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Every Call Sign From ‘Top Gun,’ Ranked

Which fighter pilot nickname from the iconic Tom Cruise movie is best? Here’s a hint: It’s definitely not “Chipper.”

Ringer illustration

2020’s summer blockbuster season has been put on hold because of the pandemic, but that doesn’t mean we can’t celebrate the movies from the past that we flocked out of the sun and into air conditioning for. Welcome to The Ringer’s Return to Summer Blockbuster Season, where we’ll feature different summer classics each week.

This was supposed to be the summer that we reentered the Danger Zone. Among the many delays to the 2020 film calendar due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the highly anticipated Top Gun sequel was bumped from a June 2020 release to December. Unfortunately, with experts anticipating that a second wave of the virus will come in the fall, there’s a reasonable chance Top Gun: Maverick won’t see the light of day until 2021 (or beyond). It’s a real blow for America’s most treasured group of workers: pop culture bloggers.

What are we and our fellow cinephiles supposed to do without a shiny new paean to aviator sunglasses, homoerotic beach sports, fighter pilot jargon, Kenny Loggins, and somewhat problematic Navy propaganda? Well, there is one solution: Just rewatch the original Top Gun for the umpteenth time. I guarantee it will take your breath away. (Also, a reminder that Berlin’s “Take My Breath Away” won an Oscar for Best Original Song; Top Gun is technically an Oscar-winning motion picture.)

Not everything about the original Top Gun, which came out in 1986, stands the test of time: The script doesn’t strike the greatest balance between clichés and one-liners, and I’m pretty sure Tom Cruise’s Maverick committed some sort of crime by harassing Kelly McGillis’s Charlie and then following her into the women’s bathroom at Kansas City Barbeque. Really, the whole courtship between Maverick and Charlie is outrageously dumb—and it doesn’t help that Cruise and McGillis don’t have any semblance of sexual chemistry.

But the characters’ call signs in Top Gun have aged like a fine wine. I can honestly say I don’t remember anyone’s real name—they might as well put Maverick, Goose, Iceman, and Viper on the characters’ birth certificates. The call signs are a rich text, offering a window into each character’s personality and how they present themselves to their peers. It’s also just a lot of fun to come up with a silly nickname, which is why this Top Gun Call Sign Generator became a Ringer obsession one day over Slack. (I got Miles “Satan” Surrey; my editor was Chris “Spurt” Almeida. Spurt!)

If the call signs from the forthcoming sequel are any indication, Top Gun: Maverick will be a worthy follow-up; I can’t wait until we’re introduced to the likes of Phoenix, Fanboy, Slayer, Lardo, Cyclone, Bob (!!!!), Payback, Viking, and “Harvard & Yale.” But before we get to the Maverick call signs—and because it would be premature to judge the nicknames before we know how well they mesh with a character’s personality—what better way to commemorate the [checks notes] 34th anniversary of the original Top Gun than by ranking its call signs? Also, it’s The Ringer: We blog and we rank things.

For this ranking, I’ve decided to include any character with a nickname, not just the pilots—that includes essentially everyone with a line of dialogue that isn’t Meg Ryan. And while, according to the whiteboard that I will drop in below, there were some incredible nicknames in Maverick’s Top Gun class, we never got to see Psycho, Bubba, Cowboy, or Woody in action. They are therefore excluded, but not forgotten:

Screenshots via Paramount Pictures

Our ranking, then, is capped at 14, but it contains a memorable and versatile set of names. With Spurt’s stamp of approval, Satan is at the controls.

14. Charles “Chipper” Piper

Chipper is totally inconsequential to the plot—the only meaningful thing he does in the movie is openly wonder why Maverick is missing out on the Top Gun graduation. It’s fitting that the character is handed such a bland call sign. Chipper might be the least charismatic presence of all the pilots (not that he had much of a chance to shine). I guess it makes sense that his nickname is so weak.

13. Charlotte “Charlie” Blackwood

Chipper’s real name is Charles, and Charlotte’s call sign is Charlie; it’s a mishmash that speaks to the lack of originality on display here. But the similarity between her call sign and her actual name might be a point unto itself: Charlie is the most no-nonsense character in the entire film. She’s all business—except when it comes to Maverick—and that mind-set apparently extends to her nickname. The relationship between character and call sign is appreciated, but that doesn’t mean we should let whoever gave Charlie her call sign off the hook for coming up with the most unoriginal tag in Navy history.

Her jacket game, by contrast, remains impeccable:

12. Sam “Merlin” Wells

By far the most interesting thing about Merlin is that he’s played by a pre-stardom Tim Robbins—and you might not even know that because Merlin’s face is covered/obscured about as much as your typical Tom Hardy character. It’s unclear whether the call sign Merlin is in reference to the wizard of Arthurian lore or the small North American falcon. If the former, Merlin didn’t quite exhibit wizardry in the skies; poor Robbins constantly looked like he was on the verge of a panic attack in the cockpit.

11. Henry “Wolfman” Ruth

This is an undeniably awesome call sign as long as your mind doesn’t wander to the Benicio Del Toro interpretation of the monster—not a problem for the Top Gun characters since it’s still the ’80s—but this is perhaps the most egregious example of a nickname not befitting the character. Just look at the way this dude dresses (he’s on the left):

Are you telling me there’s someone in this graduating class whose call sign is Cowboy and this is what Wolfman wears?! This is either an underrated conspiracy theory—Wolfman was Cowboy the whole time!—or embarrassingly inconsistent branding. Either way, Top Gun must answer for its crimes.

