If you ever have the opportunity to meet a TOPGUN instructor, don’t make the mistake I made. Don’t reference the movie. It’s like going to a music concert and wearing the t-shirt of the band you’re going to see – don’t be that person.
When I first met LCDR Robert Hortman (that’s Lieutenant Commander for those of you, like me, who don’t have a military background), I had to press him before he admitted to being a TOPGUN instructor. Our first conversation went something like this:
DL: So you were in the Navy?
DL: What did you do in the Navy?
RH: I was a pilot.
DL: What kind of aircraft did you fly?
RH: Um, F-18s.
DL: Cool. Where were you stationed?
RH: A few places – Japan, Florida, Nevada.
DL: What did you do in Nevada?
RH: I was an instructor.
DL: A flight instructor? Like the TOPGUN movie?
RH: Yes, that’s where I was an instructor.
DL: You were a TOPGUN instructor? Like Maverick.
RH: Yes, I was a TOPGUN instructor…but none of us were like Maverick.
In case you weren’t counting, it took six questions to get Robert to admit to being a TOPGUN instructor. If I was a TOPGUN instructor, I’d probably find all kinds of ways to work that into a conversation long before anyone asked me about it – but Robert, despite his elite accomplishments of being a TOPGUN graduate and a TOPGUN instructor, is an incredibly humble person.
I asked Robert if I could buy him lunch and interview him regarding his time at TOPGUN. As an organizational psychologist and consultant, I’m exceptionally interested in high-performing organizations and teams as well as the processes associated with meaningful professional growth – and perhaps no one grows and improves more than TOPGUN students. Robert graciously accepted my invitation – and here’s what I learned about him and his experience at TOPGUN.
Robert is a 2003 graduate of the Naval Academy. He spent 12 years in the U.S. Navy and is now a Navy Reservist. In addition to being an instructor at the Navy Fighter Weapons School (i.e., TOPGUN) from 2010-2013, he was deployed as part of Operation Enduring Freedom (Afghanistan) and in the South China Sea. They all call it TOPGUN – but he teased me that I owed him $20 for referencing the movie. So – calling it TOPGUN is fine – referencing the movie is to be avoided!
Here is some of our Q&A:
DL: Describe your experience as a TOPGUN student.
RH: It isn’t like the movie. There’s no trophy. There’s no point system. You either pass or you fail – and every student just wants to pass. We weren’t competitive with one another as students. We all helped each other. We ate, slept, and talked tactics non-stop. We constantly focused on what we messed up during our training flights and tried to help ourselves and each other learn from our mistakes (of which there were plenty). TOPGUN was very intense. A ton of information. The instructors were exceptionally smart and exceptionally knowledgeable.
DL: How did you become a TOPGUN instructor?
RH: I was selected. It was an honor to be selected, to be sure.
DL: What was the philosophy and process of TOPGUN training?
RH: Well, we began with the assumption that the pilots who come to TOPGUN are competent. They wouldn’t be there if they weren’t good pilots. We took a crawl-walk-run approach. Their first two weeks were lecture – covering the hardware of the aircraft and then focusing on tactics. We used briefing labs to allow the students to ask questions.
Then, we would get in the aircraft and get them flying. We fail them a lot. One of the keys to succeeding at TOPGUN is learning to fail and learning to learn. Most of these pilots hadn’t failed before. They were accustomed to success – but we wouldn’t pass them until they were nearly perfect. The real area of growth was in how quickly they could process information and make decisions. That’s really the key to being an effective fighter pilot – it isn’t so much a matter of physical skill, but rather one of mental skill.
At the beginning of training, they don’t even know what they’re doing wrong. In the middle of training, they begin to develop keener self-assessment skills. They’re more capable of understanding their mistakes. By the end of training, they’re correcting their mistakes and doing it right.
The self-assessment piece is a key learning objective. A perfect flight isn’t perfect – it’s one in which they understand their mistakes and we (the instructors) don’t have to point the mistakes out to them.
DL: What kind of pilots succeed at TOPGUN? What kind of pilots struggle?
RH: Successful pilots have a mentality similar to a successful athlete. They’re self-confident but humble. They know their shortcomings. They’re decisive yet teachable. No one shows up with the ability to pass TOPGUN. No one. There is tremendous learning that must occur first.
They must absorb and apply feedback. They need to be quick, analytically speaking.
