call, my 30-page presentation, which I’d worked on for weeks with little help, was torn to shreds by the CEO and his executive team.
I had to redo the deck. Someone volunteered to draft an outline. I drew up my own version and sent it out for comments, not to show the other person up, but because I didn’t want to wait. My job is to produce results. I’m diligent, and I’m fast.
It’s no surprise that Top Gun: Maverick has a happy ending. Captain “Maverick” Mitchell parachuted out of the disintegrating prototype and then was handed an even riskier mission. He brought to it a sense of urgency, as well as some emotional baggage. He stood up for what he thought was right and disobeyed his superiors repeatedly. And led the team to victory. The credits roll as Maverick and girlfriend fly off into the sunset (incidentally, she races yachts and drives a Porsche).
That big boyish grin on Cruise’s face seems to shout – look at what I did! The character won the day. The actor produced the movie of his dreams.
Cruise is nothing if not encouraging. I think there’s a message in his smile. That the rest of us in some way can be heroes, too.
Last summer I was hiking in the California High Sierra when I heard that familiar sound. The emotions suddenly welled up within me. The memories. The images. The fascination. The hunger. I scanned the horizon, but the sound faded into a neighboring canyon. I never saw a thing.