America’s Fascination With Military Aircraft in Entertainment and Real Life

Every year nearly 11 million people catch a Blue Angels United States Navy air show, and the US military currently boasts 1,047,223 active duty soldiers. As of 2021, the estimated number of retired military members stood at a massive 2.19 million. Meanwhile, Top Gun: Maverick has raked in a domestic box office showing of $474.8 million and $427.1 million overseas.

If you’re wondering what all these stats have in common, it’s America’s intense fascination with military aircraft. The Blue Angles and the Thunderbirds are aircraft squadrons that showcase the skills and prowess of the US Military’s best F/A-18 E/F Super Hornet fighter jet for the US Navy and the F-16 Fighting Falcon for the US Air Force, respectively.

Top Gun’s Planes

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Image credit: Ali _Cobanoglu/Shutterstock

When the original Top Gun came out in 1986, several planes were featured in the movie that showcased a well-known cast: Tom Cruise, Val Kilmer, Kelly McGillis, and Anthony Edwards all put on their A-game to make this – ahead of its time – military movie.

  • F-14A Tomcat is the plane flown by Peter “Maverick” Mitchell and his best friend and co-pilot, Nick “Goose” Bradshaw.
  • F-5E Tiger III-this fighter jet and its two-seat sibling, the F-5F, were the ‘Mig-28s’ in this iconic movie.
  • A-4 Skyhawk-this sleek plane was flown in Top Gun by Jester and Viper.

In the sequel to Top Gun, Top Gun: Maverick, we see Bradshaw’s son, Lt. Bradley “Rooster” Bradshaw, face off with Maverick when he enters Top Gun, a top-notch training course to push out the Navy’s best aviators.

“Bond,” an instructor at the Navy Strike Fighter Tactics Instructor program, SFTI for short and pronounced “siftee,” said this about the program commonly known as TOPGUN. “The TOPGUN course, while challenging, is rewarding,” said ‘Bond.’ “You learn how to become a better instructor, and you learn how to fly the aircraft in ways you’ve never done before.”

“Storc,” another instructor at TOPGUN, said this about the training program. “One of the points here at TOPGUN isn’t just to make the guys good in the jet. It’s to make them effective teachers. It’s not an evaluation course; it’s a course of teaching.”

Teaching and training go hand in hand, but that’s not all there is to be in the armed forces. In order to keep the military’s numbers where they want them to be, top brass train recruiters to find new recruits to join the ranks of enlisted soldiers. Becoming an officer usually requires college-level education or a place at one of the military’s training academies.

Karl Sander, a retired Lieutenant Commander in the US Navy, spoke about the military’s angle on recruitment when Top Gun came out. “The Navy does, in a sense, market aviation. The Navy actively supported both Top Gun (1986) and Top Gun: Maverick (2022), seeing a documented ‘bump’ in recruiting after the original 1986 film debuted.”

America’s fascination with military aircraft goes far beyond popular movie reels. Since planes became available for combat and transportation in 1909, with Orville Wright’s Model A Flyer, America has been enamored with creating and flying the best in aviation and military technology.

Over the six branches of the US military: Navy and US Marines, Army, Air Force, and Space Force, and Coast Guard, there are at least 161 active duty planes, and while some overlap branches like the F/A-18 E/F Super Hornet, all have their place and purpose for facilitating America’s best interests on land, sea, and air.

Military Might in Movies

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Image Credit: Martin Charles Hatch/Shutterstock

Whether you’re a fan of shows like M*A*S*H and movies like Red Dawn (1984) and Top Gun (1986), or you prefer newer offerings like 1917 (2020), The Last Full Measure (2020)or 12 Strong (2018), there’s no substitute for the military prowess and might that’s shown in great shows and movies.

For instance, Black Hawk Down (2001) showed the incredible bravery of the US soldiers who risked their lives to save a unit of Army Rangers who had been cut off and surrounded by Somali militia when their Black Hawk helicopter was shot down.

Despite the filmmaker’s best efforts, however, no movie can capture the intensely sacrificial gift that is given in the name of freedom when soldiers put themselves on the frontline for their fellow citizens, and rarely does a movie give enough credit where credit is due, even under the best of circumstances.

In Black Hawk Down, the soldiers of the 10th Mountain Division from Fort Drum are mentioned in passing but never credited with the fight they fought to ensure Delta Force and other US soldiers could rescue that Army Ranger unit, nor does it due justice to the 18 soldiers who gave the ultimate sacrifice on the wartorn streets of Mogadishu, Somalia in October 1993.

However, that’s not usually what one expects when picking a movie about war or military might to watch. Because no matter who gets credit and who doesn’t, viewers are there for the entertainment, and when it comes to movies about war, wartime, or the military in general, they usually bring joy in spades.

