Tom Trotter, once TOPGUN’s top gun, landed in Eagle after a career flying Navy fighter jets

Former commander at famed dogfighting school offers inside look at sequel to 1986 film

EAGLE — Some people want to be Tom Cruise. Sometimes Cruise wants to be Tom Trotter.

As a young lieutenant in the Navy, Trotter was selected to train at the TOPGUN school at Naval Air Station Miramar in San Diego. Ten years later he was chosen to command the Navy Fighter Weapons School more affectionately know as TOPGUN.  Two years after Trotter went through the school as a lieutenant, Tom Cruise and Val Kilmer were playing lieutenants making the original “Top Gun” movie. Tom Trotter played the real-life role that Tom Skerritt played in the 1986 film.

Trotter retired in 2000 after 24 years as a Navy fighter jet pilot and commander of the Navy’s Airwing 2. He says he comes by his “need for speed” naturally. During World War II his father, Sheldon Trotter, flew B-29 missions to Tokyo from the same airfield on Tinian Island in the Marianas in the South Pacific as Paul Tibbets and the Enola Gay, and Charles Sweeney and the Bockscar.

Teaching TOPGUN’s lessons

Trotter was the final commander at Miramar and handled the TOPGUN school’s move from Southern California to Fallon, Nevada. He is a Pueblo native and a graduate of the University of Colorado.

When he retired from the Navy he migrated to Eagle and launched Eagle Top Flight. Trotter currently pilots private aircraft out of the Vail Valley Jet Center, teaches flight students through Due West Aviation and passes along the knowledge from his 45-year flying career.

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The U.S. military does many things exceptionally well, and leadership training is among the foremost.

As part of its mission, the TOPGUN school trains roughly 36 aircrews annually. Those crews train other crews — training the trainers — from all branches of the United States military as well as America’s allies, Trotter said. The cross-training helped make sure everyone was on the same page during missions in Iraq and later Afghanistan.

“Those best practices can be translated to business and industry. The methodology can be passed along,” Trotter said.

There’s a wall in Trotter’s Eagle Ranch home, covered with memorabilia and pictures of him at the controls of fighter jets soaring over aircraft carriers during his colorful Navy career. He smiles when he talks about piloting planes at incredible speeds.

Not so long ag Trotter and his wife, Jill, were strolling through an outdoor aviation museum in Arizona. Trotter pointed to planes and said, “I flew that one.”

“You mean you flew one like that?” Jill asked.

“No. I flew that one,” Trotter smiled. He has flown more than 240 different types of aircraft.

There’s this picture of Trotter — sort of a selfie — with Trotter at the controls of a fighter jet screaming through the skies in formation. There’s another over Iraq with the Tigris and Euphrates in the background. They’re spectacular.

Cruisin’ with Cruise

Anyway, Trotter was around the TOPGUN school when the first “Top Gun” movie came out. He was curious about the sequel, “Top Gun: Maverick,” so he called his friend and the current Commander of the Naval Air Forces Pacific (Call sign “Bullet”) in San Diego to ask how it went.

It went fast, as movie scenes featuring Navy pilots in fighter jets would.

All the flying scenes are in the can, Trotter said.

“The flying in the new movie will top the last one,” Trotter said.

The movie-making types are now creating a compelling story to go with the flying scenes. They have plenty of time. “Top Gun: Maverick” is scheduled for release next summer. By the way, Paramount Pictures is so confident in the film’s success that it picked up the tab for all the flying.

One of the first scenes is a Marine pilot (former Blue Angel solo pilot) flying more than 500 mph about 50 feet off the ground.

Sure, the studio could have created computer simulations for that, but where’s the fun in that?

“The flying  you see in the movie is real,” Trotter said.

Cruise seemed happy to learn to fly like that. He successfully completed catapulting off and landing back aboard the  aircraft carrier, Trotter said.

Cruise won’t actually get to land a $65 million aircraft careening at 150 mph on a bobbing and weaving carrier deck where he might or might not be grabbed by a tailhook to keep him from rolling into the ocean at the other end.

But as a very accomplished pilot, he probably could have done so with a bit of training, Trotter said.

Cruise is an accomplished pilot who flies a P-51 Mustang, stunt planes and even helicopters, Trotter said. One of his “Mission Impossible” movies features a scene in which Cruise appears to be piloting a helicopter spinning out of control into a canyon. Turns out that Cruise really piloted that helicopter and it didn’t crash because he really flies that well, Trotter said.

In the meantime, the plot Paramount is weaving around those flying scenes focuses on Captain Peter “Maverick” Mitchell (Cruise) as a new Top Gun instructor as he guides Bradley (Miles Teller), Goose’s son, to become an aviator in the footsteps of his father and Maverick’s former flying partner. The movie also weaves in drone technology and the fifth-generation fighters as it explores the possible end of the dogfighting era.

Commanding Officer: “The end is inevitable, Maverick. Your kind is headed for extinction.”
Maverick: “Maybe so, sir. But not today.”

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