The Top Gun Effect?

Was the 1986 blockbuster “Top Gun” one of the best recruitment campaigns in the US military history? Some think it was (see The Armed Forces Need Another Top Gun by Richard D. Parker). Given its sequel Top Gun 2 started filming this month, I thought of “visualising” the effect (if any) the original film had on the US Navy’s recruitment statistics.

Unfortunately, detailed data on the number of young people applying to become a Navy fighter pilot is not readily available. However, I’ve managed to plot what I think could be the “Top Gun Effect” by comparing the average number of Officer Cadets (one has to become an Officer first to go to flight school) in the different branches of service of the US military between 1982 and 1992. Basically, what I do here is to plot deviations from a 10-year average in the number of Army, Navy, and Air Force Officer Cadets reported by the Defense Manpower Data Center (DMDC).


Of course, not all Navy Officer Candidates are there to become fighter pilots. However, compared to the other military branches, there seems to be a large (unexplained?) change in the number of Navy Cadets in the subsequent two years to the movie release. If we take into account the average time from applying to Officer Candidate School (most applicants were probably still in College by that time) to becoming an Officer Cadet (and hence be part of the statistics for that year), this might very well be the direct effect of Top Gun.

Considering not all applicants are accepted for attendance to Officer School, this effect (more than 25% increase) might be even understated!