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F-35: Why Isn’t Maverick Flying a Stealth Fighter in the New Top Gun?

Top Gun: Maverick
Top Gun: Maverick Promo Photo.

It seems a little off that in the new Top Gun: Maverick movie Tom Cruise is flying a F/A-18 Super Hornet and not a more advanced F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. A top military expert gave us some ideas as to why that was: Clearly the new Top Gun: Maverick movie is smashing all of the records when it comes to summer movies. 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.

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.