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  • Writer's pictureDonald V. Watkins

Tom Cruise, Meet the First Top Gun Winners

By: Donald V. Watkins

October 24, 2022

Like many Americans, I watched Hollywood actor Tom Cruise receive worldwide accolades for playing Lt. Pete "Maverick" Mitchell in Top Gun (1986) and Top Gun: Maverick (2022). Both blockbuster movies are exciting and entertaining, but they are only fictional accounts of a real-life military program in aviation excellence that has been in existence since 1949.

A riveting account of the first Top Gun competition is laid out in an article written by Stephen Losey for the May 2022 edition of Military Officer. For Americans of interracial goodwill, this story will make you very proud. Here is the true story:

After the Air Force was made its own branch of the military, it had its best pilots square off against one another in the first Top Gun competition, known at the time as the "Fighter Gunnery Meet." The competition took place in May of 1949 over Frenchman Flat, a test range in Nevada near Las Vegas AFB, now known as Nellis Air Force Base.

The competition included white and black combat pilots. The white pilots in the Top Gun competition flew in state of the art F-51s and F-82s.

A team of four Tuskegee Airmen pilots, consisting of Captain Alva Temple, 1st Lieutenant Harry Stewart, 1st Lieutenant James Harvey, and 1st Lieutenant Halbert Alexander (alternate), competed with their propeller-driven Republic F-47N fighters, which were older, obsolete planes.

IMAGE: The Tuskegee Airmen team in the first Top Gun competition at Nellis Africa Base in Nevada.

For 10 days in May 1949, the Tuskegee Airmen team squared off against the other pilots on aerial gunnery at 12,000 and 20,000 feet, skip bombing, rocket firing, strafing, and dive bombing. Notching perfect scores, the Tuskegee Airmen dominated the competition and held first place all the way from the first day.

When the Tuskegee Airmen team was announced as the Top Gun winners, there was dead silence in the room. Not one of their white colleagues applauded this remarkable accomplishment.

The Tuskegee Airmen team was presented their victory trophy and posed for a photograph with it.

IMAGE: Air Force Capt. Alva Temple, 1st Lt. James Harvey III, 1st Lt. Harry Stewart and 1st Lt. Halbert Alexander pose with their 1949 Top Gun trophy in May 1949 at the Flamingo Hotel in Las Vegas. The trophy, which went missing for 55 years, is now displayed at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force at Wright Patterson AFB, Ohio. (Air Force photo)

The victory won by the Tuskegee Airmen was quickly erased from history. Somehow, the trophy vanished and was not seen again for 55 years.

For decades, the Air Force Association’s annual almanac listed the winners of the 1949 Top Gun competition as “unknown.”

In the 1990s, the records of the first Top Gun competition were uncovered at Nellis AFB, and the Tuskegee Airmen team’s victory was officially acknowledged by the Air Force as the winners .

The trophy was found in 2004, some 55 years after the Tuskegee Airmen team won it. Zellie Rainey Orr, historian and president of the Atlanta chapter of Tuskegee Airmen Inc., uncovered the trophy in a storage area at Wright Patterson AFB in Ohio. It is now on display at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force at Wright Patterson AFB.

Tom Cruise (and my fellow Americans), please meet Lt. Col. James Harvey III, USAF (Ret.), and Lt. Col. Harry Stewart, USAF (Ret.). These men are "real" combat pilots. They are also the last two surviving winners from the inaugural 1949 Top Gun competition.

These men loved America when she did not know how to love and properly honor them. Mr. Cruise, this is not a movie set. You are now looking at the faces of unparalleled "greatness" in combat aviation.

Mr. Cruise, if there is a Top Gun 3, it should be the story of these four brave men and their team's exceptional performance and triumph in the face of tremendous odds against them. By chasing perfection, the Tuskegee Airmen team established a standard for excellence in the Top Gun competition that still exists today.

For African-Americans, I close with this observation: No ethnic group in American history has done so much, with so little, for so many people while being hated every step of the way because of their skin color. Join me in giving these men the long-overdo salute that they deserve!

Never doubt who we are as a people, and what we can do!

IMAGE: Lt. Col. James Harvey, III, USAF (Ret.).

IMAGE: Lt. Col. Harry Stewart, USAF, (Ret.).


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