Sergey Brin Facing Lawsuit Over Pilot’s Death In Twin Otter Crash

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The widow of one of the pilots killed last May when flying Sergey Brin’s float-equipped Viking Twin Air 400 Series Twin Otter is suing the billionaire Google co-founder for wrongful death. Both pilots died when the Twin Otter crashed trying to return to California after launching on the first leg of a long-range ferry flight to Fiji.

According to a Forbes account posted today, the Santa Clara County-filed suit claims the aircraft’s temporary internal auxiliary fuel tank failed to transfer to the main tanks, causing the crew to turn back without enough fuel to make it to the California coast. The turboprop twin ultimately crashed at night due to fuel starvation near Half Moon Bay and neither the aircraft nor the bodies of the pilots have been recovered. Said to be a part-owner of the Twin Otter, Google is a co-defendant in the lawsuit along with the maintenance shop that installed the fuel tank and the firm that hired the pilots.

The ferry mission was reportedly to deliver the aircraft to Brin’s private island in Fiji, where it was meant to provide his guests with island-hopping air tours of the archipelago, which consists of more than 330 islands.

According to the complaint, the mechanic who installed the aux tank did not have the appropriate checklist and performed the installation “from memory.” Further, the suit maintains that Brin deliberately and deceptively hampered efforts to recover the wreckage and the bodies of the pilots in order to shield possible evidence of culpability.

The complaint reads, in part: “From the outset of the crash, despite publicly assuring Plaintiff that her husband’s remains would be recovered, Brin and his agents decided to leave him at the bottom of the ocean along with evidence that would establish that Defendants were responsible for the crash that killed the two pilots.”

Mark Phelps
Mark Phelps is a senior editor at AVweb. He is an instrument rated private pilot and former owner of a Grumman American AA1B and a V-tail Bonanza.

64 COMMENTS

  1. an ugly lawsuit, as frequently, and a very ugly accusation of the owner. his actual crime? having deep pockets.

  2. I have ferried many aircraft to the South Pacific including Mooney’s to Australia, a 337 to Kaimbu Island Fiji and two twin Beeches to Tonga. I am still alive at 83 and enjoy my Lake Amphibian in Oregon. I NEVER neglected testing a ferry fuel system prior to embarking. Looks like the pilots forgot to do that. Much as I dislike billionaires, I would be prepared to testify on behalf of Larry Brin on this issue.

    • …except Brin isn’t being sued over the fuel system. He’s being sued because “…[he] deliberately and deceptively hampered efforts to recover the wreckage and the bodies of the pilots in order to shield possible evidence of culpability” (according to the suit).

      • I am saying that the “culpability” was the pilots. Why was it Brin’s responsibility to recover the bodies? Brin didn’t install the ferry fuel system. Just as a matter of interest, what was the ferrying experience of the pilots? By the way, trans pacific ferry flights in a Twin Otter don’t need two pilots. I did at least 30 by myself and had to use a sextant for navigation; GPS only came at the end.

    • I tanked planes for Southern Cross back in the 80’s. They would put several flights on them to verify everything was working before setting out. Anything I ever flew that had transfer pumps, I always kept the tanks topped off or I wouldn’t let it get below 1/4 tank. This does seem like fuel mismanagement or something failed after at least one transfer.

    • I bet that you exhaustively planned every flight and included “alternates” in case extra fuel had an issue, right?

      • Hi AJ,
        I’ve seen several of your comments and I’m just trying to get a sense of where you are coming from. Are you a certificated pilot and if so to what level and what type of A/C?

  3. When money is no object why not have a few ways to transfer fuel and maybe test the system before you pass the no turn back point. With 55 gallon drums and a hand pump and hose they could have made it. Pilots ought to be uncomfortable if they don’t have a back up to the back up. I would love to see a schematic of the system that failed.

  4. No!! You test the ferry system before going anywhere. Believe it or not, carrying a small air pump that can be connected to the tank vents will push fuel.

    The ferry system schematic should be part of the 337 that should be on file for N153QS at the FAA registry. Let’ see if we can get it !

  5. From the Forbes article:
    “In the months that followed, Brin stated publicly that he would help the recovery effort while working behind the scenes to delay and obstruct it, Olarte’s lawyers alleged.

    At one point, Brin’s representatives told the pilot’s widow that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration was blocking recovery efforts, according to the lawsuit. NOAA allegedly later denied that it had done so.

    The lawsuit also accuses Brin’s representatives of misrepresenting weather conditions at the recovery site and their interactions with the US Coast Guard.”

    If true, definitely concerning.

  6. Wild speculations and opinions make up the lawsuit. The fuel didn’t transfer as expected. That is all that seems factual. It’s about the money.

  7. The article says it’s a wrongful death lawsuit, so they’re claiming that Brin either knowingly or negligently caused the deaths of the two pilots. I’d like to know what evidence there is for this allegation, because nothing in the article leads me to believe this is true.

    People like this widow are are a big part of why GA is dying. In too many fatal crashes where it was determined to be pilot error, the pilot’s family sues everyone they can, including the manufacturer. That’s why $100,000 of the price a new 172 is for the manufacturer’s liability insurance.

    • I can confirm from my experience with brand new aircraft that I ferried, that many of the lawsuits were the result of manufacturer’s negligence. I got $30,000 for a mid Atlantic ditching as the result of a faulty installation of the oil pressure transducer on a new Mooney.

  8. The fact that the aircraft was still floating upside down suggests that it had floats. In that case they blew the landing by not landing cross wind on a wave crest. In December 1979 I ditched a brand new Mooney near Greenland when the oil pressure transducer blew off. Waves were 23 ft and wind 45 kts. The aircraft sunk in a matter of minutes but I didn’t.

  9. Deep pockets, they are looking for a payday. Whoever installed the tanks is responsible for this accident. Also whey couldn’t the pilots land on the water? I know it was at night but you would think with landing lights it could have been done.

    • Not sure where we all got the impression this happened at night. It didn’t: it was ~14:00 local in May.

      But to your question: they couldn’t land in water because the floats had been removed.

  10. Gross pilot error by both pilots to not make sure the transfer system was fully functional with backup prior to takeoff and certainly before the no return point. That is close to darwinism.
    Also, how much further west did they fly while troubleshooting before turning around. The story seams to say they got close to the coast.

  11. Only way I could imagine a judgment against the defendant would be if the plaintiff showed that the aux fuel system failed while in use due to installation error. It would therefore be interesting to see if fuel is missing from the aux tank, indicating that at some point they had tested it.

    • Nope, but I have no stake in the outcome of the suit. 🙂

      On a side note: whilst your point is not without merit, I do find your tone unnecessarily confrontational.

  12. I have ferried airplanes with extended fuel. I have circumnavigated with extended fuel. My most critical issue was being sure that my 18hour leg over the Pacific (American Samoa to Honolulu) would work safely. Testing before departing to make sure that fuel would feed from all tanks was crucial. I wonder how anyone could miss this? It is so obvious. On the other hand, I have seen some pretty sketchy ferry-fuel setups with multiple single-points-of-failure. You had better be sure you have a way to move that fuel to the engines and an escape route if you can’t. So, yeah, I put this one on the pilots too.

  13. I knew Lance and know his wife. Lance was my next door neighbor. We were each building experimental aircraft, me a RANS S-19 and Lance an AirCam. Lance was a very experienced pilot with many hours in many different aircraft from C-150s to military jets. He was also an A&P mechanic. He had many hours of experience ferrying aircraft (including the Twin Otter). I always knew Lance as a safety-conscious pilot–evidenced by his attention to safety-related details as he built his AirCam. I have no doubt that Lance was very careful in preflighting the Twin Otter as well as its fuel system. The Twin Otter did not have floats–they were removed for the ferry flight (too much drag). After Lance turned around, he spent over an hour on the sat phone with the fuel system installer trying to “fix” the problem. Regarding the “deep pocket” comments, Lance’s wife is not at all about that.

    • Interesting comment. How do you explain the aircraft still floating and bodies accessible? How is that the aux fuel system is dated 2015 in the Registry and nothing for 2023 ? How is Sergey Brin at fault? Are you aware of the 1995 Twin Otter starvation accident report posted above?

      • I don’t know the answers to these questions. Perhaps the empty wings acted as flotation devices? I think I recall that the Coast Guard arrived within 20 minutes of the ditching. I know that the seas were very high and the ceiling was low. I really miss my friend Lance. Normally, I don’t post on the forums, but I wanted to explain that Lance wasn’t a careless, inexperienced pilot. I tried to open the link above that starts with “file:///” but it wouldn’t load for me. Is that the Twin Otter fuel starvation link? I’d like to read it.

    • Thanks for the pilot insights. Certainly sounds like he was NOT lackadaisical about safety and verifying systems. Unfortunately, even with good safety checks – things can obviously still go wrong.

  14. Goldsternp, I agree with you concerning new airplanes. I have ferried several aircraft from the factories to the West Coast. Two were in a shop enroute. The others made it but with extensive squawk lists.

    Anyone who strikes out a crossed an Ocean with a brand new aircraft has a lot more faith in the factories than I do.

  15. What’s wrong with this story? Didn’t the ferry crew CONFIRM the fuel system was functional BEFORE leaving dry land? That’s a pretty basic precautionary step. What other work was done on the aircraft while in the shop, or during the past year or longer? Engines (and controls) often take awhile to come apart. None of my SE inflight engine fails (none in the same model of aircraft) manifested immediately after takeoff. One catastrophic fail was exactly 10 hobbs hours after maintenance. Of two partial power losses one was 62 hours, and another about 80 hours.

    The aircraft was an amphib. Were these pilots competent with sea landings?

    It’s sad, but true… A&P screwups happen with depressing regularity. They are a fixture in all areas of aviation. For example, think Boeing’s missing bolts on a new 737 and an inflight departed ‘plug’! What about the the military’s recent loss of yet another Osprey where an engine fire was the proximal fail, but the root cause remains unknown?

