Audiences worldwide are captivated by the unfailing bravado and soaring egos portrayed in the hit blockbuster Topgun: Maverick.
Even service men and women who completed the U.S. Navy Strike Fighter Tactics Instructor (SFTI) Training Program (TOPGUN) in real life find it a fun and entertaining movie. Vice President, CHQ Business Development, Nick “Mongo” Mongillo, is one.
While he believes the attitudes of Tom Cruise’s Maverick and Val Kilmer’s Iceman make for great drama, he notes that in reality, pilots with those types of egos wouldn’t make many friends in a real Navy fighter squadron.
“TOPGUN, above all else, is a graduate-level school for some of the world’s best pilots to improve their briefing, flying and debriefing skills and earn their SFTI designation,” says Mongo.
“There isn’t a Number 1 Pilot award for being the best in the sky as portrayed in the movie. TOPGUN is simply a rigorous program filled with learning opportunities and hours upon hours of debrief after each short flight to analyze every aspect of the simulation and learn. Six-hour debriefs on every tactical flight performed by students don’t make for an appealing movie, so producers add drama, larger-than-life characters and relationships to keep audiences enthralled."
Mongo’s Navy career spanned nearly 28 years in tactical aviation, including 6,000 hours flown in military aircraft, 750 carrier-arrested landings, five deployments on aircraft carriers, involvement in Operations DESERT SHIELD and DESERT STORM, and 25 combat missions in DESERT STORM. Additionally, he spent three years as a TOPGUN instructor.
Mongo is no stranger to the realities of service. “TOPGUN was the hardest job I’ve ever had, but the one I loved the most.” Outside of the exaggerated egos, Mongo feels the movie is well done, especially the flying scenes. They contain little computer-generated imagery, instead using recordings of real flights with actors sitting in the backseat of real F/A-18s. The camera crews flew in helicopters, positioned atop mountain ranges, poised to catch the stunning, authentic visuals seen in the movies.
Mongo most often flew in F/A-18 Hornets, which was his favorite to fly. He says the environment of TOPGUN is unique and special as everyone in the program shares the goal to become the best possible fighter pilot and, more importantly, to become the best possible tactics instructor. TOPGUN classmates are a close-knit group that spend an enormous amount of time together, working to create excellence in their ranks and share knowledge to foster improvement. As an experienced pilot and instructor, Mongo flew F-16Ns, A-4s, F-5s, and, of course, all versions of the F/A-18, working to push his limits and challenge himself and his team.
Just as in the movie, the TOPGUN program is not without risk. Mongo recalls a time where he was engaged in a dogfight training exercise and the plane opposite him began to slow, lose altitude, and depart controlled flight. With the mountains and valleys surrounding the Fallon, Nevada training site, it was difficult for Mongo to determine the altitude of the sinking plane. As he followed it down, he confirmed the other had lost control of his aircraft. Mongillo yelled over the radio for the pilot to eject. Seconds later, the plane pancaked into the ground and exploded. When Mongo first circled the crash, he did not see the pilot and was fearful he was still in the plane. Circling again, he noticed a parachute about 50 feet from the plane with the pilot still in the harness but not moving. Circling a third time, he saw the pilot on his feet, waving at him. The entire incident – from controlled flight to aircraft impacting the ground – took only 15 seconds.
The same high-speed maneuverability and exhilaration that characterizes TOPGUN flights in the movie can also bring danger, and training to fly is no different. After six months of non-stop, comprehensive F/A-18 introduction flight training in 1990, Mongo received orders to a squadron deploying to the Mediterranean Sea as part of a normal, planned rotation.
Within days of receiving those orders, he and his wife welcomed their first daughter. Only weeks later, as Mongo was settling in with his new squadron, Iraq invaded Kuwait, and his standard rotation became an active threat rife with potential hostilities as he headed to the Red Sea. Mongo deployed, saying goodbye to his wife and two-week old daughter, unsure if he would see them again. In January 1991, Mongo found himself in the first daytime strike of the war, aiming a bomb at an important military target some distance away. Though his force had F-14s flying ahead to defend against possible counterattack, two Iraqi MiG fighter jets got behind the U.S. Tomcats, close to Mongo’s plane. Mongo was able to splash one of the MiGs, while a wingman downed the other. During the engagement, Mongo’s plane retained its bomb load, splashed the MiGs and continued to the target, employing ordnance and destroying targeted aimpoints. In the last 30 years, Nick Mongillo is one of only three Navy pilots to shoot down a MiG in combat, and for this, he was awarded a Silver Star Medal, the United States Armed Forces’ third-highest military decoration for valor in combat.
Mongo’s transition from the military to the defense industry was relatively smooth.
“Both the military and the defense industry understand the necessity for a strong defense. L3Harris was a natural fit for me, because I understand the military customer, and more importantly, I can immediately connect the L3Harris products and services with how they support our men and women in uniform and our great nation.”
Mongo’s widespread and in-depth experience, knowledge, training, and skills have made him a highly recognized fighter pilot. Not only does he enjoy Topgun and Topgun: Maverick, but he was part of several TGM movie premiers and openings. Additionally, he routinely speaks at TOPGUN, the United States Naval Academy, military museums, fighter pilot podcasts and other venues interested in fighter aviation.