‘Top Gun’ in Real Life: Meet the Vol Who Trained Tom Cruise in Fighter Jets

Curtis Watson (HCB, ’73) has been known by a number of different names during his exciting path through life. One is the “Crossville Comet,” which is what he was called as a fullback playing football for UT and later with the New Orleans Saints and the Green Bay Packers. 

Another was “Griz,” which is what he was called as a naval aviator landing on aircraft carriers and flying for the Blue Angels. 

And yet another was, “Sir,” which is what actor Tom Cruise insisted on calling him during a preparation flight for the 1986 movie Top Gun. Watson, who did 323 carrier landings and “scared (himself) 323 times,” met with Cruise at El Centro, California, to give the actor a sense of what flying in a fighter jet actually feels like. 

“He was just 23 years old at the time and nervous, so he kept calling me Sir,” Watson said. “I asked him to call me Griz instead, and he said, ‘Yes, sir!’ Of course, he was in a totally unfamiliar environment. Trust me, there’s nothing like getting in the back seat of a fighter aircraft. You can’t simulate anything that’s even close to it until you get in the actual airplane.” 

With a sequel to Top Gun released in 2022—36 years later—Watson took some time to reflect on his career as a pilot. During his time in the US Navy, he flew planes including the T-2 Buckeye, TA-4J Skyhawk, LTV A-7 Corsair II, A-4 Super Fox, and F/A-18 Hornet. 

“What a great airplane the F/A-18 Hornet is, with all of its thrust,” Watson said. “You could take it out to the end of the runway and pull it right into vertical and just keep going.” 

Watson started flying as a teenager with his father in a Piper Tri-Pacer, which is how he first became introduced to aviation. After his time in the Navy, he joined FedEx as a pilot and flew cargo around the world. His sister, also a former Naval aviator, and brother-in-law flew for FedEx as well. Watson logged 9,522 accident-free hours before his retirement in 2015. 

The best times of Watson’s life, he says, were playing football and flying airplanes. The camaraderie he experienced in doing so was unlike anything else he ever experienced. 

“There’s no closer bunch of people than a football team, and you think that’s the closest group of people you’ll ever be around until you get in a Navy squadron,” Watson said. “There it’s a little bit different, because if you mess up in a football game you lose, but if you mess up in an airplane you lose your life. We were really close friends— sometimes we were only 30 to 36 inches apart!” 

—Gerhard Schneibel 

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