Haris Suleman began flying at age 8, before he was tall enough to see over the instrument panel of a plane.
The boy could steer the aircraft using the dials in front of his face while propped up on cushions in his father’s airplane, flight instructor Cliff Allen said.
Allen met Haris when the teen was about 14 and wanted a few lessons. The teen didn’t continue his flight training, so Allen asked about him — calling him “my little pilot” — whenever he saw his father, Babar Suleman, with his plane at the Greenwood Municipal Airport.
Early this year Haris came back to Allen, who has given flying lessons for 25 years. He was 17 and eager to earn his private pilot’s license and instrument rating, certifying he could fly without being able to see during storms or in clouds.
His plan: to be the youngest pilot to fly a single-engine aircraft around the world. He and his
father would go together, and they wanted to raise $1 million to build schools in Pakistan and achieve Babar Suleman’s dream of flying around the globe.
On July 22, days before they were expected to return to the Greenwood airport, their plane crashed into the Pacific Ocean. Haris Suleman was killed, and Babar Suleman has not been found.
The news of the crash came as a shock to other pilots at the Greenwood airport who had gotten to know the father-and-son team.
“I’m just really sick about the whole thing, that we lost them,” Allen said.
Babar Suleman was meticulous, replacing parts before they needed to be fixed and likely overhauled a good engine before their trip just to be extra careful, retired airline pilot and flight school owner Tom Jeffries said.
And when it came to Haris’ training, the teen was a meticulous pilot with good control of the plane.
“I think our training plan was well thought out and well executed,” Jeffries said.
To accomplish flying around the world, Haris needed to earn his private license and instrument rating at the same time in less than six months. The Plainfield teen spent several afternoons per week at the Greenwood Airport, diligently studying the aircraft instruments.
Jeffries, who owns Jeff Air, the flight school at the Greenwood Airport, worked with the Suleman family to schedule training flights around Haris’ junior year of high school and weather.
The father and son had a close relationship, which Jeffries observed through their laughter, hugs and a kiss on the cheek.
“He adored his dad. You could tell the relationship between them was just special,” he said.
Jeffries worked with the two of them so they could learn how to interact in the plane as two pilots, not as father and son.
He taught them a communication process for transferring control of the plane. The pilot in control would say, “You have the controls,” and the second pilot would respond, “I have the controls.” The initial pilot would conclude, “You have the controls.” Those steps would protect them from miscommunication, Jeffries said.
He also helped them plan out the responsibilities of the pilot with the controls and the pilot who wasn’t flying the plane at the moment. The flier would focus on flying. The non-flier would communicate by radio with airports.
Allen was Haris’ primary flight instructor, and he spent dozens of hours with Haris in the air. They talked about flying but also about college, taking the SAT, spirits and the hamburgers they ate after a flight to Illinois.
Before Haris and his father took off June 19 from Greenwood, Allen hugged the teen at the airport.
“Haris, come back to me safe,” he said.
The teen occasionally text messaged Allen while on the trip. When Greenwood pilot William Gilliland crashed near the city airport July 11, Haris sent a message asking if Allen was OK. Just 12 days later, Allen got another text message — this one from a friend who’d heard about the Suleman crash. That day, Allen buried his head in his hands, in shock.
Babar and Haris Suleman had hundreds of hours of flight experience between them and made thorough preparations, including Babar Suleman dropping from a helicopter into water to practice how to bail out of a dying plane over the ocean. Babar Suleman also bought a life raft and water survival suits and had their aircraft engine fully rebuilt. He carefully planned routes from country to country, including when to refuel, when to change the oil and where to get repairs made
“You can plan and prepare and plan and prepare. Things still go wrong,” Jeffries said.
The risky part of their takeoff from American Samoa was that they left at night, he said. The plane was heavier than usual because Babar Suleman got a special waiver to fly with additional fuel for the long flight from American Samoa to Hawaii, one of the last legs of their trip, Jeffries said.
The added weight could’ve reduced the plane’s ability to gain lift but wouldn’t have been as difficult as flying into a dark night, he said.
Investigators may never know what happened to the plane, he said. The U.S. Coast Guard searched for the plane and Babar Suleman for four days, using a Coast Guard boat, aircraft and tugboat. They found parts of the Sulemans’ plane, such as pieces of the fuselage and a seat, but did not find Babar Suleman.
The single-engine Beechcraft Bonanza they flew on their adventure had two sets of controls, so Babar Suleman, who had more than 1,700 hours of flight experience, could have taken over piloting the aircraft at any time, Allen said.
Haris had 110 hours of experience, including training to prepare for long hours in the air. Jeffries had Haris take about a dozen extended flights, with the longest being a 10-hour trip to North Dakota. The longest flight of the around-the-globe trip would’ve taken 14 to 15 hours between Hawaii and California. Haris was only required by federal law to take one long trip to get his private pilot’s license and instrument rating.
“There was a lot of expertise between Babar and Haris sitting in that airplane. What transpired is what transpired, but they were as prepared as they could be, in my opinion,” Allen said.