Stephen Nicklous Benson – Lieutenant, United States Navy

Submitted By: Shawn Matthew Smith, Captain, United States Navy (Retired):

January 1, 1976 – October 18, 2002


Lieutenant Benson was a native of Virginia Beach, Virginia and a 1998 graduate of Oklahoma State University, Stillwater, Oklahoma, with a degree in General Business. He received his commission on September 11, 1998 after completing the Naval Officer Candidate School program in Pensacola, Florida.

Following graduation, Lieutenant Benson attended Naval Aviation Schools Command and was designated a Naval Flight Officer.  He continued his aviation training at Fighter Squadron One Zero One in the F-14 Tomcat, and upon completion transferred to Fighter Squadron Four One, attached to Carrier Air Wing Eight. While assigned, Fighter Squadron Four One participated in operations SOUTHERN WATCH and ENDURING FREEDOM. Lieutenant Benson then transitioned from Fighter Squadron Four One as they reestablished as Strike Fighter Squadron Four One in the Navy's newest strike-fighter aircraft, the F/A-18 F Super Hornet.

During his career Lieutenant Benson amassed more than 632 total flight hours, 26 combat hours and 114 arrested carrier landings.  His awards included the Navy Commendation Medal with Combat “V,” Navy Unit Commendation, Meritorious Unit Commendation, National Defense Service Medal, Armed Forces Expeditionary Medal and Sea Service Deployment Ribbon.

On October 18, 2002, Lieutenant Benson was killed when two F/A-18 F Super Hornets collided over the Pacific 80 miles southwest of Monterey, California.  Both aircraft were assigned to Strike Fighter Squadron Four One stationed at Naval Air Station Lemoore. The other aviators lost in the mishap were  Lieutenant Joel A. Korkowski, 30, a pilot from Phoenix, Arizona; Lieutenant Stephen R. Nevarez, 31, a weapons officer from New Orleans, Louisiana, and Lieutenant Matthew S. Shubzda, 27, a pilot from Dallas, Texas. Lieutenant Stephen N. Benson was 26 years old.  The fatalities were the first in an F/A-18 F Super Hornet since the Navy began flying the new combat aircraft in 1999.

Memorial services were held at Naval Air Station Lemoore for all four aviators where about 800 relatives, friends and troops packed the chapel to bid farewell to the two pilots and two weapons operators who were flying in two F/A-18F Super Hornets.  Four fellow members of the Black Aces squadron eulogized their fallen comrades at the service. A missing man formation flew overhead, with one jet breaking away from the diamond formation and soaring toward the heavens.

In addition, services were also held at the Chapel of the Good Shepard at Naval Air Station Oceana, Virginia Beach, Virginia on October 29, 2002 where Lieutenant Benson grew up and had his first operational assignment. Approximately twelve hundred relatives, friends, “Shipmates,” and fellow aviators attended this service requiring two outdoor tents to be erected to accommodate the chapel overflow.  Lieutenant Benson was  eulogized by his sister Katherine Naeher, his brother Captain Garrett Benson, USMC, and his father, Captain Eric Benson, USN (R).  Following the service, a ceremony took place and the American flag was presented to the family with rounds included from the twenty-one gun salute. A missing man formation was also conducted at Oceana with two F-14 Tomcats and one F/A-18 Hornet in a wedge formation with the missing aircraft from the number three position.

The final service and internment were held for Lieutenant “Nick” Benson on 30 October, 2002 at the Old Fort Chapel at Arlington National Cemetery.  Many senior officials and Flag Officers, both active duty and retired, were in attendance including the Secretary of the Navy, The Honorable Gordon R. England.  The ceremonial American Flag was presented to the Benson family by Admiral William J. Fallon, Vice Chief of Naval Operations.

Once again, the capacity of the chapel was exceeded.  Lieutenant Benson was third generation military and his father a retired Navy Captain who also flew the F-14 Tomcat.  Lieutenant Benson's father was the Commanding Officer of Fighter Squadron Four One when Lieutenant Benson was still in High School.  Captain Benson also commanded the Naval Air Station at Oceana from June 1996 through July 1999. Captain Benson was retired from the Navy and working in the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs in Washington, D.C. as the Acting Under Secretary for Memorial Affairs at the time of the mishap.

