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Top Gun lives on in the Nevada desert

Navy's best fighter pilots learn how to be successful combat pilots through rigorous training in the skies near Fallon. Photos: Fight and flight

FALLON, Nev.--If you've ever driven west across Nevada on U.S. 50, there's a decent chance you've looked up and seen the odd sight of two or more military jets dogfighting overhead.

I have, at least. Years ago, some friends and I were camped on a small desert a couple hours east of Fallon and, sure enough, there were the planes, dancing overhead, the pilots seeming to show off their skills for us.

In reality, the fighters are from the Fallon Naval Air Station, a training facility for aircraft carrier-based Navy combat pilots that also happens to be home to the service's famous Top Gun academy.

I got to visit the base as the second-to-last stop on Road Trip 2007, and while I was there, I stood for a while atop the air-traffic control tower, watching a succession of F-18 Hornets, F-16s and an F-5 take off, scream into the sky and then return a little later, roar close to the tower, land and finally taxi onto the tarmac. They were so close I could see the pilots.

The Fallon Naval Air Station first opened in 1942 as a place to train pilots for carrier-based combat operations. The Navy chose the location because the weather is consistently clear--there's generally 60 to 70 miles of visibility with little cloud cover--and pilots get 300 or more days of great visual-flight-rules weather every year. Further, the 13,000 square miles of military operating area the base uses to conduct its training runs are sparsely populated.

The base's training operations are run by the Naval Strike and Air Warfare Center, which is known on the base as NSAWC. And the pilots who graduate from this command are not just biding their time. My host during my visit, Public Affairs Officer Zip Upham, himself a former Naval Intelligence officer, said that most of the pilots who come out of the program these days--since the original Gulf War, in fact--are soon off to the Persian Gulf and are "in harm's way" within about four months of leaving Fallon.

Four times a year, an airwing arrives, and its personnel spend a month learning many of the tricks they need for successful combat missions.

"It's an extensive graduate-level program to get (pilots) up to speed on flying off carriers," Upham said.

What I see when I look out from the catwalk over the control tower is a tarmac full of planes, most of them F-18s, the twin-tail, twin-engine fighters mainly used by the Navy. Upham explained that the Navy doesn't generally use F-16s--which have only a single engine--because of concerns that if a carrier-based plane loses its only engine while out over open water, its pilot may well have to ditch the aircraft, while a plane with two engines is more likely to get back to the base.

"You name it, we can simulate it and make them figure out how to defeat it."
--Zip Upham
base public affairs officer

The Air Force, on the other hand, has hundreds of F-16s in its arsenal.

So, the few F-16s here--which all seem to be painted with different shades of camouflage coloring--are used as "adversary" planes in combat training exercises since it is considered a bad idea to put identical planes up against each other in exercises. And in general, it's the instructors who play the role of the enemy.

"The instructors have a great job," Upham said. "They get to be the bad guys."

It happens that my visit coincided with an airwing having just departed, so the fighters taking off and landing are piloted by instructors out for some flight hours to keep fresh.

But during about an hour on the catwalk, there's a seemingly never-ending flow of planes taking off, staying out for a little while, and then returning from their runs. To keep their patterns sharp for future carrier missions, the pilots approach the airfield from the south, do a sharp--and very loud--180-degree turn over the control tower, fly all the way back to the end of the runway, do another 180-degree turn, and then land.

Analyzing the details
It is an impressive thing to watch as the fighters come in from the south, do their bank overhead, and then roar off again. The sound is deafening, the planes big and powerful.

Once they touch down, they taxi back in and come back onto the tarmac in pairs, where they are met by a landing crew that directs the planes to their tie-up points.

And from my vantage point, I have a perfect view of the planes as they come to the west end of the tarmac, turn 90 degrees and then head to their parking space.

One of the things that makes NSAWC so useful to the Navy is its Tactical Air Crew Combat Training System, a computer system that allows commanders to track, record, play back and analyze the training sessions in "excruciating detail," Upham said.

The technology, which works because the planes carry transponders in place of under-the-wing missiles, allows technicians to "see" the entire session digitally, all in real time, even with up to 36 planes involved.

And by adding new GPS technology, which will eliminate the need for the planes to carry the transponders, that number should soon expand to around 100 simultaneous planes that can be tracked.

"By using the radar systems we have on our Electronic Warfare range and (on the) aircraft we can put an airwing through its paces," Upham said.

That's especially true because NSAWC can create almost any combat scenario and put the pilots through them.

"You name it, we can simulate it," Upham said, "and make them figure out how to defeat it."

And while the 75 pilots in each airwing who come through Fallon are highly proficient and well-trained, it is the Top Gun pilots who command the most attention.

They arrive in groups of about 15 and stay at the base for around nine weeks. The goal is to train them to be instructors, and the education is rigorous: very intensive tactical training, as well as weapons deployment training, all during as many as three flights a day per pilot.

"The goal is to turn a decent pilot into an excellent instructor," said Upham, "and then send them out into the fleet to be weapons and tactics trainers within their fleet."

Meanwhile, to get Fallon's fleet into the air, the base requires a lot of fuel, and as I'm watching from the catwalk, a giant yellow tanker truck appears after two F-18s return, intent on refueling them.

Upham tells me that the base uses 28 million gallons of fuel a year, all of which gets there via a pipeline from Sparks, Nev.

The base also uses as much as 80 percent of all the bombs the entire Navy drops in training, and focuses much of that destructive power on one 44,000-acre bombing range. That's the one place that administrators can be sure they won't hit anyone, no matter what goes wrong, given that it is big enough to ensure no one can get close to the bombing runs.

"We can guarantee that no matter what goes wrong with that bomb," Upham said, "that it won't land on someone's Winnebago."