    Did the shop that installed the new long range tanks have a QA/QC plan, and follow it??? (Likely neither!!). We already have reported the A&P relied on memory rather than ‘approved data’ and manufacturer installation instructions.

  16. The NTSB probable cause report will cite pilot error as the main cause (take it to the bank), but the report will be inadmissible in a court case. It will come down to the traditional courthouse “battle of the experts” where the defense will retain respected aviation experts who will provide fact-based reporting and testimony leading to an unassailable conclusion of pilot error as dominant (which is the case, roughly speaking, in about 95-98% of all GA accidents). In the meantime, plaintiffs will assemble a crew of their own testifying experts who will say things like, “it’s possible, even likely, that this particular chain of accident facts was due to faulty airplane parts (like the fuel transfer system), or faulty workmanship” (fuel transfer system again), implying, or saying, that any possible pilot error as a contributing factor is overcome by the cited airplane or workmanship defects. In this fashion, plaintiffs could win either a settlement or a verdict due to the inevitable jury sympathy factor that underlies any personal injury case. Defense expert testimony, attended by in-court argumentation, could very well carry the day, but the defense “try or settle” calculation will ultimately center on the jury sympathy calculation–not necessarily on objective facts.

      • Not necessarily as I landed a new Monney in the North Atlantic, December 1979 in 23 ft. waves and 45 knot winds as recorded by the weather ship (Ocean Station Charley) that picked me up. I am now83 and still flying my Lake amphibian.

      • dbier, I never ran out of gas in 50 years of flying so NO, I have not done what they did even once. i hope that puts it onto perspective how unplanned and unsafe the pilot was to lead up to the crash.

    • Not a very nice comment, Arthur J. Foyt. Please note (in several comments here) that the Twin Otter’s floats were removed for the ferry flight. Even if they were attached, the seas were reported by the Coast Guard at 30-40 feet at the time of the crash. Also note that the Twin Otter does not have retractable gear–in fact, the gear is relatively high, designed to provide good ground clearance for the props (the Twin Otter makes a great bush plane). No doubt the gear grabbed at touchdown and the plane flipped. I’m sure expert pilot “[email protected]” ditched his Mooney with the gear up… BIG difference ditching a low-wing retractable light plane with the gear up and a high-wing, fixed gear 13,000 lb. Twin Otter. You can only imagine the flipping moment when the Twin Otter’s main gear touched the ocean: the engines and wings are a good distance above the point of rotation (surface of the sea). I would imagine that the nosedive at point of contact was pretty violent.

      • Yes, the gear was retracted so I got that right. I have read about a number of high wing, fixed gear aircraft that ditched successfully; I am sure it is not easy and all that fuel in the cabin would have made it tougher. Knowing such, slitting the bags before ditiching might have been a good idea. I am 83 and still flying and still learning. When I do something I don’t like, I think what did I do wrong so I don’t do that again. If someone else appears to do something wrong, I think about it so I won’t make the same mistake in the future; at my age not likely. If you don’t mind frivolous law suits, that is your choice and your children will also be able to enjoy living in a society that fosters same.

      • The comment is still BAD pilotage; not checking before takeoff, not testing soon after departure that the xfer system was still working, not having an ALTERNATE if the extra fuel had an issue, and if you are correct, removing floats that would have mitigated ant problems AND pushing a bad situation into a deadly one by deciding to put down in the dark.

  17. I’m really confused. Everybody saying (at daytime) when report says (at night). Everybody saying land (float plane) in water is easy, report says (floats removed). Everybody saying (bodies and plane floating) report says both at (bottom of ocean). WOW, this read is awesome.

    • Wotcha Roger, not sure what report you’re reading. The NTSB preliminary report, which I’ll take as the working document states: 1: accident occurred just after 1400 local (ie: daytime), 2: the floats were removed, and finally 3: shows photograph of it floating upside down (yes, with wheels). Tried to post link, but moderators haven’t gotten to vetting my link, so you’ll just have to go look it up for yourself. Had Mr Phelps posted the link in the first place, this discussion would have been much shorter and less entertaining!

      • Only once in the water and yes it was deadstick, 45 kt winds and 23 ft waves, December 23, 1979, 2pm local. Once on one engine from Green to Iceland due to ice blockage of breather resulting in oil seal blowing out and once in B-18 0n final when a cylinder head parted.

  18. Just to add to the mix if anyone is still interested. 1. A ferry permit only permits the carriage of REQUIRED flight crew. 2. Getting a ferry permit for more than excess 10% weight is a hassle but 10% is not enough to make it so larger fuel tanks are installed and placarded for the 10% limit. They were, as in this case filled to the top. Will be interesting to see who is considered negligent in court.

  19. Some of these are the most ignorant and disrespectful comments I’ve ever seen on here. I’m supremely disappointed in our community in this one.

    Read the available information and facts, and then speak only from RELEVANT and full understanding and experience.

    Jokers.

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