What TOPGUN Taught Me (article 5): Teamwork

Always has my back

I’m going to be completely honest.  When I started writing “What TOPGUN Taught Me,” I had five topics that came to mind that I was going to write about: Purpose, Dedication, Humility and Honesty, Tough Love, and D.E.B.R.I.E.F..  (I know that looks like six, but Humility and Honesty are inseparable for this series.) But then something happened. Something that shouldn’t have been unexpected. Something that I’m embarrassed I overlooked.

There is a person on LinkedIn called Paul Mackenzie. Every time I post a TOPGUN article, Paul is one of the first to like, comment, and share. He is always there, always ready, always has my back, and is always supporting my content.  And why wouldn’t he be there?  Paul was my Weapons and Sensors Officer (WSO) at TOPGUN……….or was I his pilot? Hmmmm…..something to ponder later.

Groper was my Goose

Groper was my Goose and I was his Mav.  While we could both stand on our own two feet and were evaluated individually throughout the course, one of us could have doomed the both of us. We flew the F/A-18D. This was the Marine Corps’ two seat Hornet prior to the Navy’s E’s and F’s. It’s a crew served airplane and thus, no matter what they said, we had to perform as a team. While we may have tried to figuratively or literally kill each other through “Random Stupid Targeting” or calling “Ditch Right” while we were on the hard deck, we would not have made it through the course without each other.



Little history behind the F/A-18D.  The F/A-18 is a single seat Fighter Attack aircraft. It was designed to launch from aircraft carriers and simultaneously carry out both Air-to-Air Missions and Air-to-Ground Missions. This concept was proven on January 17, 1991, when LCDR Fox and LT Mongillo shot down two Mig-21’s over the skies of Iraq, dropped their ordnance, and returned safely to their ships. (This VFA-81 F/A-18C driver scored the first of only two U.S. Navy MiG Kills during Operation Desert Storm – The Aviation Geek Club)

When replacing the dual seated A-6 Intruder, F-4 Phantom, and OV-10 Bronco, the Marine Corps requested a dual seat version of the F/A-18.  An airplane that could “attack and destroy surface targets, day or night, under the weather; conduct multi-sensor imagery reconnaissance; provide supporting arms coordination; and intercept and destroy enemy aircraft under all weather conditions.” The basic idea or premise is a time-tested axiom that two heads are better than one. While I have plenty of stories of the benefits of flying a crew served airplane, there is one that sticks out in my mind because of the impression it made on me while at TOPGUN. (MARINE FIGHTER/ATTACK SQUADRON(ALL-WEATHER) VMFA(AW) — TABLE OF ORGANIZATION (globalsecurity.org))

JO Retention Hop

We were at week seven, the TOPGUN trophy was still up for grabs (jk- there isn’t a trophy,) and we were about to fly what Groper would affectionately dub the “JO Retention Hop.” (JO equals Junior Officer.)  It has an official name, but “JO Retention Hop” is pretty accurate since I remember getting out of the airplane, laying down on the tarmac, and laughing in exhaustion and delight after the flight.

This training sortie pitted the students versus an Integrated Air Defense System or IADS. An IADS is a combination of surface to air missile systems and threat aircraft that work better together than Tyrek Hill, Travis Kelce, and Patrick Mahomes do with 13 seconds left in a game. The combination creates a whole host of challenges and problems that taxes even the best pilots. An IADS is what the pilots faced in TOPGUN Maverick and what we were up against on this particular flight.  We had to fight through these IADS, hit our ground target, and then fight our way out. A daunting task no matter how good you thought you were. OHHH….and the bad guys were played by the TOPGUN IP’s.

Poland selects Northrop Grumman Integrated Air & Missile Defence System | ADBR

Global SA

So, we began our run by descending to 500’ AGL.  I forgot to mention that.  The whole 60-mile run was done between 500’ and 1000’ AGL at 500+ mph.  Small details.

So, we hit 500’ AGL, turn on course, and the threat SAM radars start to light us up. As the pilot, I begin the defensive maneuvers.  Without going into a lecture, I’m basically trying to make the jet flop like a fish out of water, so the SAM’s don’t know which way we are headed.  At 500’ AGL, +/- 100’, over rocky mountainous terrain, my attention was pretty much on just flying the airplane. 20 seconds into these maneuvers, we get a call that there are “bogeys” 20 miles in front and closing on us.  Fantastic!!! And, then if by some miracle, things start happening.

While I am jerking the jet all over the place in what could be described as the worst bull ride you could ever be on, Groper is back there acquiring the contacts with the radar. He finds not one, but two, and as the SAM radars disappear, we arrive at the merge with global SA (Situational Awareness.)  We call out tallies and maneuvers to our wingman.  We shoot one of the bandits, then turn and shoot the second bandit engaged with our wingman. It was a glorious and we were kings for a brief moment.

SA-6 Gainful


Why the long explanation? Well, I have flown both the single seat version and two seat version of the F/A-18.  I have flown them as an instructor and on deployments in the fleet and despite the extra 700lbs of gas I gave up, the two-seat version can’t be beat. In any air-to-air scenario or air-to-ground scenario, I’ll take a WSO with me any day of the week and twice on Sunday. However, that only happens if the Teamwork is there.

How do you reach that level of Teamwork?  How do you get to a point where two minds work as one?  How do you get two people to meld with a machine and make “It” happen?

You’re Not Failing and I’m Not Failing

Frankly, if you’ve read the other articles, you have some of the answers.  Our Purpose was to graduate TOPGUN and then be the best instructors we could be back at our squadrons. We Dedicated ourselves to this task and our profession.  Long nights, early mornings, chair flying, quizzing, and critiquing each other endlessly. Being Honest with each other on our weak points and Humble enough to ask for help. And finally, calling each other out when needed and giving a little Tough Love. “You’re not failing and I’m not failing” type attitude. All of this is built on TRUST.

There is nothing wrong with the individual contributor that crushes it.  However, if you can create a team out of individual contributors, you will be unstoppable. You will roll your competition. Market fluctuations will be road bumps. You will have one glorious moment after another and continually be Kings and Queens.

Sign found inside the locker room of the NY Giants

Be Part of a Team

As good as I may think I was in the airplane, Teamwork got me through TOPGUN. Frankly, Teamwork got me through a lot of my career.  Not that I was bad on my own, but I was so much better when I was part of a team or leading a team. Despite our individual flaws, as a team, Groper and I were unstoppable.  There wasn’t a thing we couldn’t accomplish.  There wasn’t a mission that was too big.

Be part of a team.  Find a team.  Create teams.  Be a good teammate.  Team up on projects, initiatives, and on sales calls. Teams are unstoppable. The F/A-18 is a wonderful airplane.  However, the best thing they did was to make it a “teammate” airplane.

(Editors side note- We flew as a section during the JO retention flight.  We were leading the flight with a single seat F/A-18 as our wingman.  When recreating the scenario in the Debrief, we asked our wingman for his inputs.  His response was that he only saw one bandit behind him after we talked his eyes on and just prior to our second shot. At the time, I was slightly dumbfounded that he wasn’t aware of the situation until I learned that this wasn’t unusual.  Our wingman would eventually be invited back to be a TOPGUN Instructor…so he wasn’t a slouch. It was simply that as individual, he couldn’t beat Teamwork in that dynamic environment.)

Patrick Houlahan