Plaque commemorating Dino Garner’s flying 1.100 mph (Mach 1.7) with Blade Armstrong in the F-15 Eagle. Image © Dino Garner from his personal collection.

A big thank-you to SOFREP boss Sean Spoontz who brought me on board to write for SOFREP.com. My aim is to stimulate, educate and entertain you, and make you think about stuff you may not have considered yesterday.

Or my words will just piss you off. Haters, please ring me: [email protected] 

Excerpted from Dino Garner’s upcoming 500-page coffee-table book, TOPGUN: The Otherworldly Dreams of a Lifelong Ten Year Old. It will be featured in fundraising campaigns on Kickstarter, IndieGoGo, Patreon, and GoFundMe.

To view a free pdf copy of the book and write a testimonial that will appear in the Advance Praise pages of the book, please download here.

Dino Garner’s upcoming 500-page coffee-table book, TOPGUN. Image © Dino Garner from his personal collection.

And Then Came That Movie

Outta the blue, the movie Top Gun splashed onto the big screen in the summer of 1986, and I saw full-tilt boogie, rock-n-roll in the sky twenty-six times at a theatre in southern California. It was easy to imagine myself flying an F-14 Tomcat and shooting down a few MiGs, then getting the girl (Kelly McGillis) and the choice assignment as a TOPGUN instructor.

Dream big! Live wild!

TOP GUN movie poster, 1986. Courtesy, Paramount Pictures.

When Your Superconscious Speaks, Listen

Even after the first time I saw the movie, my superconscious suddenly woke up and screamed at me: go fly in fighters, you idiot! You can only guess what nuclear fuel was coursing through my veins after seeing it for the 26th time.

US Navy Fighter Weapons School, TOPGUN patch, 1992. Image © Dino Garner from his personal collection.

Coincidentally, during my TOP GUN movie binge, I discovered an article in California magazine, TOP GUNS, that had the coolest aerial photos by CJ “Heater” Heatley. He’d just published a coffee-table book, The Cutting Edge, that featured his aerial photography of US Navy fighter aircraft and the men who fly them. I was hooked and immediately wanted to do what “Heater” did. But I wasn’t even a photographer. Didn’t own a camera.

F-15 Eagle from the 43rd Tactical Fighter Squadron, 21st Tactical Fighter Wing, Elmendorf AFB. AK. Image © Dino Garner from his personal collection.

Armed with a keen and cheeky superconscious, on Monday of the week following the last movie, I fired off a letter to the US Air Force Fighter Weapons School (FWS), the counterpart to the US Navy’s TOPGUN. My request was simple: I want to fly in a fighter and write an article about the school for a magazine. Years before, I’d written fiction under pseudonyms for Glamour and Cosmopolitan magazines, so I figured I knew what I was doing.

A helpful suggestion: even if you don’t know what you’re doing, take the job, do the project, etc. You can learn things en route to successs, and can ask experts for assistance. Don’t shy away!

Never Take NO For An Answer!

Dino Garner, aka “Dr. Stevie Wang,” your photographer for today’s flight. Image © Dino Garner from his personal collection.

Within about a week I received a curt reply:

Thanks for your interest in the USAF Fighter Weapons School. No, you may not fly in any of our aircraft, as they’re reserved for our instructor and student fighter pilots, but you’re welcome to visit and write your article.

Crushed to earth, I quickly rose and pressed on and set up a trip to Nellis AFB in Nevada. The Commandant of FWS, Colonel Russ Everts, welcomed me graciously and gave me a personal talk in their huge auditorium. Just Russ and me. Slide show and all, too, giving me the history and mission of the FWS.

Somewhere in between the history and the mission, he casually mentioned knowing my dad and being taken on his first combat missions in Vietnam, as my pops was the 8th Tactical Fighter Wing’s Standardization and Evaluation Officer and Wing Weapons and Tactics Officer. I learned multiplexing from my dad.

Pops certified Russ a regular killer and permitted him to fly in combat. Russ went on to fly 405 combat missions in the F-4.

At the FWS, Russ handed me off to my escort and I got to tour the FWS facility, photograph aircraft, and meet several fighter pilots who were attending FWS and chat with them in a special meeting just for me. Sadly, one of the pilots I met, Capt Alex Rupp, would later die in a midair collision with his F-16 instructor. While the pilots were formal and respectful and departed without word, one in particular stood out. He said, “Nice meetin’ you, Dean.”

Dino Garner Has A Death Wish

Read Next: Dino Garner Has A Death Wish

Captain Rich “Blade” Armstrong.

