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caption: Actor Tom Cruise repeatedly flew low and fast over the Cascade Range in a Whidbey Island-based Navy electronic attack jet during filming of the Top Gun sequel.
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Actor Tom Cruise repeatedly flew low and fast over the Cascade Range in a Whidbey Island-based Navy electronic attack jet during filming of the Top Gun sequel.
Credit: Paramount Pictures

Highway to the danger zone passes through the Pacific Northwest

The summer movie blockbuster season kicks off May 27 with the release of a sequel to the 1980s hit "Top Gun." And Northwest moviegoers may recognize some familiar Puget Sound scenery in the background.

"Top Gun: Maverick" brings actor Tom Cruise back to his role as the ace Navy fighter pilot.

Cruise reportedly insisted on filming the aerial action in real fighter jets and rejected where possible using computer-generated imagery. So, Paramount Pictures struck a production assistance agreement with the Navy to make it so.

A copy, first obtained by the website The War Zone, shows Cruise and company set up shop at Naval Air Station Whidbey Island in March 2019. The Navy leased out the Officers' Club on base for the crew to use for catering, briefings and rehearsals. Cast and crew were allowed to bunk at an on-base inn, which provided privacy.

The actors flew eight sorties with a squadron of two-seater jets. While experienced Navy pilots were at the controls, the aerial scenes were filmed to make it appear Cruise or his co-stars (always in the back seat) were actually piloting the powerful attack aircraft in tight formations.

The short residency of the Top Gun sequel's cast and crew at the airfield in Oak Harbor was kept hush-hush at the time. Paramount gave the production a code name, "Island Plaza." When the local newspaper sought to confirm rumors of movie star sightings, NAS Whidbey Public Affairs Officer Mike Welding would answer no questions that included the words “filming” or “Tom Cruise.”

But now the results are on-screen for all to see. Naval aviators from the air stations where filming took place actually got an early peek. NAS Whidbey Island hosted an advance screening on the base on May 21.

In the movie, Whidbey Island-based Navy EA-18 Growler jets fly fast and low through the Cascade Mountains, swooping over reservoirs, snow-capped ridges and dodging peaks. In the movie, this climactic footage is presented as the terrain of a hostile, unnamed rogue nation.

But for those around Washington state, this scenery is familiar as the noisy, low-level flight training routes long used by the military in the Northwest.

The executive director of the Washington state film and TV office, formally known as Washington Filmworks, said "Top Gun: Maverick" did not receive any state movie production incentives. Separately, a film liaison for Whidbey and Camano Islands said she provided a modest amount of assistance helping the crew find lodging and dining.

Much of the film was shot in California, with additional aerial footage captured at the real-life Top Gun strike fighter tactics school at Naval Air Station Fallon in Nevada. The Navy's extensive cooperation in the sequel's filming is expected to give the military a significant boost in recruiting.

"Top Gun: Maverick" is proving to be an early success, leading up to its wide release. As of May 27, its holds a 97% ranking on Rotten Tomatoes (and an audience score of 99%). Cruise also received a five minute standing ovation at the film's screening at the Cannes Film Festival.

Kenny Loggins wrote songs for the original Top Gun film, which became radio hits, including "Danger Zone" and "Playing with the Boys." Loggins is originally from Everett, Washington. He is not listed in the music credits of the sequel (Lady Gaga is). But "Danger Zone" is included on the soundtrack.