What TOPGUN Taught Me (article 2): Dedication


It’s Friday night just past 9:00 pm and the nine members of my class are wrapping up our day.  Friday began with an 8:00 am class on targeting and ended at 4:00 pm with a class on threat surface to air missile systems.  We added another five hours just trying to catch up. We are in our fourth week of TOPGUN and if the pressure wasn’t high enough, the instructors just turned it up another notch. 

The plan was to head to the O’club, grab a few beers and a pizza, and then off to bed.  As we left our study room and headed out of the building, we passed the lecture auditorium.  The door was ajar, the lights were on, and we could hear someone speaking as if they were teaching a class. Letting curiosity get the best of us, we all filed into the back of the room.

At the front, on the stage, with the stage lights on, mic’d up, and clicker in hand, an instructor was giving a full-blown lecture on Threat IR Missile Systems to an empty room.  He acknowledged our presences with a head nod, but continued with the lecture.  10 minutes later he finished and concluded by asking the empty chairs if they had any questions.

Murder Board

Incredulously we asked the instructor, “what was he doing giving a lecture to an empty room at 9:30 pm on a Friday night?”  He replied that the upcoming Wednesday, he was going to go through a murder board.  A murder board is where an instructor will present their lecture or brief to the cadre of instructors as if they were doing it for real.  The rest of the instructors will evaluate, tear apart, or “Murder” your presentation.  Here he was, a TOPGUN instructor, the best of the best of the best, practicing on a Friday night.  It was enlightening experience. Not one of us said a word until we left the building.


When you graduate TOPGUN and you wear the patch, people just look at you differently. I assume it’s like being selected to the Pro Bowl, MLB’s All-Star game, or being in the President’s Sales Club year after year. In fact, if you wear a patch from any of the top-level flying schools (TOPGUN, MAWTS, or the Air Force Fighter Weapons School) other pilots in other services approach you differently.  You’re not just in the club….you’ve mastered it.  However, with the “patch” comes and awesome responsibility. Being the best at a point in time is one thing. Staying the best over time is another and that takes unwavering, unrelenting DEDICATION.

Do As I Do

The instructor we saw practicing his lecture at 9:30 pm on Friday night unknowingly and unintentionally instilled a lesson in my class that we never forgot.  If the best of the best of the best, a TOPGUN Instructor, has the dedication to practice on Friday night, who are we to not do the same?  Our squadron mates and ship mates deserve the same dedication from us.  Wearing the patch demands it. This instructor was leading by “Do as I do” and he was doing it because it was right….not because we were watching.

Fast forward a couple of years and I am now an instructor at the Marine Corps F/A-18 replacement squadron.  This is where we train new pilots to fly the F/A-18 and turn them out as combat ready aviators.   In a lecture room, late on a Thursday afternoon, I’m giving a brief to an empty room.  The brief is not about flying, but rather a presentation concerning possible detachment locations and options. In the middle of my brief, the door at the back of the room opens and my CO (who had been an instructor at TOPGUN) sticks his head in. He asks, “Whatcha doing Lips?” I respond, “Just getting ready for our brief tomorrow.”  He smiles, nods, and pulls the door closed.


Dedication to one’s profession is not something you do some of the time.  It’s not something you do when the stakes are high. It’s not something you do when there is a big payoff.  And it’s not something you do only when people are watching. Dedication to your profession is something that is done all the time, every day, every hour.  But this dedication just isn’t to the profession, it’s to the team you lead or are a part of (more on this in the next article.)

The threat of getting murdered after his presentation was a great incentive to practice beforehand.  Who wants to look bad in front of their peers? But the real question is why the organization itself, in this case TOPGUN, established this behavior or disincentive? It’s a simple answer; they were dedicated to giving us the best platform possible to learn. They were there to “teach the teachers” and that demanded everything they had to give.

As a TOPGUN graduate, wearing the patch demands this level of dedication every day and those you fly with and lead, deserve it. In your world, it’s no different. Dedicate yourself to your profession.  But more importantly, dedicate yourself to your team. They deserve nothing less.

Patrick Houlahan