Early in Top Gun, that monument to American military supremacy and fighter-jock guilt, Maverick and Goose encounter a pair of hostile MiGs. In an attempt to avoid an armed encounter and to scare off the (presumably) Soviet fighters, Maverick, played by Tom Cruise, executes one of the most famous aerial maneuvers in film history. While inverted, he approaches the MiG from above, drops down to a perilously close distance, and flips the bird to his opponent. Naturally, the MiG immediately bugs out.
Earlier this week, a Chinese fighter jet pulled off a similar stunt with a U.S. spy plane. On Monday, Aug. 18, a Chinese Su-27 fighter jet intercepted a U.S. P-8 Poseidon surveillance plane near Hainan Island. The P-8 had likely been monitoring a massive Chinese military exercise nearby, and the Su-27 flew dangerously close to its American opponent, a clear mark of the Chinese government’s displeasure at U.S. surveillance activities off the Chinese coast.
At a briefing Friday, Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. John Kirby provided more details on the encounter. The Chinese jet flew directly in front of the P-8 at a 90-degree angle about 40 feet from the modified Boeing 737. Kirby said the Su-27 passed the P-8 with its belly facing the plane, most likely to display its weapons’ load to the American pilots. The Chinese plane then pulled up alongside the P-8 and performed a barrel roll over the U.S. plane.
No word on whether the Chinese aviator flipped the bird in the direction of the Americans.
The encounter in Top Gun was of course entirely fanciful, especially in how close the two planes approached one another. According to Kirby, the Chinese plane came no closer to the P-8 than 20 feet. But tense encounters in international airspace do happen between rival militaries. And this is about as close as you can get in real life to that famous Hollywood scene: