(USAF)

Just before the climax of Top Gun — during which Iceman, Maverick, and their comrades have to provide cover for a rescue mission — there's a moment where the hard-driven CAG (played by James Tolkan) lays out the situation. Despite some Hollywood liberties, the commander's briefing is somewhat grounded in reality — but the real thing is much more complex.

When the Navy or Air Force sends planes to hit a target, it's not as simple as just grabbing some bombs, loading 'em up, and going to blow up the target. No, executing a flawless, effective air strike takes planning.


You see, you're not just planning a route and target for the strike planes. You're actually putting together a package to deal with the enemy target and anything protecting it and, throughout the process, you need to make sure your assets remain safe. So, that means sending proper escorts, too. If you want to know what happens when strike planes go in without proper escorts… well, Torpedo Squadron 8 is what happens.

An operations airman helps Indian Air Force pilots complete a mission brief prior to a scheduled sortie. Briefings make sure everyone is on the same page.

(USAF photo by Airman 1st Class Cassandra Whitman)

For instance, let's say there's a bridge you want gone. This hypothetical bridge is defended by a couple of ZSU-23 self-propelled anti-aircraft guns and a battery of S-60 anti-aircraft guns. A battery of SA-11 Gadfly missiles are in the area as well. And, for good measure, let's say there are MiG-29 Fulcrums patrolling in the area, too.

To take out said bridge, you might send four F-15E Strike Eagles equipped with GBU-24 laser-guided bombs. Next, you'll want to handle the local air defenses. Sending a pair of F-16C Fighting Falcons armed with AGM-88 HARMs should counter the SA-11s and two more, armed with cluster bombs, can deal with the anti-aircraft guns. Add in an EA-18G Growler to jam the radars and a couple of F-22 Raptors to "redistribute" some MiG parts, should the patrol come near.

Even crews of cargo planes brief their missions. No mission too small for a thorough briefing.

(USAF photo by Staff Sgt. Cody H. Ramirez)

But before they take to the skies, all the pilots need to know what their part in the mission is, what they will be facing, and who will deal with what. So, in an actual briefing, the crews in the package will (if they're at the same base) meet up and go over the threats and the assignments.

During World War II, the process was very similar. The crews going out would assemble, be briefed on the threats, and have a plan to deal with each target and any escorts. Watch the video below to see one such briefing and get a glimpse into how American pilots planned their combat missions.