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At the Randolph Field training camp in Texas, new United States Air Force cadets Walt Phillip Carver, Russ Coulter, Jerry Connell and Sgt. Joe Czanoczek are put through their paces by tough upper classmen. The four friends pass the demanding initial tests and make it into flight training, where each works diligently for personal reasons--Walt, to prove to himself that he can be tough despite his privileged background; Russ, to honor the memory of his dead Air Force pilot brother; Jerry, wants to accomplish a challenging test; and Joe, to leave the military with a skill with which he can make a lot of money. The training and the hazing continue, but just before graduation, Jerry is informed that he has flunked out. The other three friends are assigned together at Williams Field Air Force Base, a top flight school in Arizona. There, they are impressed by the "anchor jets," a team of four planes led by flight commander Major Jack Page which fly in extremely tight formation. Jack's job is to identify and "wash out," or flunk, any pilot whom he deems unworthy. Jack informs his friend, psychologist Major Jim Evans, that Jack's wife Janet has recently left him. That night, at a dance hall in Phoenix, Russ dances with a beautiful woman who, he soon discovers, is Janet. The next day, Janet tells Jim that she still loves Jack but that he has become too cold and ruthless. Jim then explains that having to order his close friends to certain death in battle has caused Jack to bottle up his feelings and take them out on the cadets. He counsels Janet to continue seeing Jack and to wait for his inevitable breakdown, which will either destroy or cure him. On her way out, Janet bumps into Russ and Jack sees them talking together. Soon after, Jack grills Russ's instructor, Capt. Sullivan, on the cadet's performance, and predicts that he will wash out. Sullivan, who believes in Russ although he will not yet allow him to fly solo, questions the cadet on his recent loss of confidence and on Jack's interest in him, but Russ has no answers. Soon after, Russ flies solo while Jack watches, and although he flies perfectly, he crashes the plane while avoiding another pilot who has landed on the wrong runway. Jack unjustly blames Russ for the accident and recommends that he be washed out. That night, a drunken Russ visits Janet and tells her about his brother, William "Buzz" Coulter, who shot himself after being overworked and called a coward by his commanding officer. Janet quickly realizes that Jack was Buzz's commander and that this fact explains Jack's treatment of Russ, and informs Jim. The psychologist decides that the tension between the two could lead to a necessary breakdown for Jack, and tells the whole story to Russ. The next day Russ appears before an investigation committee and accuses Jack of killing his brother. To assuage his guilt, Jack insists that Buzz was a poor flyer, but agrees to accompany Russ on a check flight to test his skill. After the flight, Jack passes Russ, but then taps Russ, Joe and Walt as his new anchor jet team, hoping the difficult assignment will cause Russ to fail. When Jack does not flunk Russ even after the cadet performs poorly, Russ decides Jack is afraid of being accused of being responsible for Buzz's death. The next day, Jack flies with Russ and takes control of the plane, but when his oxygen hose disconnects, he passes out and Russ takes heroic measures to keep the plane from crashing. They land in the desert, where Jack hallucinates that Russ is Buzz and tells Buzz that he is wracked with guilt for calling him a coward, but that he was under extreme pressure to finish their assignment. The two are soon rescued, and Russ tells Jack that he thinks they are "okay." When the cadets graduate, Russ asks Jack, who is standing with his arm around Janet, if he will honor him by pinning on his lieutenant's wings.