Metro

Family of lost Navy aviator says he was ‘larger than life’

Lieutenant Steven Combs died Friday when a US Navy transport plane crashed off the coast of Japan.
US Navy
Lieutenant Steven Combs died Friday when a US Navy transport plane crashed off the coast of Japan.

Navy Lieutenant Steven Combs, who dreamed of flying planes as a boy growing up in the Berkshire County town of Dalton, was one of three sailors who died in the crash of a transport aircraft off the coast of Japan a day before Thanksgiving.

Family members said Navy officials told them Combs was flying a twin-engine C-2A Greyhound that was carrying cargo as well as a crew of 11. They said they were told the 28-year-old sailor managed to land the aircraft despite high swells, allowing eight other sailors to be rescued after the crash.

All eight were transferred to the USS Ronald Reagan, an aircraft carrier, for a medical evaluation. They were “in good condition,” the Navy said in a statement.

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The statement said the plane was conducting a routine transport flight and was en route to the aircraft carrier when it crashed into the Philippine Sea. The cause remains unclear.

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Ships and aircraft covered nearly 1,000 square nautical miles over two days of continuous searching for the sailors. The investigation is ongoing.

“Our thoughts and prayers are with the families of these sailors,” said Vice Admiral Phil Sawyer, commander of US Seventh Fleet. “Their service and sacrifice will be lasting in Seventh Fleet, and we will continue to stand the watch for them, as they did bravely for all of us.”

Steven Combs’s older sister, Elizabeth Combs, 33, reached by phone Sunday morning, asked that her parents’ privacy be respected. She confirmed her brother graduated from St. Joseph Central High School in Pittsfield, which closed last year.

Later, in an e-mail, Combs shared her memories of the sailor she knew as “Stevie,” who had an infectious laugh and a passion for life, friends, family, and skiing. She called her brother “the epitome of larger than life.

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“To those of you who knew Stevie, you understand,” she wrote. “To those of you that didn’t know him, I feel eternally sorry for you.”

She said her brother had wanted to fly planes since he was a little boy. The Navy always seemed like the natural route, she wrote. He was one of three siblings and part of a close family, she said.

Nevertheless, she and her sister, Stephanie, couldn’t resist playing the occasional prank.

“I still remember once Steph and I decided to see if duct tape could be used as a waxing strip,” Elizabeth Combs wrote. “We decided there was no one better to test this on than our unwilling brother. Even though he fought, we were older and bigger. I’m pretty sure he still had the bald patch on his leg where both hair and skin came off.”

Elizabeth Combs said their family was protective of Steve, whom she called a true gentleman. That meant no girl was good enough for their brother and nothing was ever serious enough that “we couldn’t get through it as a family,” she wrote.

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When she last spoke to her brother, on Nov. 17, he’d called to wish her a happy birthday.

They discussed her upcoming wedding and how excited he was to see family. He was planning to leave the Navy after his commitment, she said. Combs was scheduled to be transferred stateside in March. They had previously talked about shopping for his first home.

“We are so proud of him,” Elizabeth Combs wrote. “We will always love him and will miss him for the rest of our lives.”

The chief of naval operations, Admiral John Richardson, wrote about the lost sailors on Facebook.

“The loss of life would have been much worse were it not for the heroic skill of the air crew on the C-2A,” he wrote. He also cited the heroic support of the sailors who rescued the other eight crew members at sea. “Under harsh conditions, the rescue team saved our shipmates in distress,” Richardson said.

The other two sailors who died were Airman Matthew Chialastri of Louisiana and Aviation Ordnanceman Airman Apprentice Bryan Grosso of Florida.

The Navy did not specify whether the bodies of the three sailors were recovered.

The Navy statement said Combs lived in Florida and was assigned to the “Providers” of Fleet Logistics Support Squadron. Combs’s awards include the National Defense Ribbon and the Navy Battle “E” Ribbon. He served aboard the USS Ronald Reagan as part of Carrier Air Wing Five.

“The thoughts and prayers of the entire team onboard Ronald Reagan go out to the families and friends of our fallen shipmates,” said Captain Michael Wosje, commander of Carrier Air Wing Five.

“We are thankful for our professional search-and-rescue teams and their incredible bravery,” he said. “The entire Navy team is working together to investigate the cause of this mishap, and we will remain focused on our mission to operate forward in a safe and professional manner to ensure peace and stability in the Indo-Asia-Pacific region.”

Cristela Guerra can be reached at cristela.guerra@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @CristelaGuerra.