Tom (Wink) Winkowski may have been far from the cockpit of his F-14, but the Navy fighter pilot was ready for action.
It was Ladies Night at the Miramar Naval Air Station Officers' Club, and flocks of young women were streaming through the doors. Clad in the trademark olive-green flight suit of his breed, Winkowski scanned the throng with cool detachment, looking for just the right target.
He didn't have far to look. They were coming right to him.
"We're not supermen, but a lot of these girls seem to think we are," Winkowski said, flashing a Boy Scout grin as a trio of women closed in to inspect his military garb. "I guess they've just got good taste."
For years a rather ho-hum affair attracting scores of men but only a smattering of eligible females, Ladies Night has escalated into a major happening this summer, hoisted to grand scale by the release three months ago of the hit movie "Top Gun."
The film, starring teen dream Tom Cruise, is a romance-action picture showcasing the Navy's Fighter Weapons School at Miramar. Also known as Top Gun school, the rigorous program trains the top 1% of pilots in the Navy to perform the ultimate in airborne derring-do.
With its heart-pumping flight sequences, handsome leading men and luscious lovesick lady, "Top Gun" describes a world that has sparked a flame of intrigue among a certain slice of the female populace in San Diego.
The premise of Ladies Night--which some pilots refer to derisively as "Hog Call"--is simple: Any woman over 18 who submits her name, age and address can receive a hostess pass--good for one year--and obtain access to the base. Men are not invited, a Navy spokeswoman said, because "this is an event for officers," nearly all of whom are male.
Since the movie's release, the number of applications for hostess passes has doubled. The event has even been plugged on radio station KFMB, where one of the deejays is chummy with a few of the pilots.
The Navy cooperated extensively on the film--providing a battery of technical advisers, extras and hardware--and, much to the Navy's delight, the picture has prompted a surge in recruiting nationwide.
But apparently the soaring popularity of Ladies Night is not something the Navy likes to talk much about. Although it is essentially a public event, drawing several hundred civilian women onto the high-security naval air station each Wednesday, repeated efforts by The Times to obtain assistance from base public affairs officers in covering the story were spurned.
"This is just not a story the Navy needs to do or wants to do," explained Lt. Cmdr. Ellis Woumnm, Miramar's top public affairs officer. "With the movie and everything, these guys have had enough attention lately. We don't need a bunch of cameras and microphones in there. Why don't you just leave them alone?"
A request for a press pass to the event was rejected. But Woumnm did say, "You can go as a private citizen," and pledged to send along an application for a hostess pass. The application never arrived.
So a Times reporter did what many women apparently do--showed up at the Miramar gate one Wednesday night and asked for directions to the O Club. Initially, the sentry--an enlisted man clearly resentful of the many women heading for the O Club, which is off limits to seamen--balked, citing "increased security." Later, he relented, waving the car through.
Woumnm said denial of a reporter's request to cover the event did not mean "we have anything to hide." Instead, he cited the pilots' need for privacy as Miramar's main motive in barring coverage. Other comments, however, indicated that the Navy's reluctance stems in part from a fear that the officers may overindulge and embarrass themselves.
"Is the image of a guy drinking booze and getting crazy the image the Navy wants to project? Frankly, no," said Cmdr. Ronald E. Wildermuth, force public affairs officer for Com Nav Air Pac in San Diego.
"This is a place where the guys let their hair down. It's a private place for them to go shoot the bull, laugh and giggle and scratch without worrying about anything," Wildermuth said.
At first glance, the Ladies Night scene resembles just another crowded nightclub--shoulder-to-shoulder masses talking, drinking and swaying to the heavy bump of rock 'n' roll. But there are differences.
Although it's after 8 and the steamy confines of the O Club are drawing sweat from many a brow, dozens of pilots remain dressed in their regalia--black boots and zippered flight suits complete with numerous pockets, patches identifying the type of planes they fly and their "call sign," or nickname, in black stitching.
Aviation memorabilia--including a giant, lighted picture of a warplane behind the bar--are everywhere, and "Top Gun" is shown on a video screen in the club lobby.