Skip Hopler was one of the first to fly the F-16 Fighting Falcon. Now, he’s guiding the launch of F-35 Lightning II operations by training the next generation.
Hopler was born to fly. With 3,800 hours in the cockpit as a U.S. Air Force pilot, his love of flying began at an early age like many pilots and was inspired by his uncle’s stories from World War II flying missions over Europe. What Hopler didn’t know until later in his career is that he was born to teach too.
Hopler has trained more than a thousand pilots during his military service and then as a contract ground training instructor pilot. In his current role, Hopler is responsible for training the next generation of fighter pilots as the lead for the F-35 Academic Training Center at Luke Air Force Base.
“What makes a great fighter pilot is attitude, skills and training,” Hopler said. “The pilots we’re training today at Luke are outstanding, and my team’s job is to give each pilot the foundation to succeed in combat.”
Hopler brings operational experience from 21 years of service in the Air Force to his role on the F-35. After F-4 pilot training at Moody Air Force Base, Georgia, he deployed twice to Southeast Asia and flew 389 missions in just two years during the Vietnam War.
He also flew Hawker Hunters with the U.K.’s Royal air force as part of a tactical weapons unit before he was selected to join the initial cadre of F-16 pilots. That’s when Hopler found his second passion – teaching. In 1978, Hopler helped stand up the first F-16 squadron at Hill AFB, Utah, and then continued his career as an F-16 instructor pilot.
He says making the jump to the F-35 has been similar to the transition to other new aircraft, except that the avionics and weapons are significantly more sophisticated.
“Aviation technology evolves, and the F-35 introduces the opportunity to advance tactics, but the objective to be the best fighter pilot you can be never changes,” he said. “I see the same drive in the F-35 pilots we’re training today.”
As the F-35A pilot training hub, Luke AFB will eventually provide training for U.S. pilots plus seven partner nations and house a total of 144 F-35s. The base welcomed its first class in May 2015. Since then, 14 pilots have graduated through the F-35 training system at Luke.
Pilots begin their F-35 training with Hopler’s team at the academic training center with classroom instruction and flights in the full-mission simulator, which replicates all aircraft sensors and weapons employment. Simulator flights are a major component of F-35 training to prepare pilots for their first ride in the single-seat F-35. More than half of the initial qualification flights for the F-35 take place in the full-mission simulator for training effectiveness and affordability.
The F-35 technology is impressive, says Hopler, but the technology alone isn’t the advantage. It’s the men and women equipped to use it – with the right attitude, skills and training – that make all the difference.
“Here at Luke, we’re preparing the pilots who provide a security net for our country and coalition partners,” Hopler said. “Many pilots have gone before them, and our team is honored to continue the legacy and train the world’s best fighter pilots.”