Navy pilot and Bates graduate helps take film franchise to new heights

·5 min read

Jul. 3—LEWISTON — Bates College and the United States Navy's elite school for the top 1% of pilots have a graduate in common, one who was recruited to make the second installment of a major action film franchise as authentic and entertaining as possible.

He succeeded.

Capt. J.J. Cummings, 54, known by his call sign "Yank," was nearing the end of his nearly 31-year career as a fighter pilot and ship captain when he received one last assignment: Hollywood. The producers of "Top Gun: Maverick"were looking for pilots to advise screenwriters during the development stages of the project.

In June 2017, Cummings, who was on staff at the Commander Naval Air Forces Pacific located in San Diego as the head of aircraft carrier training, was waiting to take command of the USS Gerald R. Ford when he received a call from the commander's public affairs officer with an interesting offer.

"She said 'Hey, do you want to take the director and producer of "Top Gun: Maverick" out to the USS Theodore Roosevelt for an overnight visit in a few days?' and I went 'Sure!'" Cummings said.

Cummings was one of six officers involved in the film's development process who worked closely with screenwriters Ehren Kruger and Eric Warren Singer. During nearly 10 months of close collaboration with Singer in particular, Cummings had suggestions for the screenwriters to help make the world of the film and the portrayal of the Navy as real and as professional as possible.

"I requested that (the characters) have some semblance of military bearing, meaning that they had to act and speak like they were in the military, that they also keep a standard of Navy regulation with regard to haircuts and uniforms, which they mostly did," said Cummings, who also suggested that they avoid locker room scenes. Cummings felt the first film could have done without those scenes, as well as excluding any inappropriate relationships between the aviators that would violate the uniform code of military justice or fraternization.

The producers and screenwriters agreed.

Cummings was also listed in the credits as the Naval Aviation Advisor.

"As my daughter likes to point out, I'm below the animal trainer and the head chef," said Cummings, who also brought his daughter to the film's May premier in San Diego, where they rubbed shoulders with two of the films stars: Miles Teller and Jon Hamm.

According to CNN, "Maverick" became the 50th film in history to gross more than $1 billion at the global box office, becoming the second film to do so in the pandemic era after "Spider-Man: No Way Home." The film, was praised for its authenticity, balancing the nostalgia of its predecessor with aerial sequences that put the audience in the pilot's seat rather than just riding along.

Perhaps the film's biggest star for Naval aviators and aviation buffs was the F-14 Tomcat, the aircraft which featured prominently in the film's climax and ignited Cumming's passion for flying as a student at Bates College.

"I was walking through the library and I saw on the shelf the famous magazine called 'Proceedings,' which is a U.S. Naval Institute magazine, and on the cover was an F-14 Tomcat. This was before I enlisted in the Navy Reserves during my freshman year in 1986. So I basically permanently borrowed it from the library and kept it. I still have that magazine in my attic," said Cummings. "I apologize to Bates College for taking that magazine, but it was my motivation to fly Tomcats."

While seriously considering a career in the Navy, Cummings went to see the first "Top Gun" in theaters when it premiered in 1987. "About that time I said OK, I'm going to give (the Navy) a shot and then I went to see 'Top Gun,' and I was like 'Oh yeah, no brainer, I'm definitely going down this path.'" he said. "Seeing the movie validated my decision to go and fly for the Navy."

Hailing from Sharon, Massachusetts, Cummings attended Bates College to pursue football and rowing after falling in love with the energy on campus during a tour.

"I wanted to go to a small school in New England, where I could play football and (play) sports. I went on a week tour of a bunch of different schools with other high school juniors without our parents and we saw Bowdoin, Middlebury, Colby and St. Mike's. At Bates, the tour guide was spectacular, you could tell she loved Bates College and the interviewers were really genuine, and I just got a great feeling for Bates," Cummings said.

Cummings enlisted as a U.S. Navy corpsman while at Bates, completing reserve training in Topsham and Camp Lejeune in Jackson, North Carolina. He attended aviation officer candidate school in Pensacola, Florida, the setting of another popular military-themed film, "An Officer and a Gentleman." He graduated from Bates in 1991.

After flight school, Cummings flew F-14 Tomcats, completing multiple deployments from both coasts of the United States with missions during the early days of Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan in 2001, as well as later in Iraq. He later transitioned to flying F-18 Super Hornets and was selected to join the U.S. Navy Nuclear Propulsion Program, ultimately becoming a Navy captain and the commanding officer of the Navy's newest aircraft carrier at the time, the USS Gerald R. Ford.

Cummings married a Bates graduate and they have three children and live in Virginia Beach. Capt. Cummings will officially retire on Aug. 3. While he has no concrete flight plan for the future as of yet, he is looking forward to living life "not in the centrifuge of military leadership."