DALTON — Growing up in Dalton, Elizabeth and Stephanie Combs were always protective of their little brother, whom they call Stevie. But as adults, now living in different corners of the world, the roles switched and the Navy pilot's infectious smile and joyful demeanor had an ever-calming effect on those around him, according to his eldest sister.
"Nothing was too serious that we couldn't get through it together," said Elizabeth Combs, 33, of Monterey, Calif. "He kept us sane."
Navy pilot Lt. Steven Combs Jr., 28, died Wednesday when his twin-engine aircraft, the C-2A Greyhound, went down over the Philippine Sea after taking off from Japan. Eight of the 11 passengers aboard the plane Combs was piloting survived.
Combs, Aviation Boatswain's Mate Airman Matthew Chialastri and Aviation Ordnanceman Airman Apprentice Bryan Grosso were not found, but declared dead by the Navy.
The crash, which is the third fatal incident involving the Japan-based US 7th Fleet in the last six months, is under investigation.
Elizabeth Combs, speaking on behalf of her family, whose grief she called "tremendous," said that her brother's ability to save the lives of a majority of the plane's passengers makes him the hero that they always knew he was.
"That aircraft is not meant to do a water landing and he was able to land it in a way that let people get back to their family," Combs said through tears on Sunday, one day after the Navy identified the deceased sailors.
"It does help a little bit, that even in his last moment he was looking out for others. I wouldn't have expected anything less."
The C-2 Greyhound that Combs was flying is one of the safest aircraft in the Naval industry, according to Navy spokesman Commander Ronald Flanders.
"This type of aircraft crashing is almost unheard of," said Flanders.
The crew on the plane is all trained to deal with the unlikely event of the crash, he said. According to Flanders, the craft's surviving co-pilot told Navy officials "Steve flew the hell out of that plane."
"Lt. Combs' airmanship was nothing short of heroic, and was instrumental in savings the lives of the eight survivors."
The actions of the other crewman, who helped removed the survivors from the plane, were also heroic, Flanders said.
Prior to his death, Combs, a graduate of the now-shuttered St. Joseph Central High School in Pittsfield and of the University of Colorado at Boulder, was stationed in Japan.
Elizabeth flew out to Japan last year to visit her brother, who did not yet speak the language, but was able to communicate with the locals with his infectious smile, she said.
She was planning to see her brother next at her wedding, which has been canceled.
"I was supposed to be getting married in about three weeks. He was coming home for that," Elizabeth Combs said. "We've canceled that. There's no way that we can pretend to be happy."
When the family was together, Steven Combs was what his sister describes as a "goofball."
When conversations began to take a serious turn, Combs would lighten the mood, a trait that the family learned to depend on and appreciated when he was present.
He'd tell his family stories about his life in Japan, but also make every effort to know about their lives at home. While he was away, the family kept in contact through phone calls and FaceTime. When he got through to one family member, there would be a phone chain letting each other know what the pilot had to say, according to Combs.
His parents, Steven and Kathy Combs, now live in Sarasota, Fla. Stephanie Combs, 31, lives in Chicago.
"We are so, so proud of him," Elizabeth Combs said.
Long before "working his tail off" to get into business school, the youngest of the three children dreamed of being a pilot, his sister said, adding that their parents were also in the Navy.
He was a natural athlete, who played a variety of sports, including soccer, softball and baseball, but his passion was skiing, according to Elizabeth Combs.
"He was just a natural racer all along," said John Donovan, who coached Combs in skiing all through high school. "He was always focused on the race, but he was happy and smiling all the time. You couldn't tell if he had a good race or a bad race."
During the week, Combs would ski for the school, but on the weekends he would race out of Jiminy Peak, according to Donovan.
In his senior year, Combs was the MVP out of the Berkshire County league and was one of the top skiers in the state, according to Donovan, who recalled the young man talking about joining the Navy.
"That was his joy," Donovan said about the Navy. "That's what he wanted to do from day one."
Ryan Kovacs, 28, and his twin brother, Joseph, met Combs and his best friend Brian Pedrotti on the playground in first grade and became fast best friends. From that day through high school, the tight-knit group of friends bonded over their love of soccer.
"Sports dominated our lives for the most part," Kovacs, now of Quincy, said. "He is one of the fiercest competitors I've ever met."'
Outside of sports, Combs was the life of the party, and would never let disappointments discourage him from having a good time, he said.
John Kovacs, the twins' father, coached the boys on a traveling youth soccer team from the late 1990s to the early 2000s and remembers Combs as a fun-loving, tenacious child whose skills continued to grow through high school, when he transferred to St. Joeseph Central School.
"He just continued on with his skills, and toughness and tenacity," Combs' former coach said. "He was a fun kid to coach and a fun kid to watch."
Combs' love of sports was rivaled only by his fascination with flying planes, his friends and family said.
"Since we were kids the only thing he ever talked about was flying planes," he said, recalling Comb's basement full of Lego and model planes at a young age. "He just always had it in the back of his mind that he wanted to fly."
The group went their separate ways in college, but a few years ago the four got together for a reunion in Boston.
"Steve was always a driven guy, so he couldn't sit still," Joseph Kovacs said, recalling his friend's lifetime of kindness. "That whole weekend we were sightseeing, or going to a museum, or going to dinner. I called him little energizer bunny."
Pedrotti, who met Combs in kindergarten, said that his friend's death is devastating for his whole family as the boys spent most of their childhoods together.
"The first 18 years of my life, all of my memories were with him," Pedrotti said. "Especially with the Kovacs twins. We were the core four."
Two years ago, while travelling with his then-girlfriend, now fiance in California, Pedrotti was able to meet up with Combs, who was training at Naval Base Coronado, several nights.
The friends were already making plans to spend time together when Combs returned to the states in March.
"He's selfless. He's funny," Pedrotti said, speaking of Combs in the present tense. "He always wants to be around people and enjoy the presence of others."
Lauren Horth, 28, of Bolton, Conn., calls Combs her longest-standing friend. They met in second grade and carpooled to St. Joespeh Central High School together on their first day.
Over the past few years while Combs has been living in Japan, Horth would wake up to FaceTime calls from him.
While talking recently, Combs told Horth that he is grateful for his time in Japan because it gave him every opportunity to make his dreams a reality, she said.
"He was honestly living his dream and so proud to be part of the US Navy," she said. "He was just the more honorable and proud person I know."
"Not everyone sets goals and achieves them quite like he did. It's remarkable, from observing his life, that he took that goal so seriously," said John "Jack" Deming, another high school friend of Combs. "The sky was the limit for that guy.""I believe without a doubt that Steven had something to do with those eight people surviving," said Deming, now of Queens, N.Y.
Elizabeth Combs said she feels sorry for all of the people in the world who never got a chance to meet her brother. Of everyone Elizabeth knows, her brother was the most family-oriented and couldn't wait to settle down, get married and have children, she said.
"We will never be complete," Combs said of her grieving family. "There is just this massive void. We love him so much and we will miss him for the rest of our lives."
Haven Orecchio-Egresitz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, @HavenCCT on Twitter, or 413-770-6977.