Story and photo by Darl DeVault, Contributing Editor
On Memorial Day, when one of the highest-grossing patriotic films ever, “Top Gun: Maverick,” premiered on the most theater screens in history, an Oklahoman, retired U.S. Air Force Col. Charles B. “Chuck” DeBellevue, received a standing ovation at a local IMAX theater.
Variety Magazine says after only 31 days on the big screen, “Top Gun: Maverick” became Tom Cruise’s first movie to surpass $1 billion at the worldwide box office. It is the first 2022 movie and only the second in COVID 19 times to reach that benchmark.
The movie noted prominently that Tom Cruise’s U.S. Navy fighter pilot and instructor character Pete “Maverick” Mitchell made flying ace by shooting down an additional three enemy fighters.
In the audience that day, DeBellevue, now 76, was honored as America’s last American flying ace on active duty with six MiG kills to his credit in the skies over North Vietnam as a weapons systems officer. DeBellevue said he was touched by the standing ovation he received from fellow veterans who watched the movie with him.
The occasion for the Edmond resident accompanied the movie celebration of U.S. Navy aviation as the Regal Warren Moore IMAX Theater welcomed servicemen and women and their children to a premiere private screening.
The Gerrity Chapter of the Air and Space Forces Association (AFA), the Oklahoma Aeronautics Commission (OAC), and the Oklahoma Defense Industry Association (ODIA) partnered to organize the premiere.
The sailors of the Navy’s TACAMO unit based at Tinker Air Force Base were the largest group of honored guests. TACAMO is the Navy E-6 Mercury aircraft which is an airborne command post and communications relay based on the Boeing 707 aircraft, similar to the Air Force’s E-3 Sentry Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS). Additionally, all military veterans and their families were welcomed at this showing.
The event emcee, retired U.S. Navy Capt. John (Irish) Keilty, a former test pilot, was a previous Tinker TACAMO commander and now supervises the Navy Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps Program at Del City High School. He welcomed everyone and introduced the honored guests. DeBellevue said the Navy JROTC midshipmen did an excellent job of presenting the colors at the theater.
In addition to DeBellevue, Keilty also recognized audience members retired Navy Rear Adm. Greg Slavonic, former Acting Under Secretary of the Navy and U.S. Air Force Maj. Gen. Jeff King, commander of the Oklahoma City Air Logistics Complex at Tinker. He also introduced retired Oklahoma Army National Guard Pilot Chief Warrant Officer 4 Chase Rutledge, now the KOCO-TV SKY 5 Chief Pilot.
The screening highlighted Memorial Day, when Americans hosted parades, visited cemeteries and memorials, and wore a red poppy to honor those fallen in war. DeBellevue said the movie screening helped all in attendance remember those who served and honored the fallen who came to America’s defense and never returned to their families.
“This was a great way to remember those who gave their all for our country,” DeBellevue said. “The movie “Top Gun: Maverick” displays the camaraderie, teamwork, and skill it takes to defend this country. The funds needed to stage the movie event were gathered in only two days, showing that the patriotic people of Oklahoma always come through.”
DeBellevue said Allyson Carson with the ODIA assisted Director Grayson Ardies and OAC staffers with the flight plan. Jeff James, president of the Gerrity Chapter of the AFA, and the spirited volunteerism of AFA members Michelle Bouziden, Sandra Shelton, Mark Tarpley, and Walter Kula ensured this was a quality event. Also helping out were Steve Duran and Kara Slavonic, and others.
The ODIA helps leaders in government, industry, and academia collaborate to offer solutions while advancing the national security and defense needs of the state and nation.
Gerrity Chapter volunteers also helped invite the hundreds of patriots, including recruiting identified guests to the free movie. The AFA is a non-profit, independent, professional military and aerospace education association.
“The AFA’s mission is to promote a dominant U.S. Air and Space Force and a strong national defense through education, advocacy and support,” DeBellevue said. “It is an excellent way for community partners and interested individuals to become involved and learn about the Air Force and Tinker Air Force Base and have a say in patriotic issues.”
DeBellevue said the AFA central Oklahoma Gerrity Chapter supports Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) education in Oklahoma and the Rosie the Riveter project. The group, along with Oklahoma Career Tech, puts on the CyberPatriot, StellaXplorer and STARBASE OKLAHOMA programs. These are middle and high school level programs to advance experiential STEM education.
The movie attendees were treated to the latest Tom Cruise need for speed after speakers before the film emphasized the might and force of the U.S. Navy. They spoke of how the Aeronautics Commission proudly salutes the sailors of the TACAMO wing on their 30th year in Oklahoma at Tinker Air Force Base and their 60th year of operations. They proudly partner with the AFA Gerrity Chapter and ODIA for Oklahoma military service endeavors.
While TAFB employs nearly 30,000 Oklahomans, a contingent of air mission Navy sailors numbering 1,500 are proud to be known as “Red Dirt Sailors.” There has been a long-standing Navy presence in the area attached to Strategic Communications Wing One (SCW-1) at Tinker. Other active-duty members are attached to the Navy Operational Support Center (NOSC) in Oklahoma City, the local recruiting district and numerous reserve personnel who live and work in the community.
“The US Navy arrived on Tinker AFB in 1990 and has since operated in defense of the United States,” Keilty said. “Inviting the “Red Dirt Sailors” to this viewing was a great way to honor both their service and the service of those who gave their all for this country.”
Super Hornet presenting sponsor Tinker Federal Credit Union helped make the event possible. DeBellevue said the credit union always supports patriotic themes with style.
“The sailors and airmen who attended this film viewing will remember this Memorial Day for a long time,” DeBellevue said. “Thanks to the volunteers and sponsors for making this a great Memorial Day patriotic event.”
DeBellevue also outlined how much of a boost this movie will be in allowing the military to recruit much-needed pilots in the near future. “I have gone back and watched “Top Gun: Maverick” a second time to really soak in all the excitement it conveys about flying. It reminded me of my missions when I flew into North Vietnam,” DeBellevue said in a recent interview. “There is no doubt in my mind there will be a spike in pilot recruiting across all the services, not just the Navy.”