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'Top Gun': NU president recalls time at Fightertown USA as original movie was being produced
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'Top Gun': NU president recalls time at Fightertown USA as original movie was being produced

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Ted Carter flying

University of Nebraska President Ted Carter (right) graduated from Navy Fighter Weapons School, which is what the cult classic "Top Gun" was based on.

It wasn’t an assignment the flight crews at the Navy Fighter Weapons School were expecting.

For many in the close-knit community of pilots and radar intercept officers, it was something they would normally scoff at.

But with the blessing of the Chief of Naval Operations, a movie was being made about the hot-shot aviators of Fightertown USA, and someone needed to take a young actor named Tom Cruise out on the town and tell him what Top Gun was all about.

The mission fell to Lt. Walter E. Carter Jr., known to his fellow naval aviators as Slapshot, and Bob Schrader, another radar intercept officer — “backseaters” on the F-4 Phantoms and F-14 Tomcats flown by the best of the best.

“I was the low man on the totem pole,” said Slapshot, now known as University of Nebraska President Ted Carter, “so they said ‘Go out and meet Tom Cruise, get him really drunk, and then we’re going to throw him in the swimming pool the next day so we can show him how hard this is.'"

Ted Carter flying

University of Nebraska President Ted Carter (left), an alum of the U.S. Naval Academy, also graduated from Navy Fighter Weapons School, which is what the movie "Top Gun" was based on.

So Carter, who had arrived in Miramar, California, in February 1985 after a deployment on the USS Midway in the Sea of Japan, did as he was ordered, taking the Hollywood superstar to the bar with the goal of plying him with booze.

But Cruise, who was emerging as a bankable star and would go on to become one of the most recognizable people in the world, was nothing like Carter expected.

He was a “nice guy, not cocky at all,” Carter said in a Zoom interview last week, and was interested in “what we do and why we do it, why we love doing it and why we didn’t get paid more.

“Then, he jumped in the pool the next day and did great,” added Carter. “He did fine all the way through.”

The conversation came at the early stages of production for the movie that would become “Top Gun,” a box office smash — it was the highest-grossing movie of 1986 when it was released — and a pop culture mainstay for decades.

A long-awaited sequel — "Top Gun: Maverick" — will debut in theaters Tuesday, and begin showing on screens Friday in Lincoln.

Carter said while fictional, the original movie captured the speed and intensity of flying an F-14 Tomcat, as well as the swagger of the kind of people who willingly hop into a cockpit and put their lives on the line.

The attitudes of the flight crews as depicted in the movie are real, Carter said, and worn like armor by the real pilots and backseaters against the inherent risks and dangers of flying jets.

Other details that made it into the movie also show the work done by the actors and others involved, he added.

“The idea of having your mask off when you’re flying, how to walk in your flight gear, how to carry your flight bag,” Carter explained, “they spent hours teaching the actors how to do that, and they got it right. That part was exactly spot-on.”

* * *

Carter’s own path to Top Gun — a story he seldom speaks about publicly — involves a flight that itself could have been a scene in the movie.

At the height of the Cold War, as a 24-year-old radar intercept officer, or RIO, in charge of weapon systems and radar, Carter flew missions to intercept Soviet airplanes to ensure they weren’t on attack runs against the Midway, a U.S. aircraft carrier, off the coast of Japan.

Ted Carter flying

University of Nebraska President Ted Carter spent five weeks training at Navy Fighter Weapons School, also known by its nickname Top Gun.

“I was in the backseat of an F-4 Phantom being flown by a Vietnam-era fighter pilot named (Lt. Commander) Vance Toalson — his call sign was Steamer,” Carter said.

The plane and the aircraft carrier were fine, but the choppy waters in the Sea of Japan were causing the Midway to pitch 30 feet up and down, creating all but impossible landing conditions.

“We went around 13 times trying to land,” Carter said. “We refueled four times with the airborne tankers. If we wouldn’t have landed the 13th time, we would have ejected because we were out of fuel.”

