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'The need for speed': Meet Lt. Martin Sewell, a Gainesville High grad and real TOPGUN fighter pilot
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Lt. Martin Sewell, a Gainesville native, graduated in April from TOPGUN, where the most elite U.S. Navy fliers learn fighter and strike tactics. - photo submitted by Lt. Martin Sewell

From an early age, Lt. Martin Sewell had the need. The need for speed. 

In April, the Gainesville native graduated from Navy Fighter Weapons School, better known as TOPGUN, making him one of the most elite fighter pilots in the world.

“I always wanted to be in the military growing up,” Sewell said. “I didn’t know what I wanted to do specifically, like what branch — I really liked airplanes. I grew up a huge World War II nerd, so I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do, but I wanted to do something.”

While Sewell, 29, was stationed off the coast of San Diego, he got to see the crew for “Top Gun: Maverick” film scenes on the USS Theodore Roosevelt, he said. 

“Maverick” is the most successful blockbuster of the year so far, soaring past $750 million worldwide and more than $400 million in the United States. Both “Maverick” and the original 1986 “Top Gun” follow U.S. Navy pilots at TOPGUN, the Navy’s most selective school for fliers. 

Both movies used real jets on real aircraft carriers, and Sewell got to see some of the filming up close. 

He only saw the central star Tom Cruise from afar, he said, but Sewell and other pilots talked briefly with Miles Teller, who plays Rooster in the movie, the son of Maverick’s old partner who died in a training exercise in the original “Top Gun.” 

“It wasn’t anything super special, but it was kind of cool,” he said. 

Some of the rumors about TOPGUN turned out to be true. Officers who quote the original movie can be fined, Sewell said, and the bar shown in “Maverick” looks just like a popular club for officers near TOPGUN in Fallon, Nevada. 

But the movies also stretch a few things. Sewell said many of the call signs aren’t quite as cool as “Maverick” and “Iceman.” 

His own call sign was “Sassypants.” The story behind the nickname, Sewell said, is “classified.”

The movies also play up fighter pilots’ competitiveness, Sewell said. 

“Weirdly, unlike the movie, we’re a little bit more humble than (you) would be led to believe,” he said. 

And, no, Sewell said he has never buzzed the tower. 

But whatever gripes he and other pilots have with Hollywood, deep down, they all love them. 

“If ‘Top Gun’ comes on TV, we’ll drop whatever we’re doing to watch the rest of the movie.” 

And he and fellow squadron members saw “Maverick” twice in theaters. 

“If you have a chance to watch it on IMAX, you have to watch it on IMAX, with the biggest possible screen and the speakers turned up all the way to 11,” he said. 

The pleasure of watching “Maverick” for naval pilots is much the same as any civilian viewer: “We’re still children at heart — we want to watch airplanes fly around,” he said. 

His mom, Sally Reynolds, said that they would look through books of planes together as Sewell was growing up. 

“He was just military-minded,” Reynolds said. “He loved all that history stuff. … It’s been this cool thing, and now he’s really living his dream and he’s flying F-18s. What can I say?”

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Lt. Martin Sewell flies through the skies in an F-18 fighter jet. Sewell, a Gainesville native, recently graduated from TOPGUN in Fallon, Nevada. - photo submitted by Sally Reynolds.

Sewell joined JROTC at Gainesville High School as a junior, during one of the first years it was offered. Before graduating in 2010, he learned of a U.S. Navy scholarship opportunity at Florida State University, where several of his family members went to school. 

“The Navy wasn’t ever really an option until it was,” he said. 

Despite Sewell’s successful career in the Navy, he didn’t know if he would ever be a pilot. 

As a kid, Sewell had bad eyesight, he said, and early on he favored the U.S. Army, thinking he might be a paratrooper instead. 

“I just think they’re one of the coolest things that runs, machinery-wise,” Sewell said. “I don’t have a great answer to pin it down exactly, what drew me to airplanes. But I had really bad eyes growing up. Being a pilot was never something I thought I could really do.”

Before he graduated from FSU, he asked his parents for an unusual present: photorefractive keratectomy, a procedure similar to LASIK surgery to fix his eyesight. Soon after, Sewell started basic training in Pensacola, Florida. 

Sewell did six weeks of basic classroom training in Pensacola, then went to Corpus Christi, Texas, for flight training, which takes about six months, and pilots learn how to fly a single-engine T-6 plane. 

After that, Sewell went to Kingsville, Texas, for advanced training, which ends with pilots landing on an aircraft carrier for the first time, he said. 

Sewell even met his husband, Lt. Jonathan Brandon Hooper, in Kingsville, and the couple got married in 2020. Hooper is set to train at TOPGUN this fall too, Reynolds said. 

After they nail the aircraft carrier landing, pilots learn how to fly an F-18 — learning how to turn and burn just like the jets in “Maverick.” Pilots then commit to a three-year tour and then may apply to TOPGUN, which graduates three classes of about a dozen officers per year. 

Overall, the path to TOPGUN takes about six years of training. 

While Sewell was training in Virginia Beach, Reynolds got to see her son fly. 

“They really fly like that,” she said, comparing real jets to the movies. “It’s not just like a video game. This is what they really do. … I was in awe the whole time I was there.”

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Lt. Martin Sewell, who joined JROTC as a junior at Gainesville High School, graduated from TOPGUN in April and learned how to fly F-18 fighter jets. Sewell said he and his friends saw "Top Gun: Maverick" twice in theaters after graduating. - photo submitted by Sally Reynolds.