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American “Top Gun” has a Distinct South African Influence

The United States Navy Fighter Weapons School, better known as Top Gun, has become a success story and was revered as the programme that turned the air battle in the Vietnam War. In the early 1960’s the American were losing an unsustainable large number of their “dogfights” to the Soviet built MiG 21’s despite their use of the multi-million dollar Phantom F4, which on paper was the more technically advanced of the two aircraft.

MiG 21 Phantom F4

In 1968, Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) Admiral Thomas Hinman Moorer ordered Captain Frank Ault to research the failings of the U.S. air-to-air missiles used in combat in the skies over North Vietnam. In May 1968, the Navy published the "Ault Report", which concluded that the problem stemmed from inadequate air-crew training in air combat manoeuvring (ACM). Among its wide-ranging recommendations to improve air combat performance, the Ault Report recommended that an "Advanced Fighter Weapons School" be established at Naval Air Station Miramar to revive and disseminate community fighter expertise throughout the fleet.

As the US Military did not have Air Combat experience needed to train their pilots they looked to their allies for assistance. The Brits obliged by sending twelve of their finest and most experienced Royal Navy flight instructors, all graduates of the Royal Navy’s gruelling Air Warfare Instructors (AWI) school in Lossiemouth, Scotland. The tuition from the British pilots led to the Americans dominating the skies, the military historian Rowland White has revealed in his book Phoenix Squadron.

Foremost among the Royal Navy pilots was South Africa’s, Lt Commander Dick Lord's whose work on the tactics group was the bedrock on which the US “Top Gun” instructors built their course. Lt Commander Lord introduced simple things such as writing notes on the knee pad of his flying suit during air combat exercises which were later debriefed in great detail. The US Navy pilots were taught a more structured approach to air-to-air combat and were instructed on how to correctly use the advantages of the F4 over the enemy MiG 21’s. Lord concentrated on sharpening his pupils’ Air Combat Manoeuvring (ACM) skills to improve their odds in a dogfight.

Lt Commander Lord was held in such high esteem by the US Navy granted him access to classified American military documents comparing the performance of US aircraft against that of enemy fighters. This access allowed him to write, along with others, the US Navy’s Air Combat Manoeuvring manual.

The US Navy and the USA as a whole tend to ignore the fact the British Navy Pilots had such a profound impact on their training methods and ultimately the turnaround in fortunes of the US Navy Pilots fighting in Vietnam.

Richard Stanley Lord was born on 20 June 1936 in Johannesburg, he went on to matriculate at Parktown Boys’ High. Lord, at a young age knew he wanted to make a career in aviation but unfortunately was one of several English-speaking South Africans who were denied the chance to join the Afrikaner-dominated South African Military Services. Lord opted to join the Royal Navy and commenced his initial training at the Royal Naval Engineering College, Manadon. In June 1959 he received his wings, flying Sea Venom and Sea Vixen fighters from the aircraft carriers Centaur, Victorious, Hermes and Ark Royal.

In 1966 he was flying from Ark Royal off Beira, Mozambique, to enforce the oil blockade of Rhodesia following its Unilateral Declaration of Independence. On returning from a mission to intercept a suspected blockade-runner, he found that the carrier had been engulfed by a tropical storm and that her flight deck was pitching through 65ft. He opted to land rather than eject and destroy the aircraft, his aircraft caught the third arrester wire and damaged its undercarriage but he manged to save the machine in what was regarded an impossible landing.

Lord qualified as an Air Warfare Instructor and in 1968 began his two-year exchange tour with the US Navy, flying Skyhawks and Phantoms. On his return he was senior instructor with 764 Naval Air Squadron where he passed on the skills and confidence that had made such an impact in America.

He returned to South Africa in 1970, where he acquired a civil licence and began to teach commercial pilots. He later joined the South African Airforce, now able to as they needed experienced pilots to fly in the Border War, they relaxed the restrictions on English speaking candidates.

Lord flew Impala, Sabre and Mirage fighters against Cuban-piloted MiG fighters, and commanded the SAAF’s “Prima” no 1 Squadron from 1981 to 1983, later directing SAAF operations from Oshakati and Windhoek.

He ended his career in charge of the Air Force Command Post in Pretoria, where he was awarded a Distinguished Service Cross for his role in helping to organise the rescue operations that saved all 581 passengers and crew of the Greek cruise-liner Oceanos, which sank off South Africa’s eastern coast on August 4 1991.

Another highlight of his career was to organise, in 1994, the fly-past at the inauguration of Nelson Mandela as President of South Africa. Lord then retired as a Brigadier General and began writing about his life as an aviator.

His books included “Fire, Flood and Ice”, later republished as “Standby” is a description of SAAF search-and-rescue operations, conducted in conditions ranging from drought, to white-outs in Antarctica, to devastating deluges.

His biography, “From Tailhooker to Mudmover”, which detailed his experiences as a pilot with the Royal Navy, the US Navy, and in the Border War, is regarded as one of the best and funniest books about flying in the 1950s and 1960s. He also wrote a history of the Mirage fighter in the SAAF, called “Vlamgat”, widely regarded as his most popular book.

In “From Fledgling to Eagle” the South African Air Force during the Border War, Lord drew on his own diaries but also incorporated anecdotes from dozens of other aviators and squadrons, highlighting the close relationship which existed between the SAAF and South African Special Forces.

Dick Lord married, in 1968, June Beckett, a BOAC air-hostess. While he complained about the fantastical characterisations in Top Gun, she contended that the film’s portrayal of big-talking fighter pilots was extremely true-to-life.


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