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Missing Pilot Leaves Brother Alone in Quest

Matt and Tim Shubzda pursued the same goals. Now the elder is one of four fliers lost in a crash.

October 21, 2002|Mark Arax | Times Staff Writer

LEMOORE, Calif. — The plan was for younger brother to follow big brother all the way from Texas to the naval air station in this San Joaquin Valley farm town. Tim and Matt Shubzda were going to fly Super Hornets side by side.

It was part of the pact they had made as teammates on the football squad at Naaman Forest High outside Dallas in the mid-1990s. Matt, the star quarterback with the 4.26 GPA, would pave the way. Tim, two years younger, would follow.

So when Matt headed to the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., Tim was a step behind. When Matt suited up for the big Army-Navy game, Tim lined up on the same kickoff team. When Matt graduated from flight school in Mississippi, Tim entered flight school in Texas.

Tim, 25, was three weeks shy of earning his wings when he got the call from their father on Friday.

Matt's Super Hornet had gone down off the California coast. He was missing and presumed dead, along with three other members of the Strike Fighter Squadron 41 from Lemoore Naval Air Station.

"All my life I was a step behind him," Tim said Sunday as the family gathered to prepare for a memorial service. "I was always just trying to match him. Because I could never top him."

It was a routine training mission for Lt. Matt "Shooby" Shubzda, 27, and seven fellow F/A-18F Super Hornet pilots from the "Black Aces" squadron. They were simulating combat -- dog fighting -- when two of the jets presumably collided and went down, about 80 miles southwest of Monterey off the Big Sur coast.

Two Coast Guard cutters, a helicopter and three commercial fishing vessels combed 1,600 square miles before giving up their search Saturday night.

Along with Shubzda, the missing men were identified as Lt. Stephen R. Nevarez, 31, of New Orleans; Lt. Joel Korkowski, 30, of Phoenix; and Lt. Stephen N. Benson, 26, of Virginia Beach, Va.

It was the first crash involving the Super Hornet since the Navy began flying the combat jets in 1999. Shubzda was among the pilots chosen to inaugurate the $57-million Super Hornet.

His father, Jim, a 29-year veteran of the Dallas Police Department, said he had never worried about his oldest boy. He seemed to be blessed with a magical touch. Whether he was throwing a football or manning a 33-ton flying machine, he made every challenge look easy.

"Everything clicked for him. Everything. He never uttered a word that gave us a reason to question. 'I can fly these planes. I can land on these carriers.'

"Sure, we were braced in the event he was deployed and had to go into battle. But a crash during training? It never entered my mind."

His father remembers the day his son, a fifth-grader, came face-to-face with his future. The family had gone to Pensacola for vacation and took a tour of the Naval Museum. Hanging from the rafters was a fighter jet with the pilot's name engraved on its side.

"He couldn't take his eyes off it," his father said. "He said, when he got older, he was going to put his own name on one of them."

Back home in Garland, Texas, he grew to 6-foot-1, 215 pounds, and became the captain of his high school football team and class president. He was voted "Mr. Naaman Forest High." He was one of those kids who never tested his father or his mother, Patti, family members said. He set a high bar for his two younger brothers, Tim and Drew, and his sister, Sara.

Graduating sixth in his class, he had his choice among the Big Three -- West Point, the Air Force or the Naval Academy. He thought Annapolis offered him the best chance at football and flying.

His coaches converted him into a defensive back, and he never broke into the starting lineup. He played on special teams, but that didn't stop him and brother Tim, who joined him at Navy in 1996, from living out one of their dreams.

"I was the Navy kicker and we were lining up for the kickoff against Army," Tim said. "There were 70,000 people in Philly stadium, and I looked down the line and there was Matt."

The two brothers got to travel back to Dallas and play Southern Methodist in front of the hometown crowd.

As Matt earned his wings and Tim entered flight school, they never discussed the dangers of the job. Matt was too busy plotting a way for Tim to join him in Lemoore when the younger brother got his wings.

Last week, Matt and his wife, Kim, high school sweethearts, were making plans to convert their garage into a room for Tim. The brothers last talked just before Matt's training mission.

"I'm still going to get my wings. It's just going to be a little different without him there. And my goal is still to come back to Lemoore and fly the Super Hornet," Tim said.

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