In every case, Lieutenant “Nick” Benson, call sign ‘FREAK’, was remembered for his compassion, sense of humor, devoted professionalism and courage to both the Navy and his country.  He was also remembered for his size, wearing a 50 long flight suit, and a heart that seemed larger than the man himself.  Lieutenant Benson did not have a long Naval career.  However, his impact on lives both professional and nonprofessional will long be remembered.  He was extremely close to his family, whose grief was only exceeded by their pride in their son and brother.

Lieutenant Steven “Nick” Benson is survived by his father and mother, Captain Eric and Mrs. Barbara Benson, USN, brother and sister-in-law Captain Garrett and Mrs. Kristen Benson, USMC, and brother-in-law and sister Mr. Matt and Mrs. Katherine Naeher.

“On behalf of a grateful people, Godspeed Lieutenant.”



Navy jet collision blamed on pilots
Four Lemoore aviators died when two Super Hornets crashed Oct. 18.
By Kerri Ginis
The Fresno Bee
(Published Saturday, September 20, 2003

A Navy investigation found that pilot error caused a midair collision between two fighter jets that killed four aviators from Lemoore Naval Air Station last October. It took almost a year to compile the 669-page report signed by three-star Navy Admiral M.D. Malone on August 28, 2003. The overriding conclusion of the investigation is that the accident “was the result of indecision and the failure to act by the two pilots operating the aircraft.”Killed in the Oct. 18, 2002, crash were Lieutenant Stephen R. Nevarez, 31, of New Orleans; Lieutenant Joel A. Korkowski, 30, of Phoenix; Lieutenant Matthew S. Shubzda, 27, of Dallas; and Lieutenant Stephen N. Benson, 26, of Virginia Beach, Virginia.

Korkowski and Shubzda were pilots; Nevarez and Benson were weapons systems officers on the F/A-18F Super Hornets. They were part of Strike Fighter Squadron VFA-41, known as the Black Aces.

Retired Navy Captain Eric Benson lost his son Stephen, or “Nick” as he was known to family and friends. The elder Benson, a 28-year veteran aviator, said he wasn't surprised by the report's findings.

“Clearly, it's pilot error,” said Benson, who lives in Virginia Beach. “I flew for 28 years, and you don't collide, even accidentally, without someone making an error.”

But Benson also points out that despite the conclusions drawn in the report, no one will ever really know what happened that October morning.

“They didn't recover any of the airplanes, any of the crew or any of the hard evidence,” he said. “What you really have is a skeletal report that is based on presumed evidence.”

Navy officials were unavailable to comment Friday on the findings.

The report points out that the 9:30 a.m. crash occurred during a training mission off the coast of California about 70 miles west of Big Sur. Eight aircraft were in the air conducting four-on-four air-combat maneuvering.

The jets were divided into opposing forces of blue and red. The blue force was “friendly” and used the same tactics and weapons that are flown in combat.

The red force was “hostile” and simulated enemy aircraft and tactics.

An investigator states that the two Super Hornets — one piloted by Korkowski and the other by Shubzda — collided while attempting to pass each another. It was described as a “center of mass to center of mass” crash at a very high rate of speed.

The impact caused “a tremendous fireball” that destroyed both aircraft instantly.

After conducting hundreds of interviews, reviewing maintenance records and evaluating safety procedures, the investigator concluded that there were two direct causes of the accident.

The first was that both pilots failed to say which direction they were going to pass — a critical training rule violation, according to the report.

The other is that the pilots didn't ensure safe separation between their aircraft.

It's believed that one of the pilots was trying to make a right-to-right pass while the other was attempting to make a left-to-left pass. Neither communicated his direction or was able to maneuver his jet in time to avoid the collision.

“Although it would be very easy to attribute this accident to system or design failures, training or programmatic failures, I have had quite some time to review various reports and I firmly believe these issues were not factors,” the investigator stated in the report.

“The aircrew did not purposely violate any rule or any procedure. Neither called the direction of pass and for reasons we'll never know, neither maneuvered his aircraft to affect safe separation.”

Other pilots who witnessed the crash provided descriptions of the impact. One said he saw one jet smash into the second jet just behind where the pilot and weapons system operator were sitting.

He said there was an “enormous fireball, surrounded everywhere by debris fragments.” He said all the debris seemed to suddenly stop and hang momentarily before falling directly down.

Another pilot stated he thought he saw what might have been a small movement by one of the pilots just before the collision, but he couldn't tell exactly what it was. He also said he didn't see any evidence of ejection, but did see what looked like a piece of “dental floss with green on top” drifting down toward the ocean.

After the crash, other pilots made repeated low passes over the water to look for survivors. But all they observed was an oil slick, a sea dye marker and a small amount of floating debris.

A headstone that describes Lieutenant Benson as “a courageous son and brother” now sits at the Old Fort Chapel at Arlington National Cemetery.

The elder Benson said every day since the crash has been difficult.

He doesn't know how he will handle the upcoming year anniversary of his son's death.

“I wish I had a good answer for how to deal with something like this,” he said. “You endure it and you build several defenses. I guess you just try to deal with it day to day.”

Four Navy Aviators Mourned
Wednesday, October 23, 2002

Lemoore, California –– Four Navy aviators presumed dead after their planes collided over the Pacific Ocean in a training exercise were mourned Wednesday in a private service at their air base.

About 800 relatives, friends and troops packed the chapel at Lemoore Naval Air Station to bid farewell to the two pilots and two weapons operators who were flying in two F/A-18F Super Hornets that crashed Friday.

The four aviators were participating in dogfighting exercises when the jets collided. Searchers recovered wreckage but no bodies.

Four fellow members of the Black Aces squadron eulogized their fallen comrades at the service. A so-called missing man formation flew overhead, with one jet breaking away from the diamond shape and soaring toward the heavens.

The fatalities were the first in a Super Hornet since the Navy began flying the new combat jet in 1999.

The aviators were Lieutenant Stephen N. Benson, 26, a weapons system officer from Virginia Beach, Virginia; Lieutenant Joel A. Korkowski, 30, a pilot from Phoenix, Arizona; Lieutenant Stephen R. Nevarez, 31, a weapons officer from New Orleans, Louisiana, and Lieutenant Matthew S. Shubzda, 27, a pilot from Dallas, Texas.

Search Ends for Four Navy Fliers
Sunday, October 20, 2002

POINT SUR, Calif. –– The U.S. Coast Guard called off its search Saturday for four U.S. Navy officers missing since their two fighter jets collided during a combat exercise Friday.

The search ended at 6:30 p.m. because of sea and weather conditions, and because about 33 hours had passed since the pilots were reported missing, according to Coast Guard spokesman Matt Juillerat.

The Navy identified the missing officers as Lieutenant Stephen R. Nevarez, 31, a weapons systems officer from New Orleans; Lieutenant Joel A. Korkowski, 30, a pilot from Phoenix; Lieutenant Matthew S. Shubzda, 27, a pilot from Dallas; and Lieutenant Stephen N. Benson, 26, a weapons system officer from Virginia Beach, Virginia.

The four were members of Strike Fighter Squadron 41, based at Lemoore Naval Air Station near Fresno.

Two cutters, an HH-65 Dolphin helicopter and three commercial fishing vessels helped search the chilly waters of the Pacific Ocean 80 miles southwest of Monterey, said Coast Guard spokeswoman Veronica Bandrowski said. The Coast Guard also used computer-aided search programs, which calculate sea changes, wind and other factors, to help guide searchers over about 40 square miles where the pilots may have drifted.

The two F/A-18F jets that took off from Lemoore collided during a training exercise with six other fighter jets, said Lemoore spokesman Dennis McGrath. The two Super Hornets were not carrying any weapons.

The officers were all experienced aviators who had flown F-14 Tomcats over Afghanistan, said McGrath. Their families have been notified.

F/A-18F jets, which seat two aviators, are designed for traditional strike operations and close air support. F/A-class fighter jets commonly are equipped with Vulcan 20mm cannons and can carry bombs, mines and rockets.

The Navy is the only branch of the military that uses Super Hornets, McGrath said.

It was the first crash involving a Super Hornet since the Navy launched the fighter jets in 1999. All squadrons of the jets are based at Lemoore, but recently the base deployed a squadron aboard the carrier Abraham Lincoln, which is at sea in the Middle East, McGrath said.

Each Super Hornet costs $57 million, weighs 33 tons and has a combat flight range of 1,275 nautical miles, according to the Navy Web site.