Even though I didn’t get to fly in a fighter, being around such consummate professionals was a shot of a hundred different excitatory neurotransmitters.

A Lifelong Friend: “Blade” Armstrong

F-4E Phantom from the 163rd Tactical Fighter Squadron, March AFB, CA. Image © Dino Garner from his personal collection.

That wonderful man would become one of my dearest, lifelong friends, who flew the F-15 Eagle and F-16 Viper and then became a captain and instructor at Delta Airlines.

And he would be instrumental in lining up many of my visits to fighter bases including TOPGUN, and “fly” me in one of his Porsches, the GT3. He’ll probably kill me three times when he sees this: we flew 143 mph down some back road in the good state of [REDACTED.] It was almost as wild as our doin’ 1,100 mph in the F-15D over Alaska. “Blade” is one of only a handful of great men I call friends and mentors who have influenced me in unaccountable ways and helped shape my life into a grand one.

Rejection? Nahhh!

The FWS article was rejected by all the magazines I’d queried. Most said it was too technical for their readers. My thought was, They had no idea what their readers really wanted.

Dad suggested I send it to Stars & Stripes. He always had great suggestions and I implemented many of them over the years.

They accepted my manuscript right away, along with half a dozen cool pictures I’d shot with a friend’s camera, adding that they couldn’t pay me any money. I told them I’d pay them, so not to worry.

Colonel Everts later wrote me several letters, one of which I included at the end of this book. That visit to FWS was in summer of 1987. I would soon send Russ Everts’ letter of recommendation to many other fighter units when requesting flights in their fighters. I had learned early on that personal recommendations open a lot of doors. Colonel Everts did more on my behalf than he’ll ever know, and I am still grateful.

Dino Can Fly!

F-15 Eagle of the 199th Tactical Fighter Squadron, Hickam AFB, HI. Image © Dino Garner from his personal collection.

In time, an F-4E unit at March AFB, California, the 163rd Fighter Group, invited me to visit them and fly. Woh! Did I read that accurately!? They said I could actually fly with them? Yeeeeowwww! Mind you, all I wanted was to fly one time in a fighter jet. Just once. Honestly, I thought that was dreaming big and living wild. Later I would expand my idea of “dream big.”

During the week of my scheduled flight, on 21 March 1987, a flight of three F-4Es took off from March Air Force Base near Riverside, California, and got vectored over the San Bernardino Mountains.

One of the pilots suddenly dropped from their safe altitude of 10,000 feet down to 5,000 and was now flying too low in very thick fog. No one except God knows why that pilot decided to decrease his altitude. There was no compelling reason to do so.

The weapons systems officer, Major Ramon Ortiz, was an experienced wizzo who’d done this a thousand times before, but that morning didn’t register any formal complaints at the low altitude of their aircraft or the apparently lousy weather conditions.

No one said a word.

Seconds later, Captain Dean Paul Martin, son of actor/singer Dean Martin, and Major Ortiz flew directly into a mountain, disintegrating their aircraft. It was tragic on so many levels.

The 163rd Fighter Group Commander, Colonel Dan Gibson, called me and said my orientation flight was postponed . . . then he paused and added, “We’ll wait a week, then get back in touch.”

I knew exactly what he meant, because I’d seen it a number of times at dad’s fighter units, when a fighter pilot crashed and burned, one full week was allowed to grieve, then the guys all got back to their jobs.

As promised, one week later, Dan called and said, “Fight’s on.” I also knew what that meant. As an aside, I met Dean Paul Martin’s former wife, Dorothy Hamill, at a function in Sarasota, Florida, in 2010.

We chatted on about my “connection” with Dino and her love of adventure and wild times. She asked many questions, signed a book for me, hands shaking. There were tears in her eyes when she said, “He was the love of my life. . . .” After Martin, she had married a lawyer.

Following the deaths of Martin and Ortiz, I was heartbroken for their families, sent my condolences to the unit and went back to my work, thinking my flying days were over before launching.

Sometimes you get close to realizing a dream, then something derails it, and you’re back to square one. The thing is, I was an expert at square one from childhood when things always went wrong, so it was no big deal to start over. Each time, though, I got better at things and was able to progress even further than the previous iteration. Growing up a nonconformist forced me to be my own mentor and to become a thinker, while other kids were getting help from parents, teachers, etc. and whining when things didn’t go their way.

Is What It Is

Dino Garner in backseat of F-16 Viper, waiting to taxi and raise some pulses. Or hell. That was a great book, by the way: Holidays in Hell. Image © Dino Garner from his personal collection.