Stealth and Dominance

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Image Credit: Everett Collection/Shutterstock

The natural competitiveness of the American spirit has pushed the US Armed Forces to be the absolute best. To accomplish this, the then Secretary of Defense, Harold Brown, announced in 1980 a program to produce aircraft virtually undetectable by radar at normal combat ranges. In 1983, the first aircraft of its kind, the F-117A Nighthawk ground-attack fighter, was rolled off the production line.

The Northrup B-2 Spirit strategic bomber was next in line for the stealth program, and America was on its way to ruling the skies and dominating war efforts on every front.

The nature of stealth and radar disruption meant that special care had to be taken when creating the structures for the F-117A fighter and B-2 Bomber. To do so, Lockheed Advanced Development Projects, known popularly as Skunk Works, was awarded the contract to make stealth the new American weapon for dominance in the skies.

Clarence Leonard ‘Kelly’ Johnson, the founder of Lockheed’s Skunk Works, stepped away from her traditional designs of sleek planes to create the exceptional angles and planes needed to make the F-117A ground-attack fighter the widely successful stealth vehicle it was in its heyday. In 2008 the United States Air Force officially retired the fighter; there have been sightings of the stealth fighter as recently as March of 2020.

Stealth technology allowed the US and other countries to develop warfare tactics for more successful, behind-enemy-lines attacks that gave their enemies little time to react and greatly increased the chances that those carrying out the missions would survive. It is still a very useful tool in military combat in wartime. To this day, there has been no advanced technology or countermeasures to negate the use of stealth technology in warfare.

One Hundred Years of Military Aircraft Improvement

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Image credit: Elenarts/Shutterstock

In 1909 the US military got its first military aircraft, the Wright A Flyer. Renamed the Signal Corps No.1, this ‘first-of-its-kind’ aircraft garnered the Wright brothers $30,000 for their efforts and became the Army’s first official military plane for the then Signal Corps.

It wasn’t all smooth sailing, however. An attempt to fly the plane in 1908 resulted in the death of one of the military’s Aeronautical Division’s First Lieutenant, Thomas Selfridge. A year later, the Wright brother’s returned with the Wright Military Flyer.

On July 27th, 1909, President Howard Taft joined a 10,000-strong crowd to watch Orville Wright and First Lieutenant Frank Purdy Lahm make a successful 1-hour and 12-minute flight of Wright’s Model A Flyer. They set a world record that day for the longest flight with a passenger.  also became the first man to fly solo in the US military. Lieutenant Frederick E. Humphreys became the first military officer to fly solo in the Signal Corps. No. 1. This airplane, after suffering unfixable damage, was donated to the Smithsonian Institute and can still be seen at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington D.C.

As of 2009, the US military had in its possession and used more than 14,000 aircraft. With aircraft for virtually any mission, from reconnaissance to unmanned combat, transport, and medical use, the US military is ready for interaction. With technology always advancing, America has come a long way since Orville Wright introduced his Model A Flyer to the US Army’s Signal Corps.

Wright Brothers Develop First Mass Produced Airplane

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Image Credit: Nagel Photography/Shutterstock

When the Signal Corps. No. 1 became inoperable; despite Foulois – who was adamant about the Army not using dirigibles – spending $300 of his own money to try and fix the flying machine, the Wright Brothers were called upon again to find a way to get the Army up in the air.

After the Signal Corps No. 1 became inoperable, the Army retired it in favor of the Wright Model B, which became the first mass-produced airplane to be made in America. It was also the first plane to be bought, en masse, by the Army for use in combat. This reality allowed America to not only be ‘First in Flight’ but also to dominate when it came to war. The Wright Brothers’ most famous flying student, Hap Arnold, who reportedly flew solo after only 3 hours and 48 minutes of flight instruction, would command the US Army Air Forces during World War II. He also served as General of the Army Air Forces and, later, General of the Air Force when it was separated from the Army in 1947.

After the Model B was created in 1910, Orville Wright focused on airplanes and airplane design, while Wilbur fought to secure a patent on their airplanes. In 1912, Wilbur contracted Typhoid fever during a business trip and died. After his death, Orville – who wasn’t interested in business – sold the Wright Company to a group of New York investors for $250,000, just one-fourth of its original capitalization.

While Orville never owned another company, he did come out of his retirement to set up a laboratory and continue working on the aeronautical design until his death in 1948.

Today, America continues to dominate in building the strongest military in the world. With the largest defense budget among any first or third-world country, America has no money or service personnel shortage. It boasts the strongest and most well-appointed Air Force and Navy, showing an impressive array of 5th-generation fighter planes and the world’s most significant number of aircraft carriers. Freedom is never free, but whether it’s war or peacetime, Americans can take solace in knowing we have the best military in the world.

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This post was produced by Savoteur.

Rebecca Holcomb