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Top Gun admiral helped write the movie

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Admiral Jimmie Taylor demonstrates how a dogfight works like it did in his 188 combat missions in Vietnam - where he witnessed the fall of Saigon - and in training Top Gun pilots. JOHN BUTWELL / The Murfreesboro Post

Sometimes being in the right place at the right time has been very important in the life of Smyrna's Rear Admiral Jimmie Taylor.

And a lot of the time, that "right place" has been in the sky.

Raised on a farm near Leanna, in rural Rutherford County, Taylor says he never expected to become an admiral - and in fact, he adds, the day he found out he'd been promoted to that rank was the only time in his life he came close to fainting.

Taylor was working at the Pentagon when he got the call from the three-star admiral he was working for.

Was on 'the list'

"He said he had some good news for me, that my name was on the list. I asked him, 'What list?' He said, 'The new admirals list, the one the president signed.' That was the nearest I ever came to fainting," Taylor recalls.

He explains that about 1,600 apply for promotion to one-star admiral, but the Navy only picks about 35. He didn't think his experience would qualify him, since he hadn't commanded a ship and didn't have any advanced degrees.

But his superior officers seemed to think several thousand hours flying fighter jets, including 188 combat missions over Vietnam between 1965 and 1975, as well as extensive experience as a trainer of fighter pilots, counted enough.

Taylor also flew with the Blue Angels and Top Gun and supervised those programs.

More than 4,000 flight hours

When Taylor retired in 1991, he had 34 years in the U.S. Navy - and since he has kept on flying, he now logs more than 4,000 flight hours. And at 83, he still tries to fly as often as he can.

But all that is a long way from the "little country boy" who was thrilled when he first sat in the J-3 Cub airplane that his grandma's neighbor, Eagleville banker Russell Puckett, owned.

"I watched him take off and land in the field," Taylor remembers. "I was about 5, and he asked me if I wanted to sit in the plane. I knew right then I wanted to fly."

Taylor didn't make his first flight until about 15 years later, when he started taking aviation classes at MTSU, where he transferred from UT.

"But," Taylor chuckles, "it was a J-3 Cub." This time he did some of the flying himself. His flight instructor was Miller Lanier, who was responsible for starting the aviation program at MTSU, according to Taylor.

'Like a duck takes to water'

After Taylor had been flying about 10 or 15 minutes, Lanier asked him if he knew where the airport was. "I said, 'Yes sir, 10 minutes that way,'" and pointed to where it was, Taylor recalls.

Lanier was surprised and told Taylor most people couldn't do that, but that the talent could make him a very good pilot.

Taylor also seemed like a natural at the stick, Lanier noted. "I took to flying like a duck takes to water," Taylor reminisces fondly - going on to describe his stint as a crop duster before deciding on naval aviation as the best alternative to being drafted as a foot soldier in Korea.

He has never stopped loving flight, either, he says. "Since I've been able to fly, I've flown anything that goes up in the air, planes, balloons, helicopters, gliders. I even flew a space shuttle simulator."

Spent summers 'in mill pond'

Taylor also recalls the life he shared with his two younger brothers, Gary and Royce, after his parents James and Mary Steagall Taylor bought a farm adjoining the Nice's Mill pond.

"I spent all summer in the mill pond," he says.

And when he got all dusty and dirty helping around the farm, his mother would give him a bar of Ivory soap and tell him to go wash up in the pond before he got into her nice clean shower.

Both of his brothers were successful in their chosen careers, too. Judge Royce Taylor lives nearby - as does the Rev. Gary Taylor, retired district supervisor for the United Methodist Church in the Nashville area.

Special moment at old Smyrna Gym

When Taylor and his friends learned to square dance, they went to dances anytime there was one. That was another case when being in the right place at the right time paid a special dividend.

It was at one of those square dances in the old Smyrna Gym that Taylor first met his wife of 59 years, Annette.

"I saw this good-looking little honey, so I headed over there and introduced myself and asked her to dance," he says with a grin.

It turns out that she had spotted him a few days earlier at Mrs. Shipp's Café (now City Cafe). She and her twin sister came into the restaurant.

"She sees me and tells her twin sister, 'He's mine! Don't you get in his face,'" Taylor describes gleefully.

A little later, the couple met again at a dance at the "cedar forest," now Cedars of Lebanon State Park. "That time I asked her for a date," he says. "We courted for about four years."

Re-worked 'Top Gun' script

Still another example of being in the right place occurred when Taylor's superior asked him to look over a script for the eventual smash hit movie "Top Gun" starring Tom Cruise and Kelly McGillis.