On their final run, the Phantom and the Midway synchronized and Steamer put the fighter onto the deck and into the arresting gear to bring it to a stop.

Carter jumped out of the plane excited: “This is the coolest thing ever,” he recalled, but Toalson, a veteran aviator, was shook by the experience.

Over “medicinal whiskey” in the ready room with high-ranking officers, Toalson told Carter he thought the pair were close to having to eject into the frigid waters and wait to be fished out by a helicopter.

“‘Kid, we could have died,’” Carter remembers Toalson telling him. But Carter’s cool nature under a stressful situation had earned the veteran aviator’s respect, and he recommended the squadron send Slapshot to Top Gun.

Ted Carter flying

University of Nebraska President Ted Carter (right) graduated from Navy Fighter Weapons School, which is what the cult classic "Top Gun" was based on.

Four months later, in February 1985, Carter was in San Diego, learning how to engage in air-to-air combat in an intensive program that required twice-daily flights, plus hours of pre-briefings and debriefs, classes and homework.

Carter said the most valuable experience imparted at Top Gun during the five-week course, where he flew with Lt. Rory “Wily” Banks, was the importance of teaching and learning, which changed the trajectory of his life.

There’s no Top Gun trophy, per se — another layer of conflict invented by Hollywood for the movie — but instructors select a student to brief for a final exercise, a strike event consisting of 16 fighters, 24 bogeys and other planes requiring an excruciating amount of planning.

Carter was selected to give that briefing before he graduated in March 1985.

The lessons learned over the course of the five weeks he spent at Miramar culminated 14 years later during the war in Kosovo, when he led a section of fighters “through the popcorn popper” of anti-aircraft artillery and missiles to deliver a strike on a fuel depot.

“Everything I learned in Top Gun came together in that one combat mission,” Carter said, which required the planes to lock onto the target for 12 seconds before peeling away using a high-speed maneuver.

Ted Carter flying

University of Nebraska President Ted Carter (left), an alum of the U.S. Naval Academy, flew with Lt. Rory “Wily” Banks during his Top Gun training.

A missile flew between planes during the run, but everybody made it home safe, he added. For his “superb airmanship, courage under fire, and steadfast devotion of duty,” Carter earned the Distinguished Flying Cross.

“It was a little bit later in life than what’s depicted in the movie,” Carter said, referring to the scene where Top Gun aviators are deployed at their graduation ceremony, “but I’m grateful I had that experience.”

* * *

Carter didn’t attend the premier for "Top Gun" in 1986. Rather, he saw the movie in a Maryland theater with his wife, Lynda, when his tour in Japan had ended.

“We walked out of there going, ‘Wow, that’s going to be a hit,’” he said.

Three months later, when the Carters returned to Miramar, the movie was continuing to play before sell-out audiences, but at the Navy Fighter Weapons School, "Top Gun" had become somewhat taboo.

Film Review - Top Gun: Maverick

Tom Cruise as Capt. Pete "Maverick" Mitchell in "Top Gun: Maverick."

“You were not allowed to use a line from the movie, as cult-like as it had become,” Carter said. “If you did, you paid money to be going on the bar on Friday night.”

Carter said he and others in the aviation community, while following along with the new code of silence, also saw the bigger picture.

The movie's popularity attracted thousands of men and women to the military, and aviation in particular, making it an effective recruiting tool for several branches.

With the new movie set to come out 36 years after the original, Carter said he has had the chance to be involved with production at a distance.

He met actor Glen Powell, who will portray "Hangman" in the new film, at a 50th anniversary event for Top Gun in San Diego in 2019, and said the two are regularly in touch.

But he has purposely stayed away from any premieres or sneak peeks, preferring instead to relive the experience from 36 years ago.

"I've had some opportunities, and I know some of the script, but I want to see it like everybody else," Carter said. "My wife and I will see it in a theater just like we saw the original."

Reach the writer at 402-473-7120 or cdunker@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @ChrisDunkerLJS

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