I wonder how many PUC grads have ever broken the sound barrier. For Lt. Matt Hopkins, Class of ’99, it’s a daily routine. When he goes to work in the morning, he straps into the cockpit of an F/A-18 Hornet as a tactics instructor at the U.S. Navy’s Strike Fighter Weapons School Pacific in Lemoore, California. Matt trains Navy pilots in tactics that were developed by, and that he learned at, the Navy’s Strike Fighter Tactics Instructor program—better known as TOPGUN.
“I always wanted to fly,” says Matt. But for this aviator, the route to his dream job had a few stops along the way.
While at PUC, his goal was to work in Hollywood as a producer or creating 3-D animation. So when he graduated with a degree in digital media technology, he headed straight for L.A. and a special effects job on the 2000 film The Perfect Storm. But Matt was in for a surprise. “Working in Hollywood I realized I actually didn’t want to do that anymore.”
On the set of his first and only Hollywood film, Matt began talking to the crew pilots, and the flame of his first love was reignited. After finishing work on the film, he moved to Loma Linda to take a temporary job as a graphic designer for Loma Linda University’s printing services. There he discovered two important things—Megan, the woman he would eventually marry, and the fact that he liked desk jobs about as much as he liked working in Hollywood. He signed up for the Navy and applied to the Officer Candidate School.
After four years of officer training and flight school, Matt was trained on the F/A-18 and assigned to Strike Fighter Squadron 97, where he served for three years. Deployed in Japan, the squadron ran unit training missions, patrols and operations support throughout Southeast Asia and the western Pacific. Matt would fly most days of the week, about an hour and a half each flight. But he dreamed of getting into the elite fighter school known as TOPGUN.
The school was opened at the height of the Vietnam War to train American pilots to rule the air against the Soviets and their allies. Since the close of the Cold War the enemy has changed and so have the tactics. Matt can’t go into details about who TOPGUN pilots train to fight now, but he can say that the school now has a greater focus on air-to-ground operations, as well as taking on other fighters in the skies.
After seven years in the Navy, Matt applied to the prestigious 10-week program. The application process is highly competitive—it begins six months before the start of the class and requires the pilot to apply to join a squadron that must then submit their pilot list to the program for approval. Most applications are denied. Matt got in October 2008.
There’s a reason TOPGUN has a reputation for turning out the world’s best fighter pilots. “Unlike college where you’re studying a bunch of different subjects, you’re so passionate about going through flight school that you spend all your time studying, but you really don’t mind,” says Matt about the focused and rigorous program. “If I would have studied at PUC half as hard as I studied at TOPGUN, I would have gotten far better grades.”
Of course when one is interviewing a TOPGUN pilot, there’s that unavoidable question.
“It’s a movie that we’ve all seen and we all own, but you’re not allowed to mention or quote that movie at the school,” says Matt of Top Gun, the 1986 film that made the flight school a household name and inspired him and every other boy of his generation to dream of becoming a fighter pilot. “They tried to do a good job with the movie, but they could only go so far and still have an entertaining product. But I was in grade school when I saw that movie, and it absolutely influenced me with what I wanted to do. “
As soon as he graduated in 2008, Matt had a job lined up as an instructor at Strike Fighter Weapons School Pacific. For this past year, he’s been training the Navy’s next generation of fighter pilots in his area of expertise—air-to-ground combat. His specialty is hitting small, hard-to-find targets at over 1,000 miles per hour.
And while it’s a high-octane, adrenaline-fueled job, the thing Matt loves most is the deep sense of accountability in the cockpit. “I love knowing that I'm going to succeed or fail based on my decisions and actions. At my best I've achieved my mission success and if I'm off my game, even a little, I'm going to fail,“ he says. “There is a very thin line between winning and losing. I cherish the challenge.”
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