JOHNSTOWN — One of the three National Guard pilots who died in a helicopter crash Wednesday evening near Rochester had his roots in Johnstown, where he was remembered as a “good kid” who entered the military after high school and made it his career.
Chief Warrant Officer 5 Steven Skoda of Rochester attended Johnstown schools and graduated from Johnstown High School in 1985. He joined the military immediately after graduation, serving for 35 years and mentoring many other helicopter pilots.
“He was a truly selfless man who loved flying helicopters. A true patriot who quietly helped anyone around him,” recalled his sister, Deborah Skoda-Willett of Johnstown.
She said the family extends its deep regret and condolences to the families of the other two pilots who died. They are recommending any memorial donations be made to a GoFundMe account for the family of Chief Warrant Officer 4 Christian Koch, who left a wife and four young children. He was the only pilot with a dependent family.
The New York Army National Guard UH-60 medical evacuation helicopter based at the Army Aviation Support Facility at Rochester International Airport crashed in the town of Mendon about 6:30 p.m. Wednesday while on a routine training mission, killing all three pilots on board.
The National Guard said the unit trains to perform aeromedical evacuations, and the crew had been conducting night vision goggle proficiency training at the time of the crash. The Army is investigating the cause of the crash.
Those killed were Skoda; Koch, age 39; and Chief Warrant Officer 2 Daniel Prial, 30. All were experienced military pilots.
“These Soldiers were a part of our National Guard family and we mourn their loss, alongside their family members and loved ones,” the National Guard said in a statement when the names were released on Friday.
Skoda, 54, served in the active Army from 1985 to 1987, and joined the National Guard in 1987. He had been flying helicopters out of Rochester since 1992. He was a veteran of the Afghanistan war, having been deployed there in 2013 and 2019.
Skoda worked as a full-time National Guard technician at the Rochester facility, as well as serving as a member of C Company of the 171st General Support Aviation Battalion.
“He was an experienced helicopter pilot who served as a UH-60 senior instructor pilot and an instrument flight instructor and a UH-60 maintenance test pilot. He had almost 5,000 flying hours,” the National Guard statement said. “He mentored Soldiers of all ranks throughout his career.”
Skoda’s awards included the Meritorious Service Medal, the Army Commendation Medal, the National Defense Service Medal, the NATO Medal, the Meritorious Unit Citation, the Army Reserve Overseas Training Ribbon, the Department of State Superior Honor Award, the Humanitarian Service Medal, the Master Army Aviator Badge, the Air Assault Badge, the Global War on Terrorism Service Medal, and the Coast Guard Presidential Unit Citation.
“He was a friend and mentor to all the Soldiers in his unit, supporting the training and career progressions of hundreds of aircrews throughout his career, according to Soldiers at the flight facility,” the National Guard statement said.
That he was a friend and mentor doesn’t surprise those who remember him in this Fulton County city.
Michael Beatty, a retired Johnstown teacher and principal, coached Skoda in freshman football, taught him as a ninth grade social studies teacher, and was also class advisor to the high school Class of 1985, the class Skoda was in. Skoda participated in class activities.
“He was a kid you remember, a good kid,” Beatty said. “He was usually there to help out with the various things.”
After Skoda went into the military, Beatty said he kept up with his career sporadically when he would run into Skoda’s mother, Barbara, who at one point served on the Johnstown Board of Education and remains a board member of the Johnstown School Museum. “They’ve always been very involved,” he said of the family.
Jennifer Lynn Miller of Johnstown, a registered nurse and local firefighter, counted Skoda as a kind friend throughout their time going through the Johnstown school system.
“I met Steve in 2nd grade at Glebe Street school,” she wrote in a Facebook message to the Gazette. “He was my friend but unfortunately we lost touch after graduating from JHS in 1985. Growing up I was a fat girl and kids can be cruel. Steve never saw my weight, he only saw that I was his friend. He was kind, quiet, but had a mischievous grin. I sat in the back of the room with the boys. He was my friend when I needed one the most.”
Miller said she it “breaks my heart” to hear of his death.
Skoda-Willetts said funeral arrangements were still incomplete on Saturday.