When McDonnell Douglas – now owned by Boeing – was building Super Hornets in the 1990s, the jets suffered from what is called “wing drop phenomenon,” which would cause the aircraft to drop to one side during certain dogfight maneuvers, Marcus Corbin, senior analyst for the Center for Defense Information, a Washington, D.C.-based think-tank, told the San Francisco Chronicle.

Corbin said during “wing drop” a pilot may not be able to discern the location of near-flying planes, and he was skeptical that redesigns fixed the problem.

The “wing drop” problem was supposed to have been fixed, McGrath said, noting such problems are usually addressed in the Navy's testing and evaluation stages, which happened before the jets ever got to Lemoore.

“By the time they're here, they've normally resolved all of the difficulties,” McGrath said.

Courtesy of Oklahoma State University:

Tuesday, October 22, 2002

OSU graduate among those missing in military plane crash

A friendly young man who could make people laugh is how family members remember an Oklahoma State University alum who is missing in a military plane crash off the coast of California. The Coast Guard officially ended the search Saturday night for Lieutenant Stephen “Nick” Benson, 26, and three others because of sea and weather conditions and the time that had passed since Friday's accident.

Stephen Benson graduated in 1998 from OSU, his father, Eric Benson, said Monday evening.

Benson and the three other Navy officers were members of Strike Fighter Squadron 41 based at Lemoore Naval Air Station near Fresno, California, who flew F/A-18 Super Hornets.

Two of the two-seater airplanes collided in an exercise Friday off the Big Sur coast.

Stephen Benson was a weapons system operator who would have been seated in the rear seat of the Super Hornet.

A memorial service for those missing is scheduled for Wednesday at the California naval base, said Eric Benson, who is retired from the Navy and lives in Virginia City, Virginia.

Relatives and friends have called offering condolences, the elder Benson said.

”We have been getting numerous calls from people who were friends of Nick, who are encouraging us to pick up the pieces this horrible nightmare has left us,” said Eric Benson, who also is an OSU graduate.

His son stood 6-foot-4, weighed 240 pounds and sported a personality just as big, Eric Benson said.

Stephen Benson was friendly and had a talent for cheering people up, Eric Benson said.

”He was good at making you laugh.”

Greg Gungoll, 27, of Alva knew Stephen Benson while they were OSU students and concurred that soldier's persona matched his size.

”To say Nick was larger than life is a correct statement,” Gungoll said. ”He had a very large heart. Everyone really liked him … he enjoyed life to the fullest.”

The military has been a ”family business, but the tragedy is still hard to take,” said Eric Benson, whose father also was in the service.

”We're trying to keep everyone focused on the life that he lived and not the life that was dimmed,” Eric Benson said.

Stephen Benson also is survived by a brother and a sister.

Courtesy of the Virginia Pilot:

Lieutenant Stephen “Nick” Benson was looking forward to coming home.
He was born at Portsmouth Naval Hospital, and played football for First Colonial High School in Virginia Beach. He became a fighter pilot, and flew F-14 Tomcats out of Oceana Naval Air Station.

After being among the first F-14 crews to fly into Afghanistan after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Benson's Black Aces squadron switched over to the new F/A-18 Super Hornets and was moved to California.

But Benson did not expect to be gone too long. He was engaged to be married, and the Black Aces were scheduled to be among the first Super Hornets stationed at Oceana, sometime in 2004.

When the Black Aces do return to Oceana, they will do so with a heavy heart. Benson, 26, and three other Navy aviators were killed Friday off the California coast in a midair collision between two F/A-18F Super Hornets.

The Navy has released little information about the accident, the first involving Super Hornets. There had been up to eight aircraft participating in training maneuvers just before the accident occurred, according to Eric Benson, Nick's father.

“Maybe we'll never know what happened,” Benson said Monday from his Virginia Beach home. “Maybe we don't want to know.”

Eric Benson, a retired Navy Captain, commanded the Oceana air station from 1996 to 1999. He takes some consolation in knowing that Nick died doing what he loved — flying jets.

“They were four brave young Americans, out there sharpening their swords to do the nation's bidding, and circumstances put them in the same piece of sky,” Benson said.

Nick Benson was a weapons system officer in the back seat of the aircraft. Also lost were weapons system officer Lieutenant Stephen Nevarez, 31, of New Orleans, and pilots Lieutenant Joel Korkowski, 30, of Phoenix and Lieutenant Matthew Shubzda, 27, of Dallas. All were believed to have had earlier assignments at Oceana.

