Patriot Jet Team in Byron helped with new “Top Gun” film

Photo by Jake Menez

Patriot Jet Team owner Randy Howell stands in front of one of the team’s jets. The Patriot Jet Team’s pilots and engineers helped to develop the cameras that were used to capture the aerobatic stunts in the new Tom Cruise film, “Top Gun: Maverick.”

East County residents may be accustomed to seeing the Patriots Jet Team in the skies overhead performing their air show for weddings and other events. But they may not realize that the team can be seen somewhere else too — this time on the big screen as part of the new Tom Cruise film, “Top Gun: Maverick.”

"Top Gun: Maverick" star Tom Cruise picks up James for a once-in-a-lifetime trip to the desert where Tom pilots James in a vintage fighter plane for the afternoon. And just when James thinks he's survived, Tom informs him the two will be going up again — this time in a jet fit for modern aerial warfare. There isn't much doubt Maverick will survive the experience, but will James? "Top Gun: Maverick" comes out only in theaters May 27!

The Patriots Jet Team’s pilots and engineers helped to develop the cameras that were used to capture the aerobatic stunts that are on full display in the films, according to the team’s owner, Randy Howell. The team also did some of the flying that was captured on film, even filling in as the enemies in the film’s climactic final dogfight.

The camera system used for the movie’s aerial cinematography took about a year to develop, according to Howell. The process involved trial and error, with cameras being sent by Helinet Aviation to be tested and tweaked by the Patriots until the final product was ready to present to Paramount Pictures. Once the studio saw it, Howell and his partner, Kevin LaRosa II, were brought onto the production to lend their expertise. LaRosa is a producer and stunt pilot whose previous film credits include blockbusters such as several Marvel Studios films and war thrillers like “Zero Dark Thirty.”

 Howell has had a love of aviation long before partnering with Paramount Pictures to get the critically acclaimed sequel off the ground.

“When I was 5 years old, my dad took me to see the Thunderbirds and that started it all,” said Howell of his interest in flying. “As a kid, I had a paper route. I made $21 a week and flying lessons were also $21, so it worked out.”

Howell spent 28 years as a United Airlines pilot before founding the Patriots Jet Team in 1999 after acquiring an L-39 jet. Since then, the Byron-based team has continued to grow, recruiting pilots from both the Blue Angels and Thunderbirds to become the largest civilian-owned aerobatic jet team in the Western Hemisphere, according to their website. In addition to the six ship air show routine that is the core of the Patriots Jet Team, the organization also runs an educational nonprofit, provides training for commercial pilots and assists in the development and use of the CineJet camera system that was a crucial part of filming “Top Gun: Maverick.”

Beyond that, Howell and his team were also involved in getting the actors prepared for takeoff, training them to be able to confidently pilot the aircrafts while also preparing their bodies for the physical toll of high-speed flight, he said. Howell estimated he spent "many" hours flying with Cruise to get the actor certified to fly on his own. Cruise even ended up shooting a segment for “The Late Late Show with James Corden” to promote the film where he can be seen piloting one of the Patriots Jet Team aircrafts with the late-night host along for the ride.

Their work on “Top Gun: Maverick” is just the beginning of the Patriots Jet Team’s partnership with both Cruise and actor Glen Powell, who plays another of the film’s main characters. Powell’s next film, “Devotion,” is the true story of two fighter pilots during the Korean War and features support from the Patriots Jet Team and use of the CineJet camera system. The same goes for Cruise’s next “Mission: Impossible” film.

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