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Top Gun: Maverick Mystery – The F-35 Is Missing in a Big Way

Capt. Andrew “Dojo” Olson, F-35A Lightning II Demonstration Team pilot, performs over Miami Beach, Fla., May 24, 2019. Olson performed the demo in preparation for the Miami Beach Air and Sea Show. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Jensen Stidham)

Yes, the F-35 makes a very short cameo appearance. However, why wasn’t the F-35 the main fighter in Top Gun: Maverick? – Tom Cruise is flying high as his latest film Top Gun: Maverick soared to a second huge weekend and crossed the $500 million worldwide box office. The sequel to the 1986 blockbuster made an estimated $86 million domestically in its second weekend – a drop of just 32 percent from its record-setting opening over the Memorial Day holiday weekend.

In the film, Cruise – whose character is now teaching a younger generation of hotshot pilots – could be seen in the cockpit of a United States Navy F/A-18 Super HornetAccording to Fortune magazine, the studio had paid as much as $11,374 an hour to use the advanced fighter planes in the making of the film, but with the caveat that Cruise – an accomplished pilot in his own right – couldn’t actually touch the controls.

Pentagon regulations bar non-military personnel from controlling any Department of Defense (DoD) assets apart from small arms in training scenarios.

Why Not the F-35?

The big question among aviation buffs is why Pete “Maverick” Mitchell was in the cockpit of the Navy’s Boeing F/A-18 rather than the more advanced Lockheed Martin F-35C Lightning II. The simple answer is that the script called for the Super Hornet.

However, the timing could be a factor.

The film had been in development for years, and a draft of the screenplay was actually finished in 2012. However, Tony Scott, who directed the original Top Gun, sadly took his own life that same year, and as a result, pre-production was put on hold. The script was reworked and production finally moved forward with principal photography taking place between May 2018 and April 2019. Moreover, the scenes aboard the United States Navy’s Nimitz-class supercarrier USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN-72) were shot way back in August 2018.

At the time the Navy was only training with the F-35.

Then there is the fact that the F-35 is a single-seat-only aircraft, whereas the F/A-18 has a two-seat variant that could allow the actors to be filmed within the actual planes.

Pandemic Delays

In addition, there were multiple production delays, and the release of the movie was pushed back repeatedly. Top Gun: Maverick was originally scheduled to be released on July 12, 2019, yet was delayed a year so that some of the more complex action sequences could be completed.

Then the pandemic hit, and Covid-19 saw many businesses – including movie theaters – shuttered. The film’s release was pushed back accordingly. Paramount first opted to move the release to December 2020 from a June opening and then opted to move it to summer 2021. Conflicts and a crowded release schedule result in it being moved to May 2022.\

Fans thus had to wait a little longer to see the film, and by many accounts, it was the wait.

While some films – notably the Warner Bros. sci-fi masterpiece Dune – debuted at the box office as well as via streaming services, Paramount went another direction, as producers felt Top Gun: Maverick deserved and even needed the big-screen treatment for the full experience. The latest James Bond film No Time to Die faced a similar delay, which impacted some “product placement.”

However, the delay did mean that the F-35 is only shown in the film briefly at the beginning on the flight deck of an aircraft carrier, Maverick didn’t get to fly it. Given that Cruise (and thus Pete “Maverick” Mitchell) was in his mid-50s when the movie was made, perhaps it makes sense that he wasn’t actually at the controls of that most-advanced aircraft – and then of course there is all the classified goodies in the F-35 that he would be authorized to see or touch.


CF-3 FLT 255 USS Dwight D. Eisenhower on 06 OCT 2015. CBR Ted Dyckman was flying CF-3 Lockheed Martin Aeronautics Company, Lockheed Martin Photography by Andrew McMurtrie

Then again, the hotshot Navy pilot could be seen flying the fictional hypersonic “Darkstar” in one sequence, as well as working on a P-51 Mustang early in the film. While Cruise didn’t get to actually fly the Darkstar, he is able to take up the P-51 anytime he wants – as he owns that particular aircraft.

Now a Senior Editor for 1945, Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers and websites. He regularly writes about military hardware, and is the author of several books on military headgear including A Gallery of Military Headdress, which is available on Peter is also a Contributing Writer for Forbes.

Written By

Expert Biography: A Senior Editor for 1945, Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers, and websites with over 3,000 published pieces over a twenty-year career in journalism. He regularly writes about military hardware, firearms history, cybersecurity, and international affairs. Peter is also a Contributing Writer for Forbes. You can follow him on Twitter: @PeterSuciu.



  1. Chris J

    June 6, 2022 at 3:55 pm

    Retired Top Gun pilot and instructor, Dave Berke, was a consultant for the film and specifically the script. He said the lack of a 2-seat F-35 was the reason. Tom Cruise didn’t want any CGI and wanted max realism in the flying scenes which required actually flight time in a 2-seater.

  2. aldol11

    June 7, 2022 at 5:53 am

    the F35, notwithstanding the “F” designation is definitely not a dog fight type of plane.
    in fact it is the Frankenstein son of politicians seeking cost reductions

    • Foo

      June 9, 2022 at 2:33 pm

      The F-35 was designed for beyond-visual-range (BVI) combat, which it does better than any other fighter aircraft in the world. That’s why countries like Germany, Finland, Great Britain, South Korea, Canada, etc. have chosen it over every other fighter including the F-18.

  3. A

    June 7, 2022 at 8:58 pm

    “Fans thus had to wait a little longer to see the film, and by many accounts, it was the wait.”

    Ah yes, the film was the wait.

  4. Fred

    June 8, 2022 at 5:22 pm

    The F/A-18 Super Hornet is a very capable aircraft and will be flying for many years to come. It is equipped with state of the art avionics and the latest weapons guidance systems available for that platform. Any enemy would have a difficult time against this aircraft in combat. The F-35 will one day take its place, but not anytime soon.

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