“This is not just about the Benson family,” Eric Benson said. “There is a widow who has been married for three months. There is a widow who is pregnant with her first child, and then there is a widow with two orphans under the age of 5.

“The tragedy touched just about the full spectrum.”

Nick Benson graduated from First Colonial in 1994 and from Oklahoma State in 1998. He was commissioned a naval officer that same year through the Officer Candidate Program.

When Nick told his parents he wanted to fly jets in the Navy, it “kind of stunned us because it was something he always professed lacking an interest in,” Eric Benson said. “But when he committed to it, he was 100 percent and made us very proud.”

The year Eric Benson was named the “Black Ace of the Century” by VF-41 was the year Nick began flying for the same squadron.

“He wanted to fly in the F-14 because it was a legacy thing, but more importantly because he wanted to be stationed at Oceana,” Eric Benson said.

Nick's call sign was “Freak,” a named he was tagged with by the squadron's Ready Room. His father said Nick liked the name.

“It was a lot better than ‘Son of Buster,' ” Eric Benson said of the name that had been proposed; Eric Benson's call sign was “Sodbuster.”

Eric Benson said Nick wanted to write his own story, that “he didn't want to live in anybody's shadow.” He also gave his wife, Barbara, credit for producing “as good a young man as there is in uniform, because I was at sea when that young man was raised, and she kept him committed and straight and made him morally right.”

During Nick's time in Afghanistan, when his squadron was flying from the carrier Enterprise, Benson asked Nick to bring him back arming wires, which are removed from bombs when they are armed before a mission. Eric Benson wanted to give the wires to the wife of a good friend killed in the World Trade Center attacks a year ago.

“Nick brought me back a bunch of arming wires from a load of ordnance he dropped on a tank column,” Benson said.

Nick Benson's brother also is a combat veteran. Garrett Benson, 29, is a Marine Corps Captain and artillery officer stationed at Quantico Marine Corps Station in Northern Virginia. Garrett saw action in Bosnia.

His sister, Katherine Naeher, 22, lives in Houston, Texas. She was married a month ago.

A memorial service for Nick Benson will be held October 29, 2002, at the Oceana base chapel at 10 a.m. An interment ceremony will be at Arlington National Cemetery on October 30.

Eric Benson took a new civilian job this year in Washington, serving as Acting Undersecretary for Memorial Affairs for the Veterans Administration.

“I run the national cemetery administration, except for Arlington, which is still an Army unit.

“But the irony has not been lost on us.”


  • DATE OF BIRTH: 01/01/1976
  • DATE OF DEATH: 10/18/2002


An “In Memory of” stone was placed  in Arlington National Cemetery on 30 October 2002.  Lieutenant Benson's remains were not recovered.


VA Names Acting Head for Memorial Affairs

Secretary of Veterans Affairs Anthony J. Principi has appointed S. Eric Benson as acting Under Secretary for Memorial Affairs. Benson had been the senior advisor to Deputy Secretary Leo S. Mackay, Jr., since May 2001. He replaces Robin L. Higgins, who recently resigned.

As acting under secretary for one of the Department of Veterans Affairs' (VA) three administrations, Benson directs the operation and maintenance of 120 national cemeteries and oversees other memorial-related programs. These include the distribution of headstones and markers for veterans' graves worldwide and a grants program to establish state veterans cemeteries.

In his previous job as senior advisor, Benson oversaw the development of policy and operating procedures for the full range of VA's programs and services. He was appointed by the White House and selected for the Senior Executive Service.

Benson retired as a Navy Captain in 2001 after serving 28 years with extensive leadership and combat experience. He logged more than 5,000 hours flying fighter aircraft and made over 1,000 carrier landings. Benson flew 44 combat missions in Operation Desert Storm. He commanded Naval Air Station Oceana in Virginia Beach, Va., the world's largest tactical air base.

A graduate of Oklahoma State University in Stillwater, Benson was selected as a distinguished alumnus in 2000. He earned a master's degree in international relations at Salve Regina College, Newport, R.I., and another master's degree in international security studies at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University, Medford, Massachusetts. He also attended the Naval War College.

Benson is a life member of several national veterans organizations

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