We begin their flight time by shocking them with the speed. We show them what they don’t know. Then, we slow things down and progress forward.
Pilots who were unsuccessful at TOPGUN – and it was about 10% of them – typically struggled with the mental processing piece. They simply weren’t able to absorb the training, process information in real-time, and execute the tactics they were being trained to execute as quickly as they needed to execute them. It was unfortunate, but a reality.
DL: I’m a big believer in the role of trust in effective leadership. Specifically, the importance of building trust based upon integrity (walk the talk), benevolence (I care about you), and competence (I know what I’m doing). Was trust an important part of the training process and the influence you had on the students?
RH: I think so. We definitely walked the talk. We focused so much on evaluating and learning from mistakes – and during briefing sessions with instructors and students, we would evaluate the instructor’s mistakes as well. We didn’t pretend to be perfect. They saw us practicing what we preached.
With regard to caring about them – we were there 14 hours per day and on the weekends. We made ourselves available to our students A LOT and our top priority was their success.
With regard to competence, a student’s first flight at TOPGUN involved them being in the saddle – in a perfect firing position with a bandit (flown by a TOPGUN instructor) in their crosshairs. We would tell them to engage and 20 seconds later, the instructor was behind them and the student was in their crosshairs. After that, we had students’ full attention.
We weren’t able to do that because we were more “talented” pilots than the students. We were able to do that because we had received the best training in the world. We were simply better trained, more experienced, and had been training against other instructors – and steel sharpens steel.
DL: What was the culture like at TOPGUN?
RH: We were there to make sure the fleet was prepared for any scenario. That was our job. We would develop tactics that would be disseminated to the entire fleet. Internally, we had a lot of opinions about what should happen. We would have knockdown, drag out debates – all behind closed doors – it was great. But it was always respectful. We took our responsibility of preparing the fleet very seriously and we all knew that our disagreements were not personal and were only helping us to develop the best possible tactics and pilots.
DL: It sounds like innovation was important. Process improvement – how would that happen?
RH: Tactics are based upon pilot capabilities and software capabilities – as those changed, so do tactics. We were constantly refining tactics. That really occurred during the TOPGUN course. During large plane exercises. We would watch, listen, evaluate, learn, and innovate. We had lots of discussions with students. “What would’ve happened if you had gone left instead of right?” We would discuss and learn. Expert fighter piloting isn’t “free form” – it’s based upon exceptionally quick and anticipatory decision-making, leading to effective tactics, based upon mountains of situational data and decision-matrices.
DL: It sounds like a quarterback learning to read defenses.
RH: Yes. More data, more experience, and better training helps pilots react more quickly and more effectively to more situations.
DL: How does the school remain ahead of the competition?
RH: We had a competition with the Air Force Weapons School. It was a lot of fun and a lot of pride involved. However, at the end of the day, we’re on the same side – and we would share ideas with one another.
DL: What did you find most challenging about being an instructor?
RH: Every person is different. Developing teaching techniques to fit the various students was a challenge. Also, I had to be on my game 100% -- literally all of the time. I could never take a flight off. Three years was my limit.
DL: What did you learn about leadership, training, and people that you’ve carried with you?
RH: I learned the “why” behind what we did. That makes me want to understand the “why” in the work processes of the work I’m doing today. I want to explain the “why” to others – it helps team members see the big picture and how their work relates to it – and it helps me understand better as well.
Today, I explain the why and then challenge my people to improve how we do it. They’re the experts and I want to leverage their expertise. When people offer ideas, I try to be responsive to them. I explain what will and won’t work and why. I try to encourage more sharing of ideas.
DL: What else would you like to share about your TOPGUN experience?
RH: I loved it for the people and the team atmosphere. Everyone was bought in. People were very supportive. Each instructor had a role and an expertise. We were all passionate and opinionated but respectful of one another and one another’s expertise.
I loved being pushed each and every day to be excellent. I knew if I brought my A- game, I’d get whupped by my fellow instructors – it was so much fun.
Also, the process of becoming a TOPGUN instructor was so much more difficult than graduating from TOPGUN as a student. It was six months before I was allowed to speak to a student – that was tougher than being a student. The instructors brought me up and taught me how bring others up – it was fantastic.
Finally, our Admiral backed us up 100%. He empowered us, trusted our expertise, and supported us unconditionally.
DL: Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts, perspectives, and experiences.
RH: My pleasure.