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3 family members from Sonoma County killed in Nebraska plane crash

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A Nebraska plane crash claimed the lives of a Sonoma County family this week, tragically ending the Graton trio’s annual summer trip to a renowned aviation conference in Wisconsin and stunning friends and neighbors.

Damon and Sarah Brown and their adult son Duncan were killed Wednesday after their twin-engine Beechcraft Baron went down just north of the Chadron, Nebraska, municipal airport about 2:30 p.m., according to the Dawes County Coroner and the Federal Aviation Administration.

Damon Brown, 61, worked at the EBA Engineering firm in Santa Rosa and had a background in geology, like his wife, Sarah, 68, who authored a series of novels featuring a geologist who solves mysteries. Their only child, Duncan, 25, a graduate of Sebastopol’s Analy High School, worked at a local architecture firm after returning from college in Southern California.

All three were pilots, though it appeared that Sarah had let her license expire, according to the FAA. A family friend said they were in the Midwest to attend the Experimental Aircraft Association’s AirVenture convention, one of the largest aviation gatherings in the country.

Family friend Nancy Saylor said that Sarah Brown recently told her over lunch that the three were especially looking forward to this year’s trip to Wisconsin.

“It was a big thing for them. They really had a fabulous time there every year, camping and sharing and bringing up memories,” said Saylor, a longtime teacher at Graton’s Oak Grove Elementary School who met the family when Duncan was a student.

It was not immediately clear what caused the crash. Weather in Chadron at the time was calm and clear, with light south winds between 5 to 10 mph, according to a National Weather Service meteorologist based in Cheyenne, Wyoming.

The National Transportation Safety Board is leading the investigation of the crash and expects to report preliminary findings within two weeks, though final findings won’t be released for months or even over a year, according to Eric Weiss, an NTSB spokesman.

The three lived together in a home off Graton Road.

The Browns were strongly connected to the Graton community, where they’d lived most of Duncan’s life and where he’d attended Oak Grove Elementary School. Sarah Brown had volunteered at the school and at the nearby Hallberg historic butterfly garden. She also belonged to the Graton Community Club.

“They were very active in Graton,” Saylor said.

Under her maiden name, Sarah Andrews, Sarah Brown wrote a series of novels chronicling the adventures of a female forensic geologist, Em Hansen. Her tales did well enough to warrant more than 10 books, and positive testimonies from readers on Goodreads, a social media site dedicated to reading, indicate that her work hit home with people who loved finding a good murder mystery with rooted in-depth knowledge of the natural world.

“She weaves the mystery with lots of talk of geology, ecology, and evolution/ creationism,” a Goodreads reviewer wrote of “Rock Bottom,” a later book in the Em Hansen series. “Sometimes it was a lot of geology, but it was all interesting.”

Damon Brown was a member of the Experimental Aircraft Association, host of the Wisconsin conference that a spokesman, Dick Knapinski, described as “aviation’s family reunion.” Over this week, it was expected to draw more than 10,000 airplanes and 500,000 people for hundreds of seminars and exhibits and daily afternoon air shows, Knapinski said.

“If it has flown, is flying or will fly, it probably will show up at Oshkosh sometime,” he said.

The Browns Beechcraft Baron 55 was built in 1965, according to FAA records. The twin- engine plane, with seating of up to five, is considered a higher-end private aircraft.

“That’s a very good airplane,” Knapinski said. “That one’s been around for a lot of years, and it’s got a great safety record.”

Damon Brown’s love for flying spanned decades and even showed up at his workplace in the form of spare parts ordered and stowed for the Beechcraft, according to longtime work partner, Nazar Eljumaily, whom Damon mentored as a pilot. Eljumaily also described his colleague as a “world-class marksman” who liked to hunt and an engaging conversationalist whom Eljumaily got to know over about 30 years.

“We kind of grew up working together,” Eljumaily said.

Randy Seelye, a former Press Democrat editor, said he and his wife bonded with the Browns to the point of occasionally celebrating Thanksgiving together. Seelye recalled skiing with Damon and Duncan in North Lake Tahoe and socializing over the years with Sarah and Damon.

“Both were quite gregarious, fun to be around,” Seelye said, adding that their son “seemed like he was hitting his stride” in recent years.

After graduating from Analy High, Duncan Brown studied biology and Spanish at Occidental College in Los Angeles. He interned for NASA’s Office of Planetary Protection “to protect the earth’s biosphere from extraterrestrial contamination,” according to a college publication. Back in Sonoma County, he had been working for a local architecture firm.

Duncan was a bright student for his third-grade teacher at Oak Grove Elementary, Peggy Heil. They stayed in touch over the years when he visited the school before the first bell of the year.

“Oak Grove was really a very special part of his life,” Heil said. “I fully expected to see him this summer as I get ready for the school year. He was that old student who came by the classroom to see if you needed help with anything.”

At Analy High, he often would head for the counselor’s office to visit with Peggy Heil’s husband, Joseph Heil, who for years was a counselor there.

“He was excited about going to Occidental and after he’d been there, he came by (and) said it was just the right place for him,” Joseph Heil said. “When he got his pilot’s license, he told me about that, and when he soloed, he was through the moon. He was just so happy.”

“He was a jovial, unique character, just a sweetheart of a guy,” Joseph Heil added. “I can’t believe they’re gone.”

Staff writers Nashelly Chavez and Alexandria Bordas contributed reporting. You can reach Staff Writer Randi Rossmann at 707-521-5412 or randi.rossmann@pressdemocrat.com. You can reach Staff Writer Will Schmitt at 707-521-5207 or will.schmitt@pressdemocrat.com.

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