In the midst of their grief, the family and friends of Navy Cmdr. Chris “Papa Doc” Joas are comforted by the fact that he died doing what he loved.
The 53-year-old former F-14 Tomcat radar intercept officer-turned-flight surgeon was piloting a rented Cessna 172N aircraft on the afternoon of July 7 when it crashed near Lake Tahoe, California, according to the National Transportation Safety Board.
Joas’ friend, a woman named Peggy McGuire whom he had met while assigned to Naval Air Station Fallon, Nevada, was also in the plane at the time of the crash and died four days later at a Reno hospital, officials said.
Shortly before the crash at 3:23 p.m., a witness saw the plane “flying at about 200 feet above ground level and hear the engine producing a sputtering sound consistent with losing and gaining power,” a preliminary NTSB report states. “The left wing tip struck a tree and the airplane aggressively yawed while continuing to fly low in a southerly direction until it disappeared from the witness’s line of sight.”
Joas was pronounced dead at the scene and the incident remains under investigation.
To hear those who cared about him tell it, Joas lived for the cockpit.
“I would rather have him here, but he was flying,” his brother, Mike Joas, told Navy Times. “He died doing exactly what he wanted to be doing.”
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Cmdr. Zathan Baker runs the helicopter search and rescue team at Fallon and met Joas there in late 2017.
Joas became part of the “Longhorns” SAR team and would often go out on rescue missions in the middle of the night, even if he wasn’t on the duty roster, Baker said.
The doc wore several hats at the base besides flight surgeon and SAR, but he was always willing to help anyone who needed it.
“He is a warm, loving, big-hearted guy who always had a smile on his face and would always go out of his way to not only take care of the people that he has to take care of as a flight surgeon, but any of their families,” Baker said.
Joas is survived by four sons, ages 13 to 21, who he doted on and whose visits were always packed with activities, Zathan Baker’s wife, Melissa Baker, recalled.
“He always had something fun planned for the boys and it was definitely one of the things he looked forward the most to was seeing them and spending time with them,” she said.
Joas became a de facto member of the Baker family in recent years and was a fixture at their home on holidays and weekly dinners, they recalled.
“He helped teach our daughter to ski,” Melissa Baker said. “Chris absolutely is the type of person that would give the shirt off his back to a complete stranger. He became a brother to me. He was part of our family.”
Joas’ father was Air Force, so the family moved around a lot growing up, his brother said.
After the Tomcat’s retirement, Joas went to medical school but held on to his love of flying, Mike Joas said.
He wanted to help people and that led him to medicine, his brother said.
Mike Joas credits his brother with saving his life about nine years ago.
He was suffering from severe pneumonia and doctors in New Mexico had given him a 20 percent chance of survival, at most, Mike Joas said.
Joas was talking to his brother’s doctors every day and pushed them to give him massive doses of penicillin.
“My doctors argued with Chris and he kept pushing,” Mike Joas sad.
Finally, the doctors agreed.
“After I was given the penicillin, I immediately started getting better,” Mike Joas recalled. “He saved my life.”
Baker and the rest of the Longhorn SAR team flew flags to honor Joas over nearby mountain ranges that Papa Doc loved this week, and the base held a memorial service.
While the loss of Papa Doc is still sinking in, they know he was where he wanted to be.
“If something happens to me and I’m in an airplane, I’ll die a happy man,” Melissa Baker recalled him saying.
“He died doing something he absolutely loved.”
About Geoff Ziezulewicz
Geoff is a senior staff reporter for Military Times, focusing on the Navy. He covered Iraq and Afghanistan extensively and was most recently a reporter at the Chicago Tribune. He welcomes any and all kinds of tips at firstname.lastname@example.org.