Growing up in post-WWII Europe, I learned resilience and patience and being grateful for everything. “It is what it is” was my mantra and it meant there was no room for complaining because life doesn’t care about terms and definitions, only actions and behaviors. If you wasted time to bitch and moan, then you could also dream up a solution to your issue.

After another phone call from Colonel Gibson, inviting me to fly with them, I went to March and their Life Support training, donned my dad’s helmet and face mask and old flight suit, and hit the flightline for my first flight in a fighter, the F-4E Phantom. It was special because dad had flown an earlier model in Vietnam.

Major John Groff was my pilot that day. On the runway, our afterburner didn’t light, but we took off anyway and circled the base, then returned. Major Groff was clearly disappointed and very apologetic.

I was so stoked that I didn’t care that my first and only flight in a fighter would last a mere five minutes. It seemed an eternity to me, so I never complained. I was just plain grateful that I got to experience 300 eternal seconds of US fighter aviation. Colonel Gibson met us on the flightline, smiled and looked over at Major Groff: “John, I give ya one job to do. . . .”

Laughs all around, the Boss apologized on behalf of the two dead afterburners, and said, “I want you to come back in a week or so. Bring a camera this time.”

Soon as I returned home from that first flight in a fighter, I looked in my mailbox and saw a business letter from JC Penney. It was a store credit card with a $1,000 credit limit. The Universe rewards you when you least expect it. Not always, but sometimes.

I zoomed down to the nearest store was immediately drawn to a display case with multiple Canon cameras and extra lenses. Without asking questions, I immediately bought a Canon T-90 and a second lens. Fight’s on!

Second Chances

Navy Lt. Bill “Hack” McMasters, TOPGUN instructor, in front of F-16 Viper, NAS Miramar, CA. Image © Dino Garner from his personal collection.

In a week or so, Colonel Gibson called me and told me I was scheduled for my second flight in the F-4E. I’d didn’t have time to study the T-90 so I wasn’t prepared to use it in the cockpit, but I bought twenty rolls of Fujichrome 35-mm color slide film and some ziploc bags to store it in while flying.

The entire time I was praying no one else flew into any mountains. As the day, hour and minute to fly grew near, I become more and more anxious. So I focused on my research and put the flight outta my mind.

On the day of the flight, I was calm, which was unusual for a man who was about to fly in a fighter jet. Yup, I was calm and cool right up to the second we screamed down the runway and lifted free of Mother Earth. We had taken off in a two-ship formation, so I was snapping shots the whole time. One of them is here in the book: “3 … 2 … 1 … Go!” somewhere around page 178. You can’t miss the blurred background of weeds and grass. I can still recall how I shot it and ran outta film in less than ten seconds, then quickly reloaded the next canister and shot more of the sequence as we climbed to altitude. I zoomed through all those rolls of film in less than five minutes, but I didn’t tell my pilot. He would ask me, “Hey, did ya get that shot?” I always said yes.

The Grizzlys Created A Monster

Flying with the Grizzlys and Colonel “Hoot” Gibson’s fighter jocks not only fulfilled my dream to fly (just once!), it brought back memories of hanging with dad’s buddies on the flightline in Germany and Italy, longing to be a part of something special and important. No, something otherworldly.

I was blessed to have flown nearly a dozen times in the F-4E, where I taught myself the art of photography under very uncomfortable and undesirable conditions and the high-G environment. It was a crash course and I ensured I milked it for everything I could. Deep in my superconscious, there was a monster stirring and I knew I would have to feed it very soon.

After those wonderful visits and flights with Colonel Russ Everts at FWS and Colonel Dan Gibson at the 163rd, I was granted a special visit with Mr. Mike Biddle with the Public Affairs Office at the National Guard Bureau in Washington, DC. He greeted me warmly and respectfully, looked over all my photographs to date, and offered to contact all their flying units on my behalf. It was more than I wished for. And it made me rethink what it meant to “dream big.” I learned to set the bar higher each time.

TOPGUN Is Calling You, Dino

Dino Garner TOPGUN nameplate, courtesy of the cool NCOs at TOPGUN, the unsung heroes! Image © Dino Garner from his personal collection.

Over the next few years, I flew in the A-7 Corsair, F-4E Phantom, F-15 Eagle, F-16 Viper and many different KC-135 refueling aircraft. My dear friend “Blade” Armstrong had a buddy, Thom “T-Mac” McCarthy, who was the Air Force exchange pilot at the US Navy Fighter Weapons School, TOPGUN, at NAS Miramar. “Blade” told “T-Mac” all about me and my work with other units.

