Did You Know the MiG-28 Fighters in ‘Top Gun’ Don’t Actually Exist?

Photo Credit: 1. CBS / Getty Images 2. Paramount Pictures / Sunset Boulevard / CORBIS / Getty Images
Photo Credit: 1. CBS / Getty Images 2. Paramount Pictures / Sunset Boulevard / CORBIS / Getty Images

Within the world of military aviation and popular culture, few fictional aircraft have captured the imagination quite like the MiG-28. Despite not really existing, it has become synonymous with high-octane dogfights, thanks to its appearance in the 1986 movie, Top Gun. But what, exactly, made it so convincing?

Sharing similar characteristics to real-life Soviet aircraft

Still from 'Top Gun'
Top Gun, 1986. (Photo Credit: CBS / Getty Images)

Despite its convincing portrayal, the MiG-28 doesn’t exist in any of the world’s air forces. Its design and capabilities were crafted purely for cinematic thrill, to provide a formidable enemy to Top Gun‘s protagonists – namely Lt. Pete “Maverick” Mitchell (Tom Cruise) and LTJG. Nick “Goose” Bradshaw (Anthony Edwards).

The depiction of the MiG-28 includes characteristics typically associated with Soviet aircraft during the Cold War, with it painted in a menacing all-black scheme that only adds to its mystique. The made-up fighter is also smaller than most of the American jets in operation at the time and closer in size to those manned by the Soviets, if not short by a few feet.

Using the Northrop F-5 to create the MiG-28

Northrop F-5E in flight
Early series Northrop F-5E. (Photo Credit: National Museum of the U.S. Air Force / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

The aircraft used to bring the MiG-28 to life in Top Gun were actually Northrop F-5s, which had been borrowed from the US Navy. The choice to use it as a stand-in was strategic; its smaller size, compared to other American fighters, and performance made it a plausible stand-in for a nimble and threatening Soviet fighter.

The F-5 was a supersonic light fighter that saw action during the Vietnam War, flying thousands of sorties during the six months in was involved. It was favored among pilots for its agility and speed, characteristics that were attributed to the fictional MiG-28.

Interestingly, the F-5 still remains active in several air forces across the world, most notably in South Korea, Taiwan and Spain.

MiG-28 vs. Grumman F-14 Tomcat

Still from 'Top Gun'
Top Gun, 1986. (Photo Credit: CBS / Getty Images)

Top Gun was more than just a film; it was a cultural phenomenon that influenced the public’s perception of military aviation. The MiG-28 played a crucial role in this, serving as the perfect aerial antagonist. Its aerial battles with the American-flown Grumman F-14 Tomcats are some of the most memorable scenes, thrilling audiences and working to enhance the mystique of this fictional aircraft.

Through the magic of cinema, the MiG-28 became a symbol of the technological and strategic battle between the United States and what was then perceived to be the Soviet threat.

What made audiences believe the MiG-28 was a real aircraft?

Northrop F5-E, painted to look like an MiG-28, on display outside
One of the Northrop F-5E that portrayed an MiG-28 in Top Gun, 1986. (Photo Credit: Lori Van Buren / Albany Times Union / Getty Images)

The believability of the MiG-28 in Top Gun can be attributed to both the expert choreography of the aerial stunts and the team’s keen attention to detail, in terms of aircraft behavior and capabilities. The film’s portrayal of the Soviet aircraft included features like high maneuverability and aggressive combat tactics, which aligned well with the real-life capabilities of the F-5.

More from us: Mil Mi-28 Havoc: The Soviet-Era Attack Helicopter That Didn’t Enter Service Until 2009

This attention to detail, despite the fictional context, helped make the MiG-28 a believable and formidable foe in the skies.

June Steele

June Steele is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE