After Top Gun debuted on the big screen in 1986, the movie was nominated for four Academy Awards. Three of the four nominations fell under the category of sound: best sound, best sound effects, and best original song.
Sound engineering heighted the experience of the movie’s most iconic scenes from the first four minutes of the movie featuring takeoffs and landings with Kenny Loggins’ “Danger Zone” mixed in, to Lt. Pete “Maverick” Mitchell buzzing the tower, to the stall warning and failed ejection that killed Goose.
So how do you begin to top the sounds of Top Gun?
That work fell on the shoulders of Skywalker Sound, a dedicated team that specialize in sound design, mixing, and audio post-production. Skywalker Sound has been closely involved with the movie’s sequel, Top Gun: Maverick.
Their team had a big task: create an entire portfolio of aviation sounds with their state-of-the-art audio recording equipment. The U.S. Navy and Paramount Pictures directed them to GE Aviation, the world’s largest jet engine manufacturer to assist. The request was handed over to GE Aviation executive and aviation film buff Tom Lodge.
“I was then introduced to Skywalker Sound lead sound designer Al Nelson,” said Lodge. “We discussed his needs and contrary to my speculation, he did not need sounds from the specific GE F414 powering the F/A-18 Super Hornet, the featured aircraft in the film. He needed a portfolio of jet engine sounds that would be used in various places in the movie to emphasize a high-tech environment.
“If anyone has a portfolio, it’s GE Aviation. We have engines ranging from the 2,000-pound thrust HF120 engine to the 105,000-pound thrust GE9X engine, and everything in between.”
In April of 2019, Nelson and his colleague Benny Burtt brought their specialized microphones and computers from their studio headquarters in Marin County, CA, to GE Aviation headquarters in Cincinnati.
The visit started with recording of a GE Honda HF120 engine from a HondaJet business aircraft. The following day, the team headed over to GE Aviation’s Peebles Test Operation, a 7,000-acre facility in rural Ohio that has been used by GE to test engines for nearly 70 years. Skywalker Sound was able to capture recordings for the first production run of a particular GEnx-1B, the engine that powers the Boeing 787 Dreamliner.
“It was a fascinating experience for us to witness how jet engines are produced and tested. The scale of the test facilities and sophistication of the instrumentation was beyond impressive,” said Burtt.
During their day at Peebles, the Skywalker Sound crew position various microphones inside test cells under close supervision of the technicians. They recorded the world’s most powerful commercial aviation engine, the mammoth GE9X, ranging from idle to its max power. They also recorded the unique sounds of the overhead cranes being moved.
Benny then traveled to GE Aviation’s engine facility in Lynn, MA, to capture recordings of a T700 engine, which powers the Navy’s MH-60 Seahawk and a wide range of military helicopters. Finally, they recorded a F414 in the test cells.
“GE Aviation has long history with the US military and the US Navy in particular, Lodge said. “We’ve powered their aircraft for over 70 years and are proud to be a contributor to Top Gun: Maverick. What an inspiration to see our F414s powering a very special member of the cast, the Boeing F/A-18 Super Hornet.”
Over three days they captured sounds from five unique engine models.
“We are grateful for the generosity of GE Aviation to open their doors to us,” Nelson said. “Their cooperation and hospitality enabled us to record very special and unique sounds that we would have had difficult access normally.”
The GE team who laid out the red carpet for Skywalker sounds also included Dan Meador, Matt Allen, Dave Groth, Brent Boggs, Joe Spielmann, Daniel Beanes and Doug Mallinger.
“It was a privilege to meet the Skywalker Sound team and to learn of the variety projects and types of sounds they record,” Lodge said. “I gained a deeper appreciation of the creative skill needed to seek sound sources that become an integral part of the final movie experience.”