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Smart Bombs: Military, Defense and National Security

The Aircraft Carriers of Top Gun and Top Gun: Maverick

Aircraft Carrier USS Nimitz
ARABIAN SEA (Jan. 17, 2021) A Sailor directs an F/A-18E Super Hornet from the “Kestrels” of Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 137 on the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz (CVN 68) during flight operations. Nimitz, the flagship of Nimitz Carrier Strike Group, is deployed to the U.S. 5th Fleet area of operations to ensure maritime stability and security in the Central Region, connecting the Mediterranean and Pacific through the western Indian Ocean and three critical chokepoints to the free flow of global commerce. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Charles DeParlier) 210117-N-JX182-1128.

Top Gun: Maverick was finally dethroned as the number one grossing film in the world – by the newly-released Jurassic World: Dominion. Top Gun, which has become something of a pop culture phenomenon again, 36 years after the original film’s release in 1986, catches up with naval aviator Pete “Maverick” Mitchell. The sequel features plenty of symmetry, and plenty of granular commonalities, with the first film. So, there’s no surprise that the new film also takes place (in part) aboard an aircraft carrier.

The Original Article

The first Top Gun is set aboard the USS Enterprise (CVN-65), where the film both begins and ends. The Enterprise, the only carrier ever built in the Enterprise-class, was commissioned in 1961 – a quarter-century before Tom Cruise and Val Kilmer’s bromance climaxed on the ship’s 1,123-foot deck. More importantly, perhaps, the Enterprise was the world’s first-ever nuclear-powered aircraft carrier. Powered by 8 Westinghouse A2W nuclear reactors, the Enterprise had an unlimited range and could stay at sea for about a quarter-century at a time if needed. Obviously, the Enterprise – with her nuclear power – represents a watershed moment in naval warfare. 

Aside from engaging in fictional crises during Top Gun, the Enterprise was also deployed during various high-profile non-fictional conflicts. In 1962, only one year after commissioning, the Enterprise was used to blockade Cuba, to prevent the Soviet Union from stationing nuclear missiles on Castro’s island, during the Cuban Missile Crisis. The Enterprise was also the first nuclear-powered ship to engage in combat, in 1965, when she launched aircraft against the Viet Cong. The ship served valiantly, through the second half of the twentieth century, and into the twenty-first. On her last deployment, in 2012, the Enterprise spent 238 days at sea, cruised nearly 81,000 miles, and launched more than 2,000 sorties over Afghanistan during Operation Enduring Freedom. Finally deactivated in December 2012, the Enterprise had served for half a century.

Successors and Sequels

With the Enterprise unable to reprise its role in the Top Gun sequel, the film’s producers found alternatives: the USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN-71) and the USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN-72).

The Theodore Roosevelt, which coincidentally was commissioned in 1986, the same year Top Gun was released, is the fourth Nimitz-class nuclear-powered aircraft carrier. The ship was the first aircraft carrier ever assembled using a technique known as modular construction. With modular construction, large modules of the ship are independently constructed in “lay-down” areas, before being hoisted with a crane, and ultimately welded together. The technique, made possible with a massive gantry crane, capable of lifting 900 tons, shaved nearly 16 months off the Theodore Roosevelt’s construction time. The ship first saw action during Operation Desert Storm, where she launched over 4,200 sorties – more than any other carrier. Sorties launched from the Theodore Roosevelt dropped 4,800,000 pounds of ordnance during the conflict. 

Also appearing in Top Gun: Maverick is the fifth Nimitz-class aircraft carrier, the Abraham Lincoln. Commissioned in 1989, three years after the Theodore Roosevelt, the Abraham Lincoln was involved in a now-infamous incident, the Tomahawk missile attacks against Osama bin Laden’s operations in Sudan and Afghanistan. President Bill Clinton authorized the strikes, codenamed Operation Infinite Reach, at a time when his administration was embroiled in the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Operation Infinite Reach, a response to al-Qaeda’s bombing of terrorist embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, was the first time the U.S. ever acknowledged launching a preemptive strike against a non-state actor. Operation Infinite Reach is generally considered to be a failure; Osama bin Laden survived and continued planning his attack on America. The Abraham Lincoln is also the site of President George Bush 43’s “Mission Accomplished” gaffe. 

Appearing in Top Gun: Maverick was not the Abraham Lincoln’s film debut. In 2004, the ship was used as a filming location for one of cinema’s biggest flops ever, Stealth, starring Josh Lucas, Jessica Biel, Jamie Foxx, and The Right Stuff’s Chuck Yeager: Sam Shepard. The film featured a full-scale mock-up of the fictional F/A-37, which was shot aboard the Abraham Lincoln.  

Harrison Kass is the Senior Defense Editor at 19FortyFive. An attorney, pilot, guitarist, and minor pro hockey player, he joined the US Air Force as a Pilot Trainee but was medically discharged. Harrison has degrees from Lake Forest College, the University of Oregon, and New York University. He lives in Oregon and listens to Dokken.

Written By

Harrison Kass is a Senior Defense Editor at 19FortyFive. An attorney, pilot, guitarist, and minor pro hockey player, he joined the US Air Force as a Pilot Trainee but was medically discharged. Harrison has degrees from Lake Forest College, the University of Oregon School of Law, and New York University’s Graduate School of Arts & Sciences. He lives in Oregon and regularly listens to Dokken.