Taylor says his first reaction to the script was, "This might make a C-grade movie," because all the scenes involving flight and aerial fights were so bad. And he wasn't much impressed with the plot, either.

Asked to make suggestions, Taylor recommended a change - among other things - of Cruise's love interest from the visiting Bolshoi ballerina the script originally called for to the civilian contractor that McGillis played.

"The opening scene, where everybody's rushing around the flight deck and fighters are landing and everybody's doing everything at once, and the wind's blowing - that's the best depiction of what really happens on an aircraft carrier ever, because that's where it was filmed," he confides.

Ran actual Top Gun program

The flying and dogfight footage that Taylor recommended is highly acclaimed by critics, and the box office hit flooded the Navy with enlistees who all wanted to be fighter pilots, but small wonder.

Taylor knew all about what he penciled into the script since he had been in charge of the Navy's actual Top Gun training program.

The program cherry-picks the Navy's best new pilots and then gives them additional training. At one time, Taylor's job was to pretend his fighter jet was an enemy MiG plane, and he'd take off with 30 or 40 training pilots into the skies of Nevada's Area 51.

'Shot down' training pilots

"I'd go up to about 40,000 feet, but they'd stay down between 20,000 and 30,000," he explains. "I'd wait until one of them strayed a little, then I'd drop down, shoot him, and go back up. Before long, I'd be the only one left."

He adds that after the training session - which used computer simulations for bullets and missiles, not the real deal - the young pilots would ask him how he did it, and he'd just say, "That's my secret. If you find it out, then you'll be as good as I am."

But he said the high point for him came in 1973 when he flew the first F-14 off the production line in the Paris Air Show.

Landed where Lindbergh did

"It was 'the Pearl of Paris,'" he says, adding that he landed on the same strip where Charles Lindbergh first touched down after crossing the Atlantic solo in 1927.

Taylor flew twice a day and got to meet and talk to all the greatest people in aviation at the air show. He also got a chance to tour the newest Soviet plane, a Tu-144 supersonic transport similar to the Concorde.

Later in the day that the Americans toured the plane, it flew acrobatically as its portion of the air show. When it was coming into land, Taylor was sitting in his F-14, waiting to take off.

He says he watched the Soviet aircraft come in and then go back up when the pilot realized he didn't have enough room to land. It looped and still came up short.

Witnessed SST crash

"I thought, 'He's too low. He's never going to make it,'" Taylor recalls. Then as Taylor snapped pictures, the big plane crashed into a nearby village, killing all seven people on board.

But the airshow didn't stop. "I took off through the smoke from their crash," Taylor adds. "I couldn't help remembering meeting them earlier that day."

After the air show was over, Taylor toured Europe with the Blue Angels precision acrobatic flight team and met a lot of other well-known people, too - kings and queens, the Shah of Iran and Elizabeth Taylor...

Part of being in charge of training Navy pilots was supervising the Blue Angels, too. Taylor says he didn't select the new pilots - because the pilots on the team do that themselves - but he did select their commander three times.

In Florida when Angel crashed

The admiral's role with "the Blues" made the news particularly sad for him when one of the Angel jets that came to Smyrna for the Great Tennessee Air Show last year crashed near the Sam Davis Home during practice maneuvers, killing its pilot, Capt. Jeff Kuss.

Taylor said he was boating with his family off the coast of Pensacola, Fla. - where the Angels are based - the day of the accident. His daughter Tracey found out about it on her cell phone from a friend in Smyrna who witnessed the crash. Taylor speculates that the pilot may have blacked out from G-forces.

But the retired admiral still loves acrobatic flying himself. He says just straight-level flying doesn't appeal to him - "I have to get in a spin or a loop," he admits with a grin.

Daughter, son-in-law fly, too

"I have a flying family," Taylor adds. Not only does he still fly, Tracey is a pilot for Delta Airlines and her husband Alexander Conde is a pilot for the Tennessee National Guard.

Taylor's administrative experience as an admiral also has been put to good use in his "retirement" by civic organizations who have eagerly accepted his services.

Taylor's taken on tasks ranging from selecting recipients for funding from the Naval Aviation Museum in Pensacola, which he helped found, to "doing the same sort of thing" with charitable money given out by Smyrna Rotary - in which Taylor is active.

He also volunteers with Habitat for Humanity, he describes, counting the houses which he's helped get built or that Habitat is currently planning - as well as the Middle Tennessee Electric Foundation and Meals on Wheels.

"The only trouble" with all the volunteering he does, Taylor quips, "is I can't find anyone who wants me to fly."

Writer Connie Esh can be contacted at cewrites@yahoo.com.


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