Tom Cruise portraying Maverick in a scene from
Tom Cruise portraying Captain Pete "Maverick" Mitchell in a scene from "Top Gun: Maverick." Image by Paramount Pictures via AP

Maverick Top Gun stat turns out to be a real goose

William Summers June 14, 2022

The 1986 Top Gun movie sparked a 500 per cent increase in US navy recruitment that year.


False. US navy recruitment rose by eight per cent in 1986.

A long-awaited sequel to 1986 blockbuster Top Gun has rebooted a claim that the original film caused a 500 per cent spike in US Navy recruitment that year.

But the claim is false. Navy enlistments increased by around eight per cent in 1986 before falling back slightly in the following year.

The 500 per cent figure appears to be a ‘zombie statistic‘ that originated from a different but similar claim in a 2004 book.
The claim has been repeated numerous times across Facebook and Twitter (see examples here, here, here, here, here and here).

Various media outlets have also referenced the figure, including the New York Post, Los Angeles Times, Wall Street Journal, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian, The Independent (UK) and the Daily Telegraph (Australia).

However, the claim can be disproved using official data.

The original Top Gun movie – which starred 23-year-old Tom Cruise as hot-shot navy pilot Lieutenant Pete “Maverick” Mitchell – premiered in New York on May 12, 1986.

Historical figures on navy enlistments are published here by the US Navy’s recruitment division. The data relates to US fiscal years, which run from October 1 to September 30.

According to those figures, 94,878 people enlisted in the navy in 1985/86 – the year the film was released – compared to 87,593 new enlistments the previous year. That equates to an 8.3 per cent boost in navy recruits after Top Gun hit cinemas, not the claimed jump of 500 per cent.

Recruitment then fell by 2.1 per cent in 1986/87 – the first full fiscal year following the release of the film – before rising again in the following two years to reach an eight-year high of 95,186 new recruits in 1988/89.

Navy enlistment has since been trending downwards (see graph below).

Some newspaper articles published in 1986 (see here and here) suggested the movie helped drive interest in the navy but AAP FactCheck could find no source from that year that suggested recruitment rose by 500 per cent.

The earliest reference AAP FactCheck found for the "500 per cent" figure was a related claim made in a 2004 book titled, Operation Hollywood: How the Pentagon Shapes and Censors the Movies.

On page 182 of the book, author David L. Robb wrote that: "According to the navy, recruitment of young men wanting to become naval aviators went up 500 per cent after the film was released".

The book did not include a reference for the claim.

Similar claims that Top Gun led to a 500 per cent rise in the recruitment of naval aviators - as opposed to the navy as a whole - can also be found in various media articles (see examples here, here and here).

However, official US Navy statistics suggest those claims are also wrong.

According to navy workforce data published here (page 414), the number of designated naval aviators remained relatively stable throughout the 1980s. While the total number of trained naval aviators did rise following Top Gun's release - from 1343 aviators in 1984/85 to 1528 aviators in 1988/89, a 14 per cent rise over four years - there is nothing in the data to suggest recruitment of new aviators increased by anything like the claimed 500 per cent.

Another variation on the claim has suggested the 500 per cent increase related to naval aviator applications rather than actual recruits (see for example this Washington Post story from May 27 and this Fox News article from June 5).

This 2019 government report on US military personnel (appendix D, page 7) showed that applications across all branches of the US armed forces in 1986 increased by just 0.3 per cent when compared to the previous year.

However, AAP FactCheck was not able to locate any historical data relating specifically to naval aviator applications.

The data also reveals it cannot be true that applications to the US Navy as a whole increased by 500 per cent in 1986, as stated here and here.

As mentioned above, 87,593 new recruits joined the navy in 1985. For the claim to be true that navy applications rose by 500 per cent the following year, at least six times as many people would have had to have applied for a place in the navy in 1986 - the equivalent of more than 400,000 additional applicants.

While AAP FactCheck was unable to locate data about historical applications to the US Navy, the 2019 US armed forces workforce data shows that 628,532 people applied to join either the army, navy, air force or marine corp in 1986.

Of those applications, 313,777 new recruits were enlisted, meaning around 315,000 remaining applications across all branches were either rejected or did not otherwise proceed.

Even assuming all of those 315,000 failed applicants had applied for a place in the navy and not other branches of the armed forces, they would still not have accounted for the claimed rise of at least 400,000 additional navy applications that year.

A spokesperson for the US Navy, Commander David Benham, told AAP FactCheck in an email that the 1986 Top Gun film "sparked significant interest in naval aviation in particular, and in the Navy in general". However, Commander Benham did not provide any data about the movie's historical impact on navy recruitment.

The Verdict

The claim that Top Gun sparked a 500 per cent increase in navy recruitment in 1986 is false. The claim appears to have originated from a 2004 book that said "recruitment of young men wanting to be naval aviators" went up by 500 per cent after the film was released. The book did not include a reference for the claim and did not suggest the figure applied to the whole navy.

Official US Navy data shows the number of people who joined the force rose by around eight per cent in 1986.

False - The claim is inaccurate.

* AAP FactCheck is an accredited member of the International Fact-Checking Network. To keep up with our latest fact checks, follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

All information, text and images included on the AAP Websites is for personal use only and may not be re-written, copied, re-sold or re-distributed, framed, linked, shared onto social media or otherwise used whether for compensation of any kind or not, unless you have the prior written permission of AAP. For more information, please refer to our standard terms and conditions.