Smith: Memorial service set for Graton family killed in Nebraska plane crash

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Amidst a Sept. 29 memorial service for the three members of an extraordinary west Sonoma County family, eyes will turn skyward for a flyover by several private airplanes flown by pilots with heavy hearts.

The aerial salute will honor geologists Damon and Sarah Brown and their son and frequent flying partner, Analy High School and Occidental College graduate Duncan Brown.

They died together in July when the twin-engine plane that Damon Brown flew regularly crashed just short of an airport in northwestern Nebraska. The Browns were intending to land and refuel on a flight home from Oshkosh, Wisconsin, and the world’s largest fly-in convention.

“They loved to fly — the freedom of it,” said Karen von Somogyi of Santa Barbara, Damon Brown’s sister. She said her brother was known as a most meticulous and safety conscious pilot.

“We just never thought it (a crash) would happen.”

THE MEMORIAL for the Browns is 11 a.m. Sept. 29 at the Santa Rosa Veterans Memorial Building. At one point in the ceremony, a number of private pilots will fly over the vets’ building.

The July 24 crash of Damon Brown’s 1965 Beechcraft 95B55 Baron near Chadron, Nebraska, cut short three notably productive and accomplished lives.

Damon and Sarah Brown, who met in college in Colorado, both were successful geologists. Sarah Brown put her imagination and her knowledge of geology to creative and entertaining use as novelist.

Under her maiden name, Sarah Andrews, she produced a dozen professionally published murder, mystery and mayhem books. For most of the novels, she assumed the alter ego of forensic geologist Emily “Em” Hansen.

The award-winning petroleum geologist and author shared on her website, “I write the books to make geology easier to access (and of course to spin a good yarn) ...”

One reviewer wrote on that the author “shines at showing readers what it’s like to be a scientist.” The review observed also that though “science and detective work should go together naturally,” few writers engage in scientific mystery.

Of those who do, the reviewer wrote, the geologist from Sonoma County “has become a leading light.”

In accepting the 2016 President’s Medal from the Geological Society of America, Sarah Brown wrote, “I write novels set in the geosciences because scientists in general and geologists in particular are under-represented in popular media, and when we do appear, we are often portrayed under ominous stereotypes with untrustworthy motivations and suspect findings.

“I wanted the public to know why and how the study of the Earth is significant and what we as geoscientists really do: We strive to understand natural systems and resources that are essential to life on this planet.”

Sarah Brown, who grew up in New York State, lectured at Sonoma State University and across the nation, did field work in Antarctica and four of the Earth’s other six continents and was an avid sailor, skier and pilot. Content in recent years to let her husband do the flying, she let her pilot’s license lapse.

Her sister-in-law, von Somogyi, said she left behind three unfinished new novels.

DAMON BROWN was born in Lansing, Michigan, and prepared for a career in geology at UC Santa Cruz and at Colorado State, where he met his future wife.

Though it wasn’t until a bit more than 20 years ago that he earned his pilot’s license, von Somogyi said, “he actually had always wanted to fly.”

Damon Brown flew a great deal, both for pleasure and for his work as president of the Santa Rosa civil and environmental engineering firm EBA.

His sister said he set off in his Beech Baron “at least once a week and probably more often than that.”

Brown was certified to fly multi-engine aircraft and to navigate using instruments as opposed to just his eyes. He was experienced in the challenges of flying in formation with other planes.

“He did a lot of flying and was an excellent pilot,” his sister said.

Damon Brown flew often with his wife and their son, who also had a pilot’s license. At 25, Duncan Brown worked at Persinger Architects of Sebastopol before moving to the Windsor construction firm of Wright Residential.

THE BROWNS shared a love of the huge annual Experimental Aircraft Association fly-in convention in Oshkosh. The third of week of July, more than 10,000 aircraft and 640,000 aviation enthusiasts converged on the city’s Wittman Regional Airport.

Damon, Sarah and Duncan Brown flew there from the Charles M. Schulz-Sonoma County Airport. They enjoyed the aviation spectacle and traded stories with other owners of Beech Barons, and on July 24 headed for home.

At about 2:20 p.m. that afternoon, needing to refuel, they descended and entered a landing pattern for Nebraska’s Chadron Municipal Airport. Investigators with the National Traffic Safety Board are working to determine what went wrong.

Damon Brown’s sister said her family has been told that the Beech was low and about a quarter of the mile from the runway when a gust of wind from the side flipped the plane upside down.

A preliminary report by the NTSB says that at the time of attempting landing the area was experiencing wind gusts of about 23 mph.

The preliminary report recounts that one witness at the airport said that while the Browns’ plane made a left turn toward the runway its nose dropped suddenly and the aircraft descended behind the tree line.

The report says a second witness “stated that she heard the airplane overhead and the engine ‘sputtered’ as if it lost power.”

WHATEVER IT WAS that caused the crash, it took from us three remarkable and deeply admired people. Among those who miss them most are Damon’s sister in Santa Barbara and his mother, Frances R. Brown of Greenbrae.

They ask that people interested in attending the Sept. 29 memorial RSVP at

You can contact Chris Smith at 707-521-5211 and

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