Photo for BERES, page E1 or the turn, June 10

An F-18 Hornet prepared for takeoff from the deck of the aircraft carrier USS George Washington, off the North Carolina coast.

The movie “Top Gun” is, hands down, the greatest Navy recruiting flick ever made. When it hit box offices in May 1986, it quickly became the highest-grossing film of the year. Starring Tom Cruise, Val Kilmer, Kelly McGillis, and Meg Ryan, the film made $375 million worldwide.

Even now, 32 years later, most Americans still know who Peter “Maverick” Mitchell and Lt.jg. Nick “Goose” Bradshaw are. The phrase, “I feel the need, the need for speed,” is one of the most popular, oft-quoted phrases uttered in any movie ever. From the thrilling footage of an F-14 dogfight, to the ever-popular beach volleyball game, to the scene of Cruise and other naval aviators singing “You’ve Lost that Lovin’ Feeling,” the movie has more than its fair share of iconic moments.

Not only did the movie bolster the popularity of Ray-Ban Aviator sunglasses and reinvigorate sales of the Porsche 356 Speedster, it is also credited with a giant surge in military recruiting. Apparently, after viewing “Top Gun,” so many thousands of young Americans discovered their own inner need for speed that military recruiters set up booths in movie theater lobbies across the nation.

Officer aviation programs reported an increase in calls and interest in flying for the Navy. The film’s impact on recruiting was tangible: In the year after its release, the number of uniformed personnel in all branches of the military increased by 20,000 — with the Navy receiving about 16,000 of those new members.

So, when Cruise released a tweet late last month with the hashtag #Day1 featuring an image of himself in a flight suit with a background image of an F-18 Super Hornet jet and the words “FEEL THE NEED,” the excited chatter began immediately. Finally, the long-anticipated sequel to “Top Gun” is under production.

While not much is known about the movie’s plot, we do know that Cruise will once again play Maverick, but this time in the role of a Navy captain serving as a flight instructor. Supposedly, the film takes place 30 years later than the original. As production continues, we’ll learn more.

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It’s going to be a challenge for the producers to recreate the swagger of the first flick, but let’s hope they can do so. The Navy says it has provided access to Naval Air Station North Island, in Coronado, Calif., to support the new movie. The Pentagon says it will work closely with the producers to ensure the script depicts naval aviators in a realistic fashion. That’s smart — the military should provide them as much support as possible.

If ever the military aviation community needed a recruiting shot in the arm, it’s right now. The Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps are all experiencing critical shortages of military fighter pilots. According to an April report from the Government Accounting Office, all three services are down about 25 percent from the minimum numbers necessary.

According to the report, at the end of fiscal 2017, the Air Force was short about 1,000 fighter pilots — 27 percent of the 3,750 billets it has. The Navy and Marine Corps’ staffing levels are nearly as bad.

A big reason for the losses is a rapidly growing commercial demand for military-trained pilots. As many senior commercial pilots hit mandatory retirement age, the airline industry is doing whatever it can to entice as much military talent as possible to become civilian aviators.

In desperate efforts to stop the hemorrhaging of its pilots, who have been exceptionally well-trained at very a costly price, the armed forces have increased retention bonuses, cut much of the previously required red tape and paperwork, and reduced the non-flying duties pilots were once expected to take on. The Air Force has dramatically increased its maximum retention bonus for pilots — from $125,000 in 2013 to $455,000 in 2017, spread over several years.

Yet, the enticements aren’t working. The numbers of pilots who took those bonuses declined from 63 percent in 2013 to 35 percent last year. The situation is dire and Pentagon officials say that the shortages could disrupt national security measures.

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The services say they are doing whatever they can to ensure that squadrons deploying on critical missions are adequately staffed. But they are only able to do so by pulling pilots from other squadrons, sending those flyers on missions more frequently, and extending the length of their deployments. These are drastic, ultimately self-defeating measures that cannot be sustained.

Constant deployments and nonstop, high-tempo operations take their toll on pilots — and on their families and marriages. Exhausting working hours, poor morale, and career dissatisfaction make poor retention tools.

According to Brig. Gen. Mike Koscheski, who the Air Force has tasked with fixing its problem, there’s only one way to solve the crisis for good: by training a lot more pilots every year.

“Our long-term fix to the pilot crisis is to grow our way out of this,” Koscheski said in a briefing last October. “It’s going to take a while to get in place what we need to start producing more pilots. One of the biggest things that we need is stable and predictable budgets.”

Yes, more money is definitely necessary to entice young men and women to become military pilots. And a really good recruiting movie can’t hurt. Whatever it takes, the crisis must be resolved soon. When it comes to replacing military pilots, there really is a need — a need for speed.

mberes@timesdispatch.com

(804) 649-6305

Twitter: @RobinBeres

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