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Sarasota Thursday, Jun. 16, 2022 1 month ago

Sarasota's Brian Ferguson coordinates realism for 'Top Gun: Maverick'

Ferguson, who grew up in Sarasota, was inspired to join the Navy by the first "Top Gun" film.
by: Harry Sayer Staff Writer

Brian Ferguson always wanted to fly. 

When exactly that started is of some debate — his brothers like to claim it was when they threw him back and forth in the air when he was 2 — but he’ll never forget flying with his father’s friend in his plane in the Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport when he was 10. 

“It was magic,” Ferguson said. “The hook was set.”

Pop culture at large ended up amplifying Ferguson’s love of aviation. He, like so many others, took quite a shine to the original “Top Gun” film released in 1986. 

The '80s classic — full of wild stunts, state-of-the-art technology for the time and a whole heaping of charisma from America’s darling Tom Cruise as the pilot Pete “Maverick” Mitchell — caught the hearts and minds of countless viewers when it premiered. And Ferguson was no different. 

It might not have been the match that started the fire, but it certainly was the pouring of gasoline that made it burn bright. That love of both planes and the classic '80s movie that glorified Navy service carried Ferguson through a career in the Navy flying jets himself and eventually as a pilot with Delta Air Lines. 

Decades later, and Ferguson, 52, recently found himself in a familiar place watching the new “Top Gun: Maverick” film. 

Only this time, Ferguson wasn’t watching solely as a fan: He’d put years of work into it, serving as the Navy’s technical adviser for the movie during its production.

The Sarasota native spent months consulting with Paramount Pictures and Tom Cruise himself as Navy members and the film crew worked together to pull off daring stunts and feats that compose much of the action in the movie. 

Ferguson grew up in Sarasota and attended Riverview High School. It was at that time he watched "Top Gun" in theaters. 

“I knew about airplanes, but I didn’t know my options — I didn’t have pilots in the family,” Ferguson said. “I saw the movie and went: ‘Oh, it all makes sense now. This is what I’m going to do.'”

He modeled himself off the movie in high school — started wearing the Maverick jacket, the white shirt and the aviator glasses —  and admits in retrospect that it wasn’t the most popular look. He’s more of an Oakley sunglasses guy now, anyway.

Ferguson eventually joined the Navy by way of Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University and took to flying planes. He spent some time with the Navy Fighters Weapons School flying the F-5 fighter, one of the main planes featured in the first "Top Gun" movie. 

The experience of serving as a pilot in the actual "Top Gun" school didn’t line up with the maxed-out energy of the movie, he said. Ferguson didn’t have much time to drive motorcycles down the runway and play volleyball in blue jeans, but he didn’t really make much of that.

“You took it a day at a time. You were always going onto the next thing learning about airplanes,” Ferguson said. “You’re in an F-18, and each motor has more horsepower than the entire lineup than the Daytona 500, and you have two of those. It’s an absolute rush.”

Eventually, Ferguson left to pilot for Delta Airlines while still being a Navy reservist. His path to “Top Gun: Maverick” started in 2018 when learning the technical adviser role was open.

Contrary to what you might expect, Ferguson didn’t immediately leap at the job. It was only after a talk with his wife, where she pointed out the full-circle nature of working on a "Top Gun" movie near the end of his career after starting his career due in part to the first movie, that he applied for and accepted the job. 

“She said, ‘Maybe it inspires other people to join the Navy after you retire,’” Ferguson said. “I thought that was a pretty good way to look at it.”

His responsibilities were varied but mainly consisted of maintaining the image of the Navy in the film — making sure the institution wasn’t depicted in a negative light — and handling logistics with the shoot so that flight scenes wouldn’t be too risky for pilots. 

"We can launch off a ship, drop bombs and land on the boat because that’s what we do,” Ferguson said. “But flying a bunch of camera airplanes with huge movie stars and worrying about sun positioning was kind of new.” 

Much of his time was spent interacting with representatives from Paramount and the Navy and finding the right amount of realism in scenes and costume design that would feel authentic to military members but also be accessible for average moviegoers.

Another wrinkle was working with Tom Cruise himself. In a few “Top Gun: Maverick” critical scenes, Maverick flies extremely low to the ground in a valley, which is hard to film when Navy pilots typically fly a minimum of 200 feet above ground.

A Navy admiral approved Ferguson to have the height at 100 feet, but then Cruise told him the plane needs to be below 50 feet to look right for filming. 

Ferguson was directly between a rock and a hard place but found a novel solution: hiring a Blue Angels pilot (who typically pulls off extremely low passes in front of crowds at air shows) to fly the scene. 

“The airplane is really down there in the valley,” Ferguson said. “We had cameras on the wings, in the cockpit, underneath. It was like the plane was one big camera.”

There’s even a couple scenes where you can spot Ferguson in the movie. A few scenes at a local bar — built in San Diego but modeled after fighter pilot bars and full of actual Navy pilots in the scene — needed reshoots that had Ferguson filling in where he interacts with Cruise. 

“I never told anyone in my family (before the premiere),” Ferguson said. 

It’s been a good time since for Ferguson. He watched the finished movie with Paramount figures, military members and even Kenny Loggins in 2020 shortly before it was delayed by the pandemic. He had a good time but felt like something was missing.

“I saw it two years later with a crowd of people, and it was an entirely different experience,” Ferguson said. “When watching with regular people, that’s when it became real. I realized ‘Holy cow, this thing is out there.’ (It felt) like a much better movie.”

It gives him a good feeling about how it’ll influence generations of pilots to come.

“A lot of people have seen the movie, but the people I care about honestly are the men and women who are 16-24 years old see it and go, ‘I want to do that,’” Ferguson said.

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