Is 'Top Gun: Maverick' set to pull Navy pilot retention out of the danger zone?

The sequel may not match the 500% recruiting boost that allegedly came from the original "Top Gun," but it comes at a pivotal time for the Navy. 

Updated: May 23, 2022 - 10:59pm

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As the much-anticipated "Top Gun" film sequel streaks towards its Friday release date, venues around the country are offering insider sneak previews, while defense insiders are keeping an eye on naval aviation billeting numbers.

"We've been getting a lot of calls, from people who want to be like Maverick," said one Navy recruiter who works outside Tampa, Fla. "Maverick from the first time around."

"Top Gun" starred Tom Cruise as Maverick, a young, troubled, and gifted fighter pilot. Thirty-six years after the original became the top-grossing film of 1986, Cruise returns in "Top Gun: Maverick" as the still brash and gifted, grown-up Maverick to bring the world of Navy fighter pilots to old fans and fresh audiences alike. 

The sequel may not match the 500% recruiting boost allegedly spurred by the original "Top Gun," but it comes at a pivotal time for the Navy. 

Recruiting numbers throughout the service are below goal, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Gilday told members of the House Armed Services Committee during a hearing for the fiscal year 2023 defense budget request.

"I think we're going to be challenged this year," Gilday told lawmakers this month. "I think we'll make our numbers in the active force this year, but if we do, it will be narrow."

The effort to recruit and keep pilots has been an ongoing challenge, officials have said.

The service in 2018 was short by 1,242 aviator billets, and was losing senior pilots to lucrative airline careers, according to reports. The Navy at the time predicted it would take until 2023 to close the gap. 

In order to entice pilots, the Navy has turned to public relations on its website.

"As a Navy Fighter Pilot, the sky is your domain," the service writes to prospective aviators. "You'll be part of an elite group of aviators who fly and fight in the world's most lethal jets — all from the deck of an aircraft carrier." 

The job is enticing, as presented in the brief.

"Your missions are among the most daring and most important," the site promises. "Complete complex air maneuvers while flying at Mach speeds. Catapult off carriers at 170 mph and land on moving runways only 300 feet long. Gather intel, drop ordnance and conduct defensive missions — all in the most versatile strike fighters on the planet, the F/A-18 Hornet and the cutting-edge F-35C Lightning II."

The Navy this year revealed fresh bonuses in the aviation field, offering as much as $175,000 to aviation department heads who sign on for a multiyear commitment. But the service's best investment may turn out to be the money spent in support of making "Top Gun: Maverick."

The film had its world premiere this month on board an aircraft carrier, the USS Midway Museum at Navy Pier in San Diego. 

"Thirty-six years later, and here we are," Cruise said at the premiere. "It's surreal."