4 Communication Skills I Learned From Real Top Gun Fighter Pilots

Carmine Gallo speaking to elite fighter pilots at the Weapons and Tactics Instructor Course, Yuma, AZ

Tom Cruise is the perfect actor to play an elite fighter pilot because, like the professionals he portrays in Top Gun Maverick, he approaches his work with an uncompromising commitment to excellence.

I know why Cruise insisted on putting IMAX cameras in real fighter jets to capture the intensity of the experience. I’ve had the rare opportunity to ride in a F/A-18 Hornet with a pilot from the Navy’s Blue Angels. I’ve also sat behind the controls of a $10 million flight simulator, and been invited to speak to TOPGUN and Marine Corps aviators who are among the U.S. military’s most elite pilots.

When fighter pilots are racing through rugged terrain at supersonic speed, they don’t have time to read detailed instructions. Instead, their reactions are drawn from years of experience, thousands of hours of practice, relentless feedback loops, and clearly articulated mission objectives.

The following communication skills required to be a top fighter pilot will help you soar in any field.

1). Life-Long Learning.

A commitment to life-long learning is deeply ingrained in the military culture. As a result, flight commanders are among the most voracious readers I’ve met in any field.

When I spoke to a class of Marine Corp aviators at a graduate-level course in Yuma, Arizona, I was impressed with the variety of books they read beyond required textbooks. Some of them read my books on communication while others focus on history, biographies, and psychology books. But they’re all readers. Constant and never-ending improvement is a foundational element of leadership.

2). Debriefs and Feedback Loops.

Debriefs are the hallmark of a successful mission. A debrief occurs after a training mission (or a real one) and often lasts longer than the actual flight.

In most cases, the lead pilots are responsible for conducting the debrief, and they begin by identifying their own mistakes. Even if the mission went smoothly, there’s always room for improvement. By acknowledging their own mistakes, leaders give tacit permission to the rest of the team to identify those areas where they could have performed better.

Hold debriefs with your team. For example, if you launched a new product or service, ask the following questions: What went well with our product launch? What did we learn? What mistakes did we make that we can avoid next time? Above all, encourage yourself and others to recognize their mistakes and express a commitment to fixing them next time.

Carmine gets a tour of Harrier jets with the famous Black Sheep Squadron

3). Clear and Concise Communication.

Clarity is at the heart of a mission brief. And clarity is achieved through the acronym BLUF (Bottom Line Up Front).

BLUF is a concise recap of the essential message (no more than three sentences), and it’s always ‘up front.’ Every person on the flight team must be crystal clear on the objective—the big picture, and that’s what BLUF delivers.

Apply BLUF to your emails, memos, and presentations. Start with the big picture before diving into details.

Carmine gets an inside look at a Super Cobra attack helicopter

4). Exceptional Presentation Skills.

Only about 1% of fighter pilots get chosen to be instructors because they not only have to be among the best aviators—the role also requires exceptional communication skills.

Those applying to be instructors in the TOPGUN program must pass a grueling test: deliver a four-hour presentation from memory (no notes or reading from slides). The only way to pass with flying colors is to practice. Many candidates practice for months in front of their peers. I’ve noticed that the best leaders are gracious when they hear positive feedback, but they encourage their peers to tell them what they did wrong and where they can improve. Great leaders have the confidence to invite criticism, and they use that feedback to be even better.

Carmine gets an up-close look at the cockpit of a V-22 Osprey

It takes passion, dedication, and an unrelenting commitment to excellence to reach the top in any field—qualities that make real Top Guns stand out.