the real Top Gun

Meet the real-life ‘Charlie’ – a true Maverick

Explore the macho world of Top Gun with Christine Fox, the woman who inspired ‘Charlie’ in real life, and will be forever immortalised in one of the biggest films of the 80s

We all know that Top Gun was based on a real naval school, but there’s more realism within those Hollywood one-liners than you might think. And I’m not talking about the casual sexism.

With Top Gun: Maverick – a long-awaited sequel to one of the biggest films of the 80s – in cinema theatres now, there is one glaring omission. Charlie. She isn’t so much as mentioned. We can assume she gave up the goose with these men (sorry, boys) and went onto bigger and better things career-wise. 

In the 1986 hit film, romantic interest Charlie Blackwood, played by Kelly McGillis, is one of the instructors of naval pilot Pete ‘Maverick’ Mitchell, and an astrophysicist – and her career arc was inspired by a real-life person, who seems unreal in her trailblazing accomplishments. Just as it appears in the film, the “fighter guys” were not thrilled to have a woman tell them what’s what.

Christina Fox’s first day on the job: running the Pentagon in 2013

Christine Fox has held the highest rank ever for a woman at the Pentagon and was the first female Deputy Secretary of Defense (Acting) in American history. She has flown in B-52s, escaped submerged planes and provided analysis to operational commanders during conflicts in Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq. To quote an iconic Charlie line from the original film: “It takes a lot more than just fancy flying.”

Today the problem-solver sees technology and policy as an important mix, and helps connect technical knowledge to larger policy issues as a Senior Fellow at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory – which provides cutting-edge research and engineering services to the government.

I met up with the straight arrow to analyse exploding technologies, the reality behind the machismo of Top Gun, and the importance of providing a kick ass role model for girls. 

Over to Christine Fox

“I would never let anybody tell me I can’t work on a problem because I’m a woman. People throughout my career have said that and I have always thought it’s a weird view.

I never said: “I am going to be Deputy Secretary for Defense and I am going to break down barriers.” The military are faced with enormous problems, so they bring the operational knowledge and I bring the math. My father always said if you can do the math you can do anything.

TOPGUN is the elite school for fighter pilots. The best of the best are selected to train the rest of the community to be great pilots. When I started my career I was assigned to support the Fighter Wing at Miramar Naval Air Station, where the school was. My analysis informed their lectures.

I am forever associated with Top Gun, the movie. I find it interesting to be immortalised. I was happy everyone liked it as much they did. If I had forever been associated with a movie that people hated I do not know how that would have worked out.

The movie is still very popular amongst the ‘fighter’ community. The admiral in charge played an instrumental role in getting the Kelly McGillis character based on me.

The way they portrayed me on Top Gun was not accurate. But the way they portrayed the culture and the heroism of the community and the competitive barbed relationship between the aircraft carrier and fighter pilots, what they struggle with, the partnership between the front seat and the back seat, that was all pretty good. The Air14 and E-2 community were defending the way the producers portrayed my participation.

What we ask these people to do is dangerous. That culture exists for a fundamental reason. As individuals they are smart, caring wonderful human beings as you can imagine, but in a collective they are pretty aggressive, just as the film portrayed them.

In the 80s, the fighter guys were not thrilled to have a woman assigned to be their analyst. There was tremendous skepticism. When the movie came along it really propelled our excellent working relationships. I got the opportunity to go out a lot on aircraft carriers to do my civilian analysis before women in the Navy were even allowed to go to sea – as an exception to the rule.

Thanking security personnel in San Diego 2011

In the Defense Department, we imagine what could possibly go wrong. I do not personally aspire to control technology, but guiding it to good would be great.

I love solving problems. If you can solve a problem why wouldn’t you want to help? It doesn’t make me happy to spend all day with a computer in my room. I need to work with real people doing real things and try to find ways to use analysis to help them. The first problem that I found I loved was trying to help people in the military.

It’s important to keep a watchful eye on the people who mean harm. The explosion of new technology has already outpaced the ability of policymakers to keep up. They can participate more in conversations with the technical community to better understand where the technology is heading, anticipate threats and make sure we are better prepared.

Problem-solving at the Navy Special Warfare Center, San Diego, 2014

Young girls must see that a path is open. I have tried to accept and embrace that I’m a role model. It’s important that a woman can achieve such a visible position in today’s world. Everybody should choose role models whatever their race, gender, ethnicity or belief system – if they embody something they want to achieve.

It’s important that a woman can achieve such a visible position in today’s world.

The coolest part of the training was the Dilbert Dunker. Most of the fighter pilots were terrified of the device for training on how to correctly escape a submerged plane. You simulate an ejector seat, come down the ramp, go into the water, turn upside down, get out of your gear, get up and swim to the top. I like to swim and thought it was fun, like a Disney ride. I tortured my colleagues who were dreading the Dilbert Dunkers calling them wimps!

We are very resilient as people and generally good. If we can use technology to connect us and learn more and be more open minded then I think the future is very bright. The future needs attention and we need to care when unexpected things happen, not just get angry.

Tech has saved lives in Iraq and Afghanistan. When people are hurt on the battlefield, technology and telemedicine are used to bring medical assistance quickly. Tech has also created problems. There are many more people who lost limbs in these wars, which is horrific, but now tech is giving them more advanced prosthetic help coming home.

Synthetic biology is going to make people’s lives better. As we go down those paths quickly it poses some potential significant risks if we do not keep that watchful eye on developments.

I would like to accelerate data analytics. I only say that because I am an analyst! It’s very new and we have not figured it out and what it can mean. The ability to understand the information that we are now presented with in vast quantities is going to be more and more important. It might give us a more balanced view and that is critically important.

Boundaries make me crazy. If I could have one superpower… I would like to be able to do boundary manipulation. We put up walls around our thinking, around the way that we do and do not work together, around our attitudes. I hate boundaries, boundaries against women, boundaries everywhere. I hate them!

I would never let anybody tell me I can’t work on a problem because I’m a woman.

Christine Fox

What’s so good about this?

It’s time to fight boundaries instead of other people. Christine Fox works to show young girls that a path is open – and what a true ‘Maverick’ looks like.

Meet the writer

Lisa Goldapple is the creative brain behind the world of TOPIA. The magazine’s Editor-in-chief has been creating shows for MTV, BBC, Vice, TVNZ, National Geographic and more since the noughties. Then created social good platform, Atlas of the Future. Today her desk faces the trippy side of Gaudí’s Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, which might explain a few things. To understand how TOPIA came out of this rare brain, read ‘Mind Blown’. As she puts it: “If life splinters and you hallucinate triangles, make a kaleidoscope.”

Follow @lisagoldapple on LinkedIn, Twitter and Instagram. (Open to freelance collaborations.)

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