The First 'Top Gun' Event Starred Not Tom Cruise, But The Tuskegee Airmen

It is no secret that Americans love military films, whether they are factual or fictional. "Top Gun" is one of the most iconic films from the 1980s and synonymous with Tom Cruise's career. Even his character Maverick's phrase, "Talk to me, Goose" still finds its way onto T-shirts decades later. The film takes place at a military school referred to as Top Gun, reserved for the best fighter pilots in the country. There, they compete to be the best in the class and win the Top Gun trophy (per IMDb). CNN reported that the 2022 sequel "Top Gun: Maverick" made $1 million every day at the box office for 75 days straight and was the No. 1 film on Memorial Day and Labor Day. 

Neither film is based on true military stories, but there was indeed a training hotspot for the country's best military pilots. The pilots who participated in the training became legendary.

The Tuskegee Airmen were all African Americans

The first Top Gun competition was in 1949 at the Nellis Air Force base in Nevada. It featured Air Force competitors from all across the United States. The winners of that first Top Gun trophy were members of the Tuskegee Airmen, an elite group that included some of the most decorated pilots in the history of the U.S. military (per CBS News). 

They originated at the Tuskegee University in Alabama, where the U.S. military War Department built a training facility for pilots. Though in 1940 President Franklin D. Roosevelt allowed for the U.S. Army Air Corps (now known as the Air Force) to train African American pilots, segregation laws stood firm. The training facility at Tuskegee was a result of such laws. The training was nevertheless all encompassing — from mechanics to actual flying (per Washington Examiner).

History states that the program at Tuskegee trained 1,000 pilots and another 14,000 navigators, mechanics, and control operators. On top of that, most participants were also college graduates as well. By the first Top Gun competition, Tuskegee Airmen members had already served overseas during World War II.

George W. Bush honored members of the Tuskegee Airmen

Members of the Tuskegee Airmen's winning team at the 1949 Top Gun included Lieutenant Colonel James Harvey. "They knew who won, but they just didn't want to recognize us," Harvey told CBS News. The team members were not in the Top Gun record books. In 2005, a historian found the Tuskegee Airmen's Top Gun trophy that had been lost for years. As of 2022, that trophy is finally on display, despite initial pushback when it was first recovered. A plaque honoring them was placed at the Nellis Air Force base in 2022, 73 years after their win.

The Tuskegee Airmen of the first Top Gun competition are part of a longer list of Tuskegee Airmen whose service went thankless for decades. In 2007, President George W. Bush honored Tuskegee pilots who served in World War II. A group of surviving aviators received a Congressional Gold Medal. "We are so proud today and I think America is proud," said recipient Roscoe Brown Jr.