INDIANAPOLIS — His pilot’s license fresh in his hands, an Indiana teenager set out in June for the adventure of a lifetime: an around-the-world flight with his father designed to break a record and raise money to build schools in his father’s native Pakistan.
Just days before the father and son were to return home to Indiana, the trip turned tragic when their plane crashed in the Pacific Ocean shortly after leaving Pago Pago in American Samoa on Tuesday night. The body of 17-year-old Haris Suleman was recovered, but crews were still searching Wednesday for the father, Babar Suleman.
The Sulemans left the state on June 19 in hopes of setting the record for the fastest circumnavigation around the world in a single-engine airplane with the youngest pilot in command to do so.
For more than a month, the trip was everything they’d hoped for, with visits to the pyramids and rides on camels in Egypt, a family reunion in Pakistan and much more. Even food poisoning and delays that meant they wouldn’t complete the trip in their intended 30 days couldn’t dilute the teen’s enthusiasm as he saw Europe, Africa, Asia and the South Pacific.
“There is so much beauty and culture in each country that I couldn’t possibly witness all that I want to,” Haris Suleman told The Indianapolis Star in an email recently.
The teen’s sister, Hiba Suleman, said her father and brother had undergone training to learn how to handle an ocean landing and wore protective immersion suits when flying over water. She said it was unusual for them to take off at night but didn’t know whether that contributed to the crash.
“With a trip like this, there’s always a risk, and they did prepare for that risk. You can plan all you want, but sometimes things just don’t happen the way you planned,” she said at a news conference Wednesday in Plainfield, Indiana, where the family lives.
The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration has an inspector in American Samoa who will be looking into this accident. National Transportation Safety Board spokesman Terry Williams said the agency will work with local authorities on the investigation, but he couldn’t confirm if NTSB will send its own investigator to the territory.
U.S. Coast Guard spokeswoman Petty Officer Melissa McKenzie said witnesses reported seeing the single-engine Hawker Beechcraft go down about a mile from shore shortly after taking off from Pago Pago International Airport. The plane was headed to Honolulu.
“It’s a tragedy of immense proportions,” family friend Azhar Khan told reporters.
Haris, who had just completed his junior year of high school, had been flying with his father since age 8 and in June acquired his pilot’s license and instrument rating, which authorized him to fly an aircraft over oceans.
The trip was also raising money for the Citizens Foundation, a nonprofit that builds schools in Pakistan. The organization has built 1,000 schools for boys and girls in Pakistan, and Khan said the father-son team had raised about $500,000, nearly enough to build three more.
Hiba Suleman said the cause was dear to her father, who left Pakistan in 1983. She said the family had been involved with the foundation for the last seven years and wanted to raise money to promote education and women’s rights in her parents’ homeland.
She said the trip had been a dream of her father’s for years and that her brother was excited to join in and pursue the record. He planned to be the pilot in command except in an emergency.
Haris acknowledged the risks.