Very soon after, sometime in 1990, I got permission from Admiral Richard Dunleavy to fly with “T-Mac” at TOPGUN a couple of times. Great new friendships and beautiful shots from those flights led Admiral Dunleavy to grant me exclusive permission to fly at TOPGUN and aboard the USS Ranger, both in support of my book, TOPGUN Miramar.

How many guys out there would give an arm or leg for a chance to do that? I’ve socialized with millionaires and a coupla billionaires over the years, and not one of them ever did the stuff I did. Not one.

HH-65 Dauphin from Coast Guard Air Station Los Angeles. Dino Garner made four passes across the Hollywood sign to get this iconic shot. Image © Dino Garner from his personal collection.

And I did it all on a shoestring budget (read: nearly broke) with the assistance of some world-class people who shared my dreams.

The lesson here for all you ten-year-olds: you can do a lot of cool things in life without a whole lotta money. It takes a dream, a design and a willingness to do whatever it takes. You can do even more, as long as you don’t care who gets the credit for the great work you do. Be humble and you can fly to the stars!

Coincidentally, many years later in Florida, I met Admiral Dunleavy’s lovely daughter Kristen and enjoyed a lunch or two. She’s the Director of Nursing for a really cool company, and I’m proud of her. What I didn’t know when I first met Kristen was that Admiral Dunleavy was her dad. When we first met and I shared my love of military aviation, she’d simply mentioned her father was in Naval Aviation and was an Admiral.

Didn’t take me long to run to my office, grab a copy of TOPGUN Miramar, and show her what her dad had written for the book. “Future of TOPGUN: Commitment to Naval Aviation Excellence.” Reading it again thirty years later raises goosebumps and brings back great memories of Admiral Dunleavy and everyone who made my dreams come true.

Reality Imitates Art In High Fashion

F-16 Viper from 147th Tactical Fighter Group, Houston, TX. Image © Dino Garner from his personal collection.

While doing the project at TOPGUN, I stayed at the home of one of the instructors, Lieutenant Bill “Hack” McMasters, and flew twice a day with him and other instructors. My experience at TOPGUN was magical and unforgettable. I have combed through every possible word in the English lexicon and not a single one adequately describes any of my feelings and emotions while flying and working at TOPGUN. That’s why I decided to name this book TOPGUN, even though it features Air Force, Coast Guard, etc.

There are no words to describe how I felt interacting, designing flights, planning and choreographing, flying, and partying with world-class fighter pilots. The camaraderie and closeness of this tribe influenced me in strong, positive ways, even thirty years later.

Dino “Wang” Garner pullin’ 9 Gs in TOPGUN F-16 Viper. Image © Dino Garner from his personal collection.

Honestly, TOPGUN Miramar didn’t turn out the way I had envisioned but, then again, I had no hand in designing and producing it. All I did was take pretty pictures and write the thing.

Understandably, the guys at TOPGUN were disappointed, too, but they were very respectful and never once voiced anything negative. They all knew the arduous work that went into it and thanked me for it. After all, I donated hundreds of beautiful 35-mm color slides to the unit (and all units), no strings attached.

HH-65 Dauphin from Coast Guard Air Station Los Angeles, hovering in Avalon Harbor, Avalon, Santa Catalina Island, CA. Image © Dino Garner from his personal collection.

A sweet irony, perhaps: TOPGUN Miramar sold more than 20,000 copies total in the English, French and German editions in less than a year.

To lend some perspective about book sales, consider this: before the success of The Da Vinci Code, which Dan Brown invited me to edit (and I did), his previous novels, including Angels & Demons, only sold about 2,500 copies total worldwide.

New York trade publishing companies play a sneaky game with consumers: they inflate the sales figures of the big-name authors and some small ones, too. Not Dan Brown, though. They reported his sales accurately, and they sucked.

Remember the movie TOP GUN? It featured the famous Wednesday night parties at the Miramar Officers Club. Well, Dino Garner hit every party during his tour at TOPGUN. Yes, the girls were bussed in from all over San Diego County. Image © Dino Garner from his personal collection.

When I learned that, I developed a respect for TOPGUN Miramar all over again: sales of my first book kicked Dan Brown’s in the a$$. Of course, mine didn’t reach the impossible heights of The Da Vinci Code, which I had a cool hand in improving as an editor.

Even though I was disappointed in the final product, i.e. the book, I knew I would make it up to my TOPGUN buds someday. Thankfully, with the production of my new book, TOPGUN: The Otherworldly Dreams of a Lifelong Ten Year Old, that day is today. . . .

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