With 'Top Gun: Maverick' audiences fascinated by flight movies again, it's perfect timing for EAA's AirVenture in Oshkosh

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OSHKOSH - Hal Bryan grew up in a household that was all about aviation.

Bryan, who's now the Experimental Aircraft Association's managing editor, said his parents met while they were both working for United Airlines. He grew up with a private airstrip right near his childhood home in Seattle from ages 8 to 18.

"I was immersed in it," Bryan said.

In 1986, when Bryan was a senior in high school, "Top Gun" was first released in theaters. The classic movie — starring Tom Cruise, Val Kilmer, Anthony Edwards, Kelly McGillis and Meg Ryan — was a huge hit, but it especially struck a tone with Bryan. He ended up going to the theater "over and over," and truly fell in love with the movie.

"Top Gun: Maverick" has been a summer blockbuster —  and has renewed the fascination with flight in pop culture.
"Top Gun: Maverick" has been a summer blockbuster — and has renewed the fascination with flight in pop culture.

As it turned out, Bryan wasn't the only one with the "need for speed" depicted by the fighter pilots in "Top Gun." The timeless story elements of good and evil, loss and triumph, along with some gratuitous beach volleyball and spectacular flying, made it a box-office hit, eventually grossing $357 million.

The film also helped inspire others to give flying a try. Articles at the time say Navy recruiters noticed "more inquiries than usual" from people interested in joining the aviation program, while recruiters would sometimes man tables at movie theaters to answer questions for prospective recruits.

Hal Bryan
Hal Bryan

Bryan said some of his friends who became fighter pilots were influenced by its depictions of flying, but what excited him the most was the "massive resurgence" of interest in aviation.

With the release of "Top Gun: Maverick" this summer and the film quickly becoming a blockbuster, Bryan is thrilled to see the interest in aviation again — especially as people are about to descend on Oshkosh for EAA's AirVenture to experience the joy of flying.

"There’s always been a real romance around aviation," Bryan said. "There’s always been something that’s captivated people."

RELATEDHere's everything you need to know about EAA AirVenture 2022

"Top Gun," with Tom Cruise and Kelly McGillis, was a smash hit when it came out in 1986.
"Top Gun," with Tom Cruise and Kelly McGillis, was a smash hit when it came out in 1986.

Aviation reflects an 'inherent' human spirit

From the start of humanity, stories have been obsessed with the heavens and flight.

From classical myths like Icarus and Daedalus — where the inventor, Daedalus, creates wings capable of flight to escape a castle, but Icarus flies too high and crashes because of his sudden freedom — to the designs of hypothetical flying machines by Leonardo da Vinci in the Renaissance, humans have looked to the possibilities of flight.

Bryan noted that, 700 years ago, there were people "gluing feathers to bamboo frames" and jumping off buildings to try to fly, just like in the ancient myths. Those types of tales reflect how "inherent" the idea of flight is to the human spirit, he said.

In the late 1800s, Frenchman Alphonse Penaud created a design for a model aircraft, one of the first of its kind, according to Bryan. His design, which he called the "Planophore," was capable of achieving flight on a small scale. The toy became a fascination to the Wright Brothers, who built the first successful motor-operated airplane to achieve flight.

Bryan finds this chain of inspiration fascinating. He said most people thought achieving flight was impossible at the time, but a simple toy that was capable of flight helped aviation pioneers build a machine that worked.

"In a sense, you had pop culture influencing the birth of modern aviation," Bryan said.

Getting a taste of flight through the theaters

As successful as "Top Gun" and its sequel have been, Bryan said those movies built on a "huge history" of aviation movies.

The first film to win the Academy Award for best picture, in 1929, was an aviation movie called "Wings." The silent film, portraying an air battle during World War I, was shot in an airfield in Texas and released in 1927. It was noted at the time for its realistic use of airplanes and set the bar for future aviation movies.

Bryan said some of the aspects of aviation movies that make them exciting for aviation enthusiasts are "good flying." In his estimation, that means the filmmakers make a point to use as many real airplanes as possible, try to limit the use of CGI and use as few model planes as possible.

Other movies that Bryan noted with "good flying" include "The Spirit of St. Louis," "Tora! Tora! Tora!," "The Great Waldo Pepper," "The Rocketeer," "Airplane!" and "Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines."

They vary across genres and use different planes, but Bryan said most aviation enthusiasts will watch any movie about flying.

"We will love a terrible movie as long as it has good flying," he said.

But the best aviation movies, Bryan said, do two things. They help people really fall in love with the planes and their machinery, and they highlights the "romance" and incredible perspective of being in the air.

Good aviation movies, he said, give people the sense of speed of piloting and the incredible perspective only seen from the cockpit.

"You can sit in the theater and get a taste of what that’s like," Bryan said.

"Top Gun: Maverick" is praised for its realistic fighter jet footage.
"Top Gun: Maverick" is praised for its realistic fighter jet footage.

'Top Gun: Maverick' shows physicality of flying

With his flying experience, Bryan said there's something special about the "physicality" of flight reflected in movies like "Top Gun: Maverick." The actors were actually in planes, where they were "pulling Gs" that fighter pilots actually experience.

Bryan said the movie showed incredible flying and highlighted how pilots control their plane not just by defying gravity, but by using small coordinated movements with their whole body to be in perfect harmony.

"Pilots talk about how you don’t fly this airplane, you wear it. You become one with it," Bryan said.

While most aviation geeks will appreciate the finer points of flying no matter what, the popularity of "Top Gun: Maverick" brings more attention to flying to the general public. With that spike in popularity, Bryan is excited for the start of EAA and thrilled for the organization to welcome everyone to Oshkosh for the AirVenture.

"Thanks to 'Top Gun: Maverick,' we’re cycling back into it," Bryan said. "That’s fun for all of us."

'Top Gun' movies among those set to be shown at Fly-In Theater during AirVenture

EAA AirVenture kicks off July 23, with an expected 10,000 planes at Wittman Regional Airport and across the EAA grounds.

Among the convention's panels, guest speakers and special events are a series of aviation-themed movies, set to be shown at the Fly-In Theater on the EAA grounds.

These include:

  • Saturday: "Top Gun" (1986)

  • Sunday: "The Big Lift" (1950)

  • Monday: "Air Force One" (1997)

  • Tuesday: "The McConnell Story" (1955)

  • Wednesday: "Jet Pilot" (1957)

  • Thursday: "Wolf Hound" (2022)

  • Friday: "Top Gun: Maverick" (2022)

  • July 30: "Toward The Unknown" (1956)

Movies start at 8:30 p.m., weather permitting, and are included in daily and weekly admission. For more information, visit eaa.org.

Contact Bremen Keasey at 920-570-5614 or bkeasey@gannett.com. Follow him on Twitter at @Keasinho.

This article originally appeared on Oshkosh Northwestern: 'Top Gun: Maverick' renews interest in flight as EAA AirVenture nears