Remember the MiG-28 in Top Gun? It Was Really the F-5 Fighter Plane

F-5 Tiger or MiG-28
April 3, 2024 Topic: Security Region: Americas Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: F-5F-5 TigerMilitaryDefenseTop GunAviationF-14

Remember the MiG-28 in Top Gun? It Was Really the F-5 Fighter Plane

The iconic 1986 film Top Gun not only boosted Tom Cruise's career but also revitalized the image of the U.S. military, especially the Navy. Its primary antagonist, the fictional Soviet MiG-28, portrayed as a cutting-edge enemy aircraft, was actually an American-made Northrop F-5

Summary: The iconic 1986 film Top Gun not only boosted Tom Cruise's career but also revitalized the image of the U.S. military, especially the Navy. Its primary antagonist, the fictional Soviet MiG-28, portrayed as a cutting-edge enemy aircraft, was actually an American-made Northrop F-5. Chosen for its simplicity and effectiveness, the F-5's portrayal as the menacing MiG-28 was a creative necessity during the Cold War's peak. In reality, the F-5 has a rich history as a reliable, low-cost fighter, first flying in 1959 and breaking the sound barrier on its maiden flight. Serving globally under the Mutual Defense Assistance Act, it played a significant role in various conflicts, including the Vietnam War, exemplifying its value beyond Hollywood's depiction.

From Hollywood to Airfields: The F-5's Journey from Top Gun Villain to Global Warhorse

Spinning and juking about the crystal-clear skies somewhere over the cerulean Pacific Ocean, the US Navy F-14 Tomcat piloted by ace Navy pilot, Lieutenant Pete “Maverick” Mitchell and his Radar Intercept Officer (RIO), Lieutenant, Junior Grade Nick “Goose” Bradshaw, engaged in a mock firefight with the fearsome Soviet MiG-28. That warbird cut a distinctive figure, with its smooth, all-black airframe, punctuated only by the distinctive red star. 

The elusive Soviet birds came within spitting distance of the Navy Tomcats, prompting Lieutenant Bradshaw—Goose—to remark to Maverick that, “No one’s ever been this close” to the fearsome Soviet fighter.

Of course, this never happened in real life. What’s being described above is from the penultimate scene in the 1986 Tony Scott-directed mega-hit film, Top Gun. That film catapulted the stardom of young Tom Cruise (who played Maverick) into the upper atmosphere, launching his film career at supersonic speeds. Indeed, today Cruise is considered to be the last true American movie star. 

What’s more, Top Gun elevated the United States military—particularly the Navy—from its post-Vietnam doldrums to a highly respected institution in the eyes of most Americans. Most Americans, regardless of differences, would hold this positive view of the United States Armed Forces at least until the dark days of the Iraq War in 2003.

The F-5’s Starring Role

Top Gun’s primary antagonist wasn’t a human being as is the case in so many Hollywood blockbusters. It wasn’t a living being at all. The main villain in that iconic film was the mythical MiG-28. A relatively simplistic design, the so-called MiG-28 was given a unique paint job for the film to make it seem more foreign and threatening than it really is.

In fact, the plane that was used in the making of Top Gun was not a MiG-28. That’s because the MiG-28 doesn’t really exist. The filmmakers created it for the purposes of their film (they’d do it again in the 2023 sequel, Top Gun: Maverick, when Maverick pilots the SR-72 “Darkstar”).

The filmmakers of Top Gun used an American plane as a stand-in for the new Soviet threat in their story. And that plane was the Northrop-built F-5. While not as capable as the fictitious MiG-28, the F-5 has a storied history as a training plane used by the United States Navy for their new fighter pilots. It’s no wonder that the Top Gun crew wanted to use the F-5 as the primary antagonist in the film. Getting a hold of an actual Soviet-built warplane back then would have been impossible. Top Gun was filmed at the height of the Cold War, after all.

So, the filmmakers made use of what they had available. Interestingly, the movie billed the MiG-28 as the top-of-the-line new (at that time) Soviet warplane. But the bird that was used for the MiG-28, the F-5, was old even by 1986. The first F-5 was designed in the 1950s by the US defense contractor Northrop. The project was entirely privately funded. The goal of the F-5 project was to create a simple, low-cost, effective supersonic warplane. The original version of the F-5 dates its maiden flight to 1959. 

The F-5 Broke the Sound Barrier On Its First Flight

The updated variant of the plane, the F-5E/F Tiger II, first flew in 1972. Northrop’s first F-5A/B Freedom Fighter, the plane that broke many speed records at the time of its service, was powered by a pair of General Electric YTJ85-GE-1 turbojets. In fact, the F-5A/B broke the sound barrier on its very first flight on July 30, 1959.

Because of its simplicity as well as its efficient engineering, the Pentagon made the plane available to anti-communist forces globally under the Mutual Defense Assistance Act. The bird could fly at 924 miles per hour and go as high as 50,500 feet in the air. With a range of 195 miles, the F-5 could 4,400 pounds of ordnance. It was also equipped with two potent 0.79-inch M39 cannons. Northrop’s F-5 had seven external hardpoints that carried her missile package. 

The F-5 was a Workhorse of the Free World

The F-5 has served in countless national air forces and has fought in several major conflicts. For example, it saw action during the Yemen Civil War. As for its service in the US military, its heyday was the Vietnam War. Flying about 2,600 SORTIES, nine F-5s were lost in combat against North Vietnamese forces (with the bulk of those losses coming from North Vietnamese surface-to-air missiles). 

America’s F-5 is a storied warplane. It’s not as glamorous as some of the other warbirds the United States has fielded. Even compared to a contemporary jet, like the F-4 Phantom, the F-5 doesn’t get much love. But when one looks at its value as an export plane, and the fact it is still in use in multiple foreign air forces today, its value should not be lost upon any observer.

So, while it wasn’t a MiG-28, the Soviet Air Force would have been lucky to have such a workhorse in its arsenal. Lord knows the Western forces were blessed with this simple yet lethal warplane.

About the Author

Brandon J. Weichert, a National Interest national security analyst, is a former Congressional staffer and geopolitical analyst who is a contributor at The Washington Times, the Asia Times, and The-Pipeline. He is the author of Winning Space: How America Remains a Superpower, Biohacked: China’s Race to Control Life, and The Shadow War: Iran’s Quest for Supremacy. His next book, A Disaster of Our Own Making: How the West Lost Ukraine, is due October 22 from Encounter Books. Weichert can be followed via Twitter @WeTheBrandon.

Image Credit: Shutterstock.