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Colonel John Boyd’s exploits are legendary. As an Air Force Fighter Weapons School instructor, he issued a standing challenge that he could beat any pilot in a simulated air combat fight in less than 40 seconds or less. Expert pilots from around the services challenged him for the chance to win $40 (equivalent to $250 today) but he never lost the bet. 1

Top Gun similarities

In researching Colonel Boyd, I began to notice similarities between him and the main character in the 1986 movie, Top Gun and began to wonder if he served as the basis for Lt. Pete Mitchell.

Clashes with authority

Like Colonel Boyd, the character of Lt. Pete Mitchell had well documented clashes with military superiors but survived due to support from influencial supporters. Both men lost there fathers at an early age and exhibited strong independent streaks.

Call sign

Colonel Boyd referred to himself as a “maverick”. Pete Mitchell’s radio identifier or call-sign in the movie is “Maverick”. This call-sign is featured prominently throughout the movie and is used more than the character’s real name.

“Flat plating the bird”

Colonel Boyd literally wrote the book used to teach air to air combat maneuvers. His most well known manuver was highly unconventional. Robert Coram described it in this passage from the 2002 book, Boyd.

Boyd would demonstrate with one abrupt move why he was considered the best Hun driver in the Air Force.

He would seize the stick with both hands, jerk it full aft, and hold it there. This maneuver he called “flat-plating the bird.” The maneuver turned the bottom of the aircraft, the wings, and the bottom of the tail surfaces into one enormous speed brake and slowed the Hun from 400 knots to 150 knots in seconds. It was as if a manhole cover were sailing through the air and suddenly flipped ninety degrees to the airstream. Then Boyd, still holding the stick full aft and not moving it a quarter inch in either direction, would stomp hard on the rudder and corkscrew the aircraft violently around in a tight roll. The maneuver spit the student out in front and left Boyd on the student’s six. He had set the hook and there was no escape.2

This manuver is highly counterintuitive and was not widely practiced within the fighter pilot community. It is remarkably similar to the famous Top Gun scene in which Maverick “hit the brakes” and cause his opponent “to fly right by” thereby lining up an easy kill.

Screenwriter’s response

The hit 1986 movie, Top Gun, was written by Jack Epps, Jr and Jim Cash3. It was inspired by the article “Top Guns”, written by Ehud Yonay, in the May 1983 issue of California magazine.

Their movie research included visits to Miramar and time with real-life “Top Gun” pilots. There has been much speculation who the main character Lt. Pete Mitchell was based upon but no official answer has been given.

I reached out to Dr. Jack Epps, Jr in an attempt to settle the issue.

Letter from Jack Epps on the inspiration for Top Gun's Maverick character


  1. Coram, Robert (2002-11-21). Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War (Kindle Locations 115-118). Little, Brown and Company. Kindle Edition.

  2. Coram, Robert (2002-11-21). Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War (Kindle Locations 1407-1414). Little, Brown and Company. Kindle Edition.


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