The sound system blasting the Kenny Loggins song “Danger Zone,” hundreds of USAA employees flooded the company headquarters auditorium on Tuesday morning for a debrief like no other.

Three former fighter pilots, graduates of the Navy’s elite fighter weapons school known as Top Gun, took the stage to talk about their roles as consultants on the set of the recently released movie sequel, “Top Gun: Maverick.”

The event coincided with the insurance giant’s 100th anniversary of its founding, which the company marked in June. 

JJ “Yank” Cummings and Kevin “Proton” McLaughlin, both retired Navy captains, were joined by Amy “BACON!” Heflin, a former lieutenant commander, to answer questions from the audience about the movie. (Actor Tom Cruise, aka Maverick, was a no-show.)

The three officers also spoke about Top Gun school, the real thing, and their careers as aviators scoring a collective 9,000 flight hours and 2,000 landings on an aircraft carrier. 

“The best pilots in the world, bar none,” said retired Vice Adm. John Bird, senior vice president of military affairs at USAA, in his introduction. “These amazing men and women that fly the F-18 bring that power and lethality to reality when they launch off the deck of that aircraft.”

Besides, nobody beats Navy aviators on the cool factor, he added. 

The pilots’ call signs gave some hint of their backgrounds — Proton because he once worked in the nuclear forces and Yank because he is from Massachusetts.

Heflin got her call sign, BACON!, after a cockpit mishap that goes by the same acronym. In the movie, she flies for the character Lt. Natasha “Phoenix” Trace, portrayed by Monica Barbaro, who Heflin said played the role perfectly.

But if the movie was a box-office hit, McLaughlin said Top Gun, the aviator school, “was born out of failure.” 

After a 1968 report showed that air crews didn’t know the capabilities of either the aircraft or the weapons they were employing, the Top Gun program was started a year later at Naval Air Station Miramar in a trailer parked next to a hangar. Today, it’s the model for training across all services, he said.

There’s a lot of risk in military aviation, and nearly every single one of those risks was combined in the movie version dramatizing what they do, Cummings said. 

Navy Captain JJ Cummings, center, responds to questions from the panel during the  Top Gun event at USAA.
Retired Navy Capt. JJ Cummings, center, responds to questions from the panel during the Top Gun event at USAA. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Stephanie Wright, product management director at USAA and a Navy veteran, asked the pilots how they manage risk, something USAA’s insurance division does day to day.

“In the Navy, the consequences are severe — loss of life, loss of an aircraft or putting a $30 million warship on the rocks,” Cummings said. “So we reduce risk, reduce probability or mishap, by intense training.” 

Debriefs after a mission can last for five or six hours, and that’s where a lot of learning occurs, he added. It also comes from harsh self-reflection and introspection, McLaughlin said. 

As for how authentic the movie is to real life, all three pilots say it comes pretty close and that’s why they were brought in to help with the screenplay and production in the first place. 

They insisted on accuracy in many aspects, they said, as well as certain standards the pilots set: No locker room scenes, no relationship between cadets and no wearing the uniform incorrectly. And the movie reflects that, Cummings said.

But while he advised producers that a scene in which the actors play football on the beach in their jeans was highly improbable, the producers reminded him that the movie wasn’t meant to be a documentary.

“A little bit of drama sells tickets,” he said.

Shari Biediger has been covering business and development for the San Antonio Report since 2017. A graduate of St. Mary’s University, she has worked in the corporate and nonprofit worlds in San Antonio...