NAVY FIGHTER WEAPONS SCHOOL COMMANDER
CDR Christopher ‘POPS’ Papaioanu was born in Fontana, California, son of George and Lynda Papaioanu. The family immigrated from Greece to the United States in the early 1900s. Christopher’s grandmother, Athanasia Gianniosis, was born in 1907 in modern-day 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 modern-day 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, Ca. 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 TOPGUN (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.
Christopher will honor our team writing the introductory note for the third volume of our books entitled GREEKS IN FOREIGN COCKPITS and he is a tremendous supporter of our research. As a small gift of our appreciation, the team not only sent him the two previous volumes but also created a special painting for him and the 50th TOPGUN anniversary, drawn by none other than our brother in arms George Moris. The painting is already in his office as shown in the photograph above. We wish him safe landings and we hope that one day we will be able to meet him in Greece. (Painting by George Moris, Photo via Christopher Papaioanu)
This specific F-18F was painted specifically for the TOP GUN 2 movie and it was the one in which Maverick flew along with a real Navy pilot. Although we ask Christopher if he participated in the flights during the movie we didn't get a clear answer. Looks like we will wait for the 2020 premier to find out! One more F-18E was painted in the same colors for external shooting. Both fighters were also used as the 50th TOP GUN Aniversary aircraft. CDR Christopher ‘Pops’ Papaioanu was one of the early cadre of Super Hornet pilots in the fleet. ‘I came here for my first tour as a TOPGUN instructor 14 years ago because TOPGUN instructors are the best in the business and I wanted to reach that level,’ he says. ‘They were, and still are today, the aircrew you would just be in awe of over their level of professionalism and talent in the jet.’ Explaining the sheer level of qualification and dedication it takes to become a TOPGUN instructor, Papaioanu says, ‘What is 10-12 flights for a student to complete during the BFM phase, for example, is 25-30 flights for a TOPGUN instructor to complete. Where students can watch their tapes post-flight, before drawing the fights on a whiteboard during the debrief, the instructors can’t. It’s all down to what notes they can take down during the fight and their overall ability to mentally recall specifics. Whole sorties can be spent at 7.5g looking back over their shoulders but they still have to demonstrate perfect recall. I remember I flew all five days of the week to pass defensive BFM. By Friday night I couldn’t move my neck but at least I’d passed! Effectively, the main course is akin to a masters’ degree, but becoming an instructor is like getting a doctorate and will generally take two years for an instructor to be fully qualified in every phase of the course.’ Talking about the path involved in becoming a TOPGUN SME, he adds, ‘The ‘murder board’ is the most stressful thing I’ve undertaken, including taking a squadron into combat. You have eight ‘pre-boards’ to get you completely ready; then the ‘murder board’ is conducted in front of the entire TOPGUN staff.’ It’s a complex affair with every detail catered for, including food and refreshments provided by the outgoing SME. The new SME must present to upwards of 35 experts, who are all poised with pen in hand, just waiting for the slightest error. Papaioanu says, ‘It’s about passion, personality, and talent. If you have the first two, you can crack the last element with sheer hard work.’ (Jamie Hunter, artwork Tom Cooper)
Since grade school, I wanted to be an Astronaut and someday fly the Space Shuttle. It wasn't until I was exposed to TOPGUN instructors during my first tour – there were pilots that operated on a whole other plane tactically - that I decided TOPGUN was the path I wanted to now take. So after my tour with VFA-14, I applied to TOPGUN and was fortunate enough to be accepted not only as a student but with follow on orders to the TOPGUN Staff. After a three year tour as a TOPGUN 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 TOPGUN, only this time as the Commanding Officer. During Christopher’s time as the TOPGUN CO, he and the TOPGUN 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.
Christopher 'Pops' Papaioanu
1. Dimitris Vassilopoulos correspondence with Christopher 'Pops' Papaioanu
2. Combat Aircraft Monthly, September 2018, Fabulous Fallon, Jamie Hunter
3. TOPGUN 50, POPS, Defense Special Project Publication, https://topgun50.com/