Maverick picks up with the story of Pete “Maverick” Mitchell (Tom Cruise) as he navigates the military’s chain of command and prepares for a foreign power with nuclear implications.
The film is a wildly successful complement to the original, which saw Maverick face off against the unnamed enemy’s MiG-28 fighters.
The thing about the MiG-28, however, is that there is, well, no such thing. The jet is a work of fiction. To depict it, real American fighter jets were selected and given an aggressive-looking black paint job.
The model selected to portray the fictional fighter was the sleek, arrow-like Northrop F-5.
The F-5 was developed as a privately funded project in the 1950s. The jet is supersonic and lightweight. As the aesthetics indicate, it is extremely aerodynamic. The F-5 was constructed around two General Electric J85 engines. Northrop’s ambition when designing the F-5 was to build a high-performance jet that was cheap and easy to maintain. Northrop’s finished product was small and simple. It was most effective in an air superiority role, but if needed it could perform a ground attacking function, too.
The F-5 was capable of hitting Mach 1.63 and had a range of 554 miles. It could climb at a rate of 34,500 feet per minute, reaching its maximum ceiling of 51,800 feet in about 90 seconds. The F-5 was respectably armed, too, carrying two 20mm M39A2 Revolver canons and seven hard points fit for missiles, rockets, or bombs.
Northrop’s light, cheap air superiority fighter was especially well received on the export market. Northrop found buyers for the F-5 in every corner of the globe, including Brazil, Ethiopia, Switzerland, and South Korea. Many countries still use the F-5 today – Botswana, Honduras, and Taiwan are examples – even though Northrop shut down production in 1987.
Although the F-5 has been extremely popular abroad, the jet saw more limited action with the United States. The F-5 saw six months of combat deployment in 1965, when it flew a few missions over South Vietnam and Laos. Mostly, the U.S. Air Force used the F-5 in training squadrons. Much as they did in Top Gun, the aircraft served as stand-ins for enemy fighters.
The F-5 is the ancestor of an important U.S. jet: the T-38 Talon, which has become the most produced supersonic trainer in the world. Even today, Air Force pilot trainees on the fighter and bomber track move through a T-38 phase at Undergraduate Pilot Training.
Every Air Force pilot currently flying an F-22, F-15, or B-2 has logged hours in an F-5 derivative. And although many fans may not be aware, they have all watched the F-5 in action, in black livery, under the moniker “MiG-28,” as a menacing presence in the original Top Gun.
Harrison Kass is the Senior 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 holds a BA from Lake Forest College, a JD from the University of Oregon, and an MA from New York University. He lives in Oregon and listens to Dokken.