CDR Christopher ‘POPS’ Papaioanu was born in the Californian city of Fontana and is the son of George and Lynda Papaioanu, whose parents immigrated from Greece to the United States in the early 1900s.
Christopher’s grandmother, Athanasia Gianniosis, was born in 1907 in Artemisio. In 1914, Athanasia immigrated to the United States with her mother and brother, eventually making their way to Pasadena, California.
Christopher’s grandfather, Andreas Papaioannou, was born in 1894 in Kefalovryso. Andreas immigrated to the United States in 1918 through Ellis Island. Upon entering Ellis Island, local officials said his name was too long and made him take out two letters. On the spot, Andreas changed his last name from Papaioannou to Papaioanu, and it has retained the new spelling ever since.
Andreas worked for a time with a family who was already residing in San Diego. Eventually, Andreas moved to Pasadena, California where he started a very successful California produce business. It was in Pasadena that Andreas would meet and marry Athanasia Gianniosis. The two would have three children; Spero, George, and Nicholas Papaioanu. Christopher is the son of their middle child, George Papaioanu.
Christopher spoke about his career in the special issue published for the 50th anniversary of the famous TOP GUN (U.S. Navy Fighter Weapons School), in an interview given to LCDR Steve Penley, US Navy (ret.).
“I was a member of the Navy ROTC program at the University of San Diego. Upon graduation and Officer commission, I was selected for a pilot training with initial orders to Vance AFB in Enid, Oklahoma as part of a joint training program with the U.S. Air Force. With 5 months before I had to report, however, my NROTC commanding officer sent me to VFA-125, the F/A-18A-D training squadron at Naval Air Station Lemoore, California, where I was first exposed to the F/A-18 and the Navy fighter community. That five-month experience only increased my desire to fly Navy jets. Primary flight school at Vance AFB was harsh but quick. After completion, I was selected to fly jets and received follow-on orders to Naval Air Station Meridian, Mississippi, where I completed the Intermediate and Advanced phases of jet training and earned my Navy Wings of Gold. Following graduation, I was sent back to Naval Air Station Lemoore, California for training in the F/A-18E/F with VFA-122. At the time, the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet was a brand new airplane within the Navy. After completing the training syllabus in the F/A-18E/F, I was selected to fly the F/A-18E (the single-seat variant of the Super Hornet) with follow on orders to the TOPHATTERS of Strike-Fighter Squadron (VFA) Fourteen. During this tour, I participated in the opening stages of Operation IRAQI FREEDOM while flying onboard the USS Nimitz.
Since grade school, I wanted to be an Astronaut and someday fly the Space Shuttle. It wasn’t until I was exposed to TOP GUN instructors during my first tour – there were pilots that operated on a whole other plane tactically – that I decided TOP GUN was the path I wanted to now take. So after my tour with VFA-14, I applied to TOP GUN and was fortunate enough to be accepted not only as a student but with follow on orders to the TOP GUN Staff. After a three year tour as a TOP GUN instructor, flying all variants of the F/A-18 and the F-16A, I went back to the Fleet and joined the KESTRELS of VFA- 137 as the squadron Training Officer, flying the F/A-18E and responsible for the tactical training and proficiency of all of the squadron pilots. The tour with VFA-137 included one eight-month combat deployment onboard the USS Lincoln in support of Operations ENDURING FREEDOM (Afghanistan) and IRAQI FREEDOM. Immediately upon return from this deployment, I was given follow-on orders back to VFA-14 for my Department Head tour. After two more combat deployments onboard the USS Nimitz and USS Stennis with VFA-14 in support of Operation ENDURING FREEDOM, I was sent to the Navy War College where I earned a Master’s Degree in National Security and Strategic Studies. Following graduation, I was then sent to JFCC (Joint Functional Component Command) for Space at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. There I established the Weapons and Tactics Branch for the Command and served as the Branch Chief. While stationed in Vandenberg, the Navy advanced me to the rank of Commander and I was selected for operational command of an F/A-18E fighter squadron.
As a Greek fighter pilot, it was only fitting that I was selected to command the ARGONAUTS of VFA-147, again flying the F/A-18E. I took over as the Commanding Officer of VFA-147 at the absolute best possible time; right at the start of workups for a combat deployment. My entire command tour consisted of workups and combat deployment. For all that I had done throughout my career, it was a perfect tour for me and getting to serve with the fantastic crew of Sailors, Chiefs, and Officers that made up VFA-147 was an incredible honor for me personally. During this tour, the ARGONAUTS and I deployed aboard the USS Nimitz in support of Operation INHERENT RESOLVE, flying combat operations in both Iraq and Syria. Following Christopher’s time at VFA-147, the Navy selected him to return to TOP GUN, only this time as the Commanding Officer. During Christopher’s time as the TOP GUN CO, he and the TOP GUN Staff led the charge that would help shift the Navy’s focus from counterinsurgency operations in the Middle East to an impending Great Power Competition with both China and Russia. Their efforts would begin a movement to posture the Navy for possible high-end combat operations against peer and near-peer capabilities.
This article first appeared in Greeks In Foreign Cockpits.
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