10. Bill “Cougar” Cortell

Before cougar entered the vernacular for a different reason, I suppose this would’ve been a decent call sign. Sadly, since Cougar’s legacy in Top Gun is having a complete breakdown in the cockpit and requiring Maverick to help him land on the USS Enterprise’s runway, the name doesn’t suit him. I also have no idea what’s going on with Cougar’s upper lip, but it’s concerning:

9. Rick “Hollywood” Neven

It’s hard to go wrong with a call sign that leans into someone’s natural cool and movie-star good looks, and our guy certainly looks the part. The only problem is that Hollywood’s graduating class is preposterously good-looking, enough that almost anyone in Top Gun could’ve had the nickname. Hollywood could’ve never been a Maverick, but Maverick could’ve been a Hollywood.

8. Ron “Slider” Kerner

Slider is a top-tier hype man and radar intercept officer, and is nearly as good at lifting Iceman’s spirits as Goose is with Maverick’s. (The RIO-pilot relationship is sacred.) He has the build of a final boss in a fighting game, and his volleyball stance is a pre-Instagram thirst trap masterpiece:

Slider, though, is a nickname that easily lends itself to mockery. There’s a reason Maverick can get away with saying he smells like shit.

7. Rick “Jester” Heatherly

What makes Jester such a great call sign for this Top Gun instructor is that the man barely cracks a smile. It’s a good way to lull unsuspecting students into a false sense of security, especially because Jester has a lot of nifty tricks when dogfighting. He is also a front-runner in the race for best pilot helmet; a simple but elegant pattern of stars. The only mark against Jester is that he was played by tough guy character actor Michael Ironside—having “Ironside” as a call sign might have been even cooler. Somewhat relatedly, how is Ironside not the name of a Transformers character?

6. Tom “Stinger” Jardian

He isn’t a pilot, but Stinger sure is a great nickname for a commander who admits through gritted teeth that Maverick is talented and qualified enough for the Top Gun program despite his, uh, maverick attitude. Plus, Stinger has possibly the best—and certainly the stingiest—quote in the movie when addressing Maverick: “Son, your ego is writing checks your body can’t cash.” The actor who played Stinger, James Tolkan, is perhaps best known for playing Principal Strickland in the Back to the Future franchise. Shoutout to Tolkan for cornering the market on hardass ’80s authority figures.

5. Marcus “Sundown” Williams

Sundown is thrust into a no-win situation when he becomes Maverick’s new RIO right after Goose dies. He never stood a chance of vibing with a pilot who didn’t know how to process his grief in a hypermasculine environment. But even though things didn’t go well with Maverick, Sundown’s still got one of Top Gun’s most enigmatic call signs—cool in part because it doesn’t really make sense, unless interpreted as him being the last thing an enemy fighter sees before things go dark (is that too messed up??). Sundown also has one of the highest aviators-to-screentime ratios of anyone in the movie, and for that he has our respect.

4. Nick “Goose” Bradshaw

Goose is an awful call sign sans context, but for Anthony Edwards’s endearingly goofy RIO, it’s nothing short of perfect. He simply is Goose. The character is such a refreshing change of pace from Top Gun’s many ultramacho personas: He’s just a laid back, self-deprecating, lovable dad married to a pre-fame Meg Ryan. That’s precisely why Goose’s death is so heart-wrenching no matter how many times you watch the film. Goose’s spirit will live on in the sequel with his son—played by Miles Teller, who is now 70 years old because filming Too Old to Die Young works like Dragon Ball Z’s Hyperbolic Time Chamber—joining the Top Gun academy. I’m a little worried, though: Goose’s son goes by “Rooster.” Roosters can barely fly.

3. Mike “Viper” Metcalf

It would’ve been a disaster if one of the most legendary pilots in Navy history been given a really weak call sign; Viper, thankfully, is elite stuff. Based on a real-life instructor who went by that nickname and served as the film’s technical adviser, Viper is the closest thing Maverick has to a father figure in Top Gun and is as good as advertised when we do see him in the cockpit.

The character’s baseline coolness and superlative ’stache furthers my theory that Tom Skerritt is Alt-Universe Tom Selleck.

2. Tom “Iceman” Kazansky

A pilot with the call sign Iceman could’ve landed in unenviable movie villain company, but as played by Val Kilmer, he’s the ideal antagonist for someone like Maverick. Iceman is (no pun intended) cool, calm, collected, and has the right amount of swagger to get under Maverick’s skin. It’s one thing to have a call sign as dope as Iceman; it’s another to live up to the name. And even when Iceman needed Maverick’s help at the end of the film to take out some MiGs, he barely lost his cool. Compared to Cougar’s earlier meltdown in the Indian Ocean, it’s more proof that Iceman is as chill as advertised ...

… except when he and Maverick refused to handle their unresolved sexual tension:

1. Pete “Maverick” Mitchell

A call sign so iconic they named the sequel after him. It’s a testament to the character that Maverick’s reputation for not playing by the rules and living dangerously is almost as absurd as the person who plays him. (I will never pass up the opportunity to remind people that, to make a movie, voluntarily, Tom Cruise has not only jumped out of a plane, but now wants to SHOOT A MOVIE IN OUTER SPACE.) Maverick feels the need for speed, and even the pilots who can’t stand him would have to concede he might be the very best of them. From his call sign to the way he handles himself in the sky—he was inverted!—there’s nothing about Maverick that we would change. Except for charging into a women’s bathroom to hit on someone; those are the kind of rules you need to follow.

What can we expect from Maverick in his titular sequel? Well, given that the climactic events of Top Gun could’ve theoretically started World War III, anything is on the table. All I know is that I’ll be Maverick’s wingman anytime.