Is "negative ghost rider, the pattern is full" a BS statement?

In Top Gun, Maverick is shown enjoying buzzing the Air Traffic Controller tower, presumably to confirm his commitment to being a, well, maverick.

But, despite showing an affinity for being rebellious, he at least has the decency to ask first. Whenever he requests such permission, he’s denied by a blasé controller with the admonition “negative ghost rider, the pattern is full”, which he promptly ignores, causing coffee to spill and hilarity (and homo-erotic volleyball) to ensue.

Now, I have some hours as a student pilot (although I didn’t get my license) and little about what ATC says makes sense.

I get “negative” - it means no. But he calls the aircraft Ghost Rider. Why? That’s not his call sign. And (based on my experience in general aviation) I would expect the terminology to refer to the aircraft, rather than the pilot. Do military jets not have tail numbers?

And saying that the pattern is full just doesn’t make sense. The pattern refers to the rectangular flight path around the airport. Normally, ATC instructs aircraft how to enter the pattern (i.e. enter left downwind) or when to make the next turn to line up with the runway (i.e. I’ll call your base [leg of the pattern]). If the pattern is so busy that they want an aircraft to wait to enter, they might instruct to hang out for a bit, perhaps by instructing to make a big 360 degree turn.

But just saying that the pattern is full doesn’t really tell the pilot anything. It certainty doesn’t answer why it’s bad to buzz the tower. Something more appropriate might be “You’re busting class Bravo airspace [i.e. the protected airspace around the airport] without authorization.”

I am hardly a piloting expert, and I have absolutely no military experience, but isn’t this line a bunch of gibberish?

Well, Maverick initiates the conversation with, “Tower, this is Ghost Rider.” Not exactly sure why, but it makes sense the Tower would reply with the same. My guess would be that “the pattern is full” is basically BS from the Tower, meant to provide justification for the denial whether it’s true or not.

Ghost Rider is the aircraft’s callsign that day. its fairly typical for military aircraft to use such callsigns though in my experience a group of aircraft flying that day would have the same word followed by a number to distinguish each one, Viper 1, Viper 2, Viper 3 etc. So that bit is not BS. The “pattern is full” bit might be, I don’t know.

And a little further research seems to indicate that Ghost Rider is a callsign for the unit and is sprinkled throughout the script.


:smack: I should have recalled that Maverick referred to his aircraft as Ghost Rider. It still strikes me as odd, given that civilian aircraft have a tail number. I didn’t realize that military aircraft were given a code name instead.

It’s not just military aircraft. There are civilian callsigns that convey information about the nature of the flight. For example, in Australia we have:


and many more that are used when conducting certain types of flight operations.

Not to mention airlines that use flight number callsigns, e.g., QANTAS 676.

First of all, Maverick calls the tower and gets a Commander. (or Lt. Commander). Typically it’s an enlisted person on the radio, not an officer. Second, there were more pilots than airplanes and someone was always ready to take your seat. If you screwed up and did something stupid, you were screwed. If a superior officer really did tell him no, and he did it anyway, he’d be screwed yet again.
I knew (know) several Navy pilots and they take aviation and their careers very seriously. Nevermind the Tailhook scandal, but that wasn’t in the air.

When I’d hear them call Miramar tower it went something like this.

“Miramar, flight of 2 Fox 4s inbound (location).” They didn’t call individually, nor did they identify their aircraft other than type (F4) That may all be different now.

I should have been more specific earlier. When I was taught to refer to the aircraft by its model and then tail number (i.e. I flew in a Cherokee Warrior, so I’d announcement, for example, as “Warrior November 867 Delta”). And I’ve heard commercial airliners on the radio refer to the airline name, as you describe.

I guess the anomaly in Top Gun, then, is that he gives a call sign, but no number. Is this authentic naval military jargon? You said upthread that you’d expect a number to follow.

Additionally, it occurs to me that if in fact the “pattern is full”, then two things are true :

  1. he just jeopardized the lives of all of the pilots trying to land.
  2. The ATC should be a lot more busy

I know absolutely nothing about aviation, and even less about military aviation, but under what circumstance would “buzzing the tower” be permissible?

I assume that “buzzing the tower” means flying fairly close to the air-traffic control tower, in some sort of a show-off manner…?

When the people in the tower are happy to be shown off to?

I’ve sat along the perimeter fence of an Air Force base and watched all sorts of fun stuff happening.

In flying, I’ve never heard call signs without a number at the end, but things could have been different/more relaxed in '86, when planes were landing a military airfield that was their home base.

And him doing a flyby might jeopardize other flights trying to land…or maybe not. The tower could have had someone on crosswind, someone in downwind, and someone on base and didn’t want to worry about delaying the base aircraft just so Ghost Rider could have fun. Plenty of room for the flyby, but more work for tower.

And of course doing a low pass by the tower will be cool, because low passes are awesome.
Here’s a low pass by Dale “Snort” Snodgrass during a dependent’s cruise. Nothin cooler.

I always interpreted “the pattern is full” to mean “there are a lot of planes landing/waiting to land right now, therefore do not be a dangerous ass”. If the pattern is full, any number of planes are circling around the airport and pulling up from a low pass might cause a collision.

Or it could be just the canned answer to pointy jockeys who think they’re the shit.

Repeat after me:
It’s a movie not real life.

On various sites you can find videos of Navy jets doing close flybys. They appear to be planned events so the sailors can watch.

Here is one. There appear to be civilians on board to. Family day?

My guess is that was a tiger cruise. The Navy lets family of the sailors/marines spend some time aboard ship as the ship returns home. I was fortunate enough to spend a week onboard the USS Bonhomme Richard between Hawaii and California when my brother was in the Corps. Got to do several cool things that week, including see Harriers take off and land and fire a .50 caliber AA gun, but sadly we did not get a supersonic flyby.


Highway to the Danger Zombi…er, Zone…

Serious question tho- you can report someone for just being batty now? Board’s gonna get sparse if that is true. :smiley: