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Is Tom Cruise Too Old to Be a Fighter Pilot? A ‘Top Gun 2’ Investigation

Maverick will be 57 in the upcoming, much-anticipated sequel. But at that ripe old age, would the military even let him in the air?

Presumably sometime before Tom Cruise gets catapulted into space with the help of Elon Musk, millions of Americans will stuff themselves into movie theaters to see the 57-year-old defy orders and whip some drone ass in Top Gun 2: Maverick. Though the movie’s release has been delayed until December 23rd, the previews make it clear that Pete “Maverick” Mitchell’s age is a key plot point. That is, despite being as old as dirt in fighter pilot years, he’s still considered one of the best goddamn pilots this country has ever seen. 

But would the U.S. military really allow a 57-year-old to fly one of its $38 million planes? (Maverick, like Cruise, was born in 1962, according to his Wikifan page, and so, assuming the movie takes place in 2019, that brings him to the almost AARP-eligible age of 57.) 

According to 60-year-old Mike Crosby, a graduate of the actual U.S. Navy Fighter Weapons School — aka TOPGUN — maybe. 

To start, Crosby says in real life, Maverick would probably have advanced to a point in his career where he’s no longer flying — either by way of rank or just working in a different field. (To its credit, the movie does explain that Maverick has been “doing all he can to avoid being promoted, as that would leave [him] in the one place he dreads — out of the sky.”) In other words, there aren’t a lot of high-ranking admirals who fly, Crosby says, and if they do, “they aren’t the frontline guys; they fly to keep themselves happy more than anything else.” 

“So I’m not sure what rank they’re going to have Maverick, but the majority of the pilots are the young guys,” Crosby tells me. He has, however, seen enough movies to know that this inconvenient fact won’t stop Cruise and company. “Somehow they’ll get him into the action,” Crosby says. “He’ll be an instructor or commanding officer of TOPGUN, which would be a captain, and that’s someone in their early 50s. So it’s not unreasonable.” (As long as a pilot trained between the ages of 18 and 33, there isn’t a maximum age limit that would prevent someone like Maverick from flying.)

Instead, it’s how they get Maverick into the actual fighting that Crosby says he and his fellow fighter pilots will probably laugh at the most. “None of us who have been there will believe it. It’ll be like, ‘There’s nobody else left in the Navy!’ or something. But that’s okay: The best part of the movie is the action, and the flying scenes anyway.” 

Still, if it wasn’t Tom Cruise/Maverick we were talking about, it’s not super likely they’d be able to withstand the physical requirements of the job. “Once you’re past 45-ish, you’re not as good as the younger guys,” Crosby explains. “It’s a physical job, like playing in the NFL.”

Not to mention, says Banito Amir, a graduate of the National Aviation University in Kiev, “The selection process for fighter pilots is highly demanding. And you’re not just talking about being a fighter pilot, you’re signing up for TOPGUN — the process will test your maximum limits, both physically and mentally. And the Navy wouldn’t cut anyone, even Tom Cruise, slack on this one.” 

Moreover, Crosby adds, the plane Maverick pilots in the first movie “isn’t flying anymore.” “The F-14s are all gone,” he continues. “The Navy is flying F-18s and F-35s now, so it’s not even an option.”

On a personal note, there is one real-life issue that Crosby hopes the movie stays faithful to. “I was diagnosed with prostate cancer when I was 55,” he tells me, “and more and more studies are finding that aviators are faced with an almost 200 percent increase in cancer incidence rates over the general population.” 

As such, Crosby works with a group called Zero hoping to get legislation passed that might help determine why this is the case, because while the list of potential causes is long, a definitive answer has been elusive. “But no matter the how, the numbers are big,” Crosby continues. “Right now, there are 489,000 or more veterans dealing with prostate cancer, and that number is growing every year.” 

And so, he riffs, the film would be a much better reflection of the unfortunate reality of being an aging fighter pilot if “one of [Maverick’s] friends in the movie like [Val Kilmer’s] Iceman, has prostate cancer. Or maybe they have a line that someone unfortunately died of it at a young age.” 

Because that, it turns out, would be Maverick’s true enemy.