Tom Cruise’s character from the movie Top Gun may be the world’s most famous fighter pilot. However, we couldn’t have a Maverick without the history of the real flyboys, the stories of the women and men that have trained and dedicated their lives to defending our county.

Our creative team connected with the former USAF Thunderbird #2 Pilot and USAF Weapons School (Top Gun) graduate and pilot instructor, John “Slick” Baum to go “inside the jacket” that has captivated the world. Join us, as Slick shares his story about being a part of  the Top Gun legacy that continues to inspire young aviators all over the world.

Cockpit USA: How did you get the callsign “Slick” and what does it mean to you?
John "Slick" Baum: As fighter pilots, we don't get to pick our callsigns. It's a name given to us by our peers, typically during your first operational check out. As a young pilot is getting certified to be "mission ready", you may make a mistake, have a funny last name or something else that stands out to the folks in the squadron. My last name is Baum, many people incorrectly pronounce it "bomb". There's a type of fin kit that goes on bombs that we would drop in training called a "slick bomb". They were high speed, low drag weapons compared to others in the inventory. Luckily, there weren't many mistakes that were made, although I know I made plenty of them. (laughs) When my naming ceremony came around, "Slick" is what stuck. I'm extremely proud of my callsign since it was given to me by my squadron mates when I was stationed at Aviano Air Base in Italy.
Cockpit USA : What three words describe you as an aviator?
John "Slick" Baum: Meticulous. Aggressive. Instinctive.  
Cockpit USA: How did you become interested in aviation?
John "Slick" Baum:  Honestly, I never thought I could or would be a fighter pilot. I grew up in a very humble household. A typical 1980s family. In 1986, the movies Transformers and Top Gun came out. Instead of seeing Transformers, I made my way to see Top Gun and it was awesome. Of course, the kissing scene got me in a lot of trouble when I got home. I promised my parents that I closed my eyes during that part!
Cockpit USA: How did you get started in the USAF? 
John "Slick" Baum:  I graduated from high school early at the end of the Fall semester.  I enrolled in a communications program at Suffolk County Community College in the spring of 1993. Man, I'm really dating myself! Unfortunately, I couldn't come up with the money to begin that first semester so I decided to enlist in the USAF. At the time, my passion was photography and I just wanted the GI Bill to fund an art degree or communications degree. I ended up working on cameras and other optical equipment for 4 years, 4 months, and 27 days. Yes, I was counting! (laughs) I took the Air Force Officers Qualifying Test and aced the pilot portion. So, I applied to AFROTC and spent 15 months off of active duty as an inactive reservest before receiving my commission. After 24 years since I enlisted, I retired as a Lt. Colonel. 
See the full Air-To-Air photo shoot featured above, here
Cockpit USA: What was your most challenging experience as an F-16 pilot?
John "Slick" Baum: The most challenging day I had was over the skies in Iraq. There was bad weather, my wingman lost sight and I was by myself engaged in a really tough situation with US Marines pinned down on the ground. 
Cockpit USA: Tell me more about your Stearman biplane? How did you choose this aircraft?
John "Slick" Baum: This is such a historic aircraft. Nearly all military aviators from the US Army Air Forces, now the US Air Force, US Navy and USMC flew the Stearman in their primary flight training. When I think of a vintage warbird, a biplane, open cockpit, and radial engine are hallmarks of this era. The Stearman has it all. So based on the history and ease of maintenance, the Stearman was the right airplane for me when it came time to own a warbird. It also is the lowest time Stearman in the world with only 352 hours on the airframe since it's birth on 4/4/1944. 
Cockpit USA: Is there one particular experience that comes to mind when you think about your time as a USAF Thunderbird?
John "Slick" Baum: The best part of being a Thunderbird was the teamwork and friendships that we forged. I'll never forget the bond we had as a formation. My close friend flew the #4 Slot position. We often joke about how we'd both have our visors down and masks up, but when we looked over at each other, we knew exactly what the other guys facial expression was and what was going through his mind. 
Cockpit USA: As a fighter pilot, what is the fastest you have flown and the most G’s you have pulled?  Can you explain what that means to our readers?
John "Slick" Baum: I flew at 1.98 mach, that's almost twice the speed of sound. I hit 10.2 Gs doing a sliceback maneuver during an air to air intercept. The F-16s fly by wire computer system wasn't supposed to let us "over G" the airframe, but there were certain cases where you could pull past the limiter and get beyond the normal 9 Gs. Sitting at your desk, you're at 1 times the force of gravity. When you turn in a fighter jet, you can weigh up to 9 times your weight due to the centrifugal force durning a turn.
Cockpit USA: How do you feel about individuals wearing Air Force garments that have not served in the military?
John "Slick" Baum: I love that those who haven't served feel compelled to wear the garments that we were issued to wear. If it's a shout out to the military or an homage to a loved one that may have served. Its really special that these jackets connect to everyday people.


Cockpit USA: How has the Air Force inspired your personal style outside of work?

John "Slick" Baum: I love the fact that I've served and had the honor of wearing timeless classics, like my A-2 Leather Jacket or Nomex style flight jackets. I feel really comfortable in these clothes since I've worn them for years. 


 Cockpit USA: How do you choose your outerwear?
John "Slick" Baum: Honestly, it has to be comfortable and high quality. I'm always on the go, so layering makes sense to me. I often trade my suit jacket or blazer for a textile jacket like the Cockpit USA MA-1 Bomber or M-86 Flight Bomber Jacket. I always get complements on these jackets.
Cockpit USA: In your time as a Weapons School graduate and instructor, is there any piece of advice that you would share with us?
John "Slick" Baum: I believe we are all a reflection of the people we surround ourselves with. As a Weapons School Instructor, I was around the best of the best. Both my fellow instructors and the students. That experience was one of the most rewarding because of the people, so I'd share that philisophy with your readers. 
Cockpit USA: What three words best describe you outside of Aviation?
John "Slick" Baum: Loyal. Fun. Energetic.
Cockpit USA: Last question… If you could, would you do it all over again?
John "Slick" Baum: Abso-F'n-loutely...that's fighter pilot for YES!!!
Cockpit USA is the current official supplier of the USAF A-2 Pilot's Leather Jacket. We are dedicated to preserving the history of American Aviation. Read the 1st part of the Air-To-Air Off Duty Story here and shop the Movie Hero collection here