The father and son were just leaving Samoa, due back in Greenwood this weekend, when airport workers saw the plane’s lights disappear into the ocean.
The pilot, 17-year-old Haris Suleman, and his father, Babar Suleman, crashed into the ocean on one of the final legs of an around-the-world trip. They had a welcome party complete with yellow banners waiting for them in Indiana. They were heading homeward, ready to celebrate their successful trip.
Hiba Suleman, Haris’ older sister, got a phone call Wednesday morning from her mother. She told Hiba not to panic but that the plane was gone and Haris was killed. Her father was missing.
The U.S. Coast Guard recovered the wreckage, and Haris Suleman’s body was found Wednesday morning. The Coast Guard was continuing its search for Babar Suleman, Hiba Suleman said Wednesday evening.
Babar and Haris Suleman had started their trip on June 19, leaving from the Greenwood Municipal Airport and planning to fly to 14 countries to raise money for Seeds of Learning, an organization that builds schools in Pakistan. The pair from Plainfield were starting to cross the Pacific Ocean to the continental U.S. They were expected home Saturday.
The Federal Aviation Administration was investigating the crash just off the coast of Pago Pago, American Samoa, according to spokesman Ian Gregor. The plane left the airport at 9:50 p.m. Samoan time and crashed about a half-hour later, 23 miles off the coast.
Homeland Security responded as soon as the plane went down but took hours to find the wreckage because it was dark, Hiba Suleman, 26, said.
The family knew the trip was a risky one, but her father had dreamed of doing it for years. Both he and Haris loved flying and were excited to travel the world to raise money for Seeds of Learning, Hiba Suleman said. The pair raised about $500,000, rode camels and saw the pyramids in Egypt and got to see several other countries. Pago Pago in the American Samoa was Haris’ favorite stop of the trip, she said.
‘They saw the world’
“We knew there was a risk, but you can never expect something like this to happen,” Hiba Suleman said. “Honestly, I couldn’t wish for anything else. They raised money for a good cause. They saw the world. They were together.”
Azher Khan, president of Seeds of Learning and a friend of the family, recently got an email from Babar Suleman. The email included photos of Babar and Haris in Pakistan with students from the schools the organization has helped build. Babar Suleman believed passionately that education was key to helping impoverished families in Pakistan, Khan said.
They raised enough money to build three schools in Pakistan, Khan said.
“This was in recognition of the kids who have nothing. It was absolutely a noble cause,” he said.
Within a few hours of forwarding those photos to other members of the organization, Khan learned that Haris Suleman was killed and his father was missing. The families had been friends since the Sulemans came to the U.S., and the Khan children grew up with the Suleman children, he said. The families have worked together for years planning fundraisers, such as an annual dinner, for Seeds of Learning.
Haris and Babar Suleman had avoided flying after dark on the trip, and the family isn’t sure why they took off Tuesday night, Hiba Suleman said. Her father was a cautious pilot and would delay trips for days to avoid storms, she said.
To find Babar Suleman, the Coast Guard has dropped data marker buoys in the water near the crash site. The buoys will send condition information such as the water’s current and drift to rescuers, who are deciding how to best conduct the search, Coast Guard spokesperson Gene Maestas said.
The FAA didn’t know what caused the crash, but the plane went down shortly after leaving the airport, Gregor said. Investigators will review the accident and try to re-create what happened, but the process typically takes several weeks to complete.
Flying for a cause
Babar Suleman had recently overhauled the plane’s engine in preparation for the trip. He said prior to the trip that the engine was turbocharged and in like-new condition.
Haris was attempting to set a record for an around-the-world flight. He got his private pilot’s license in June after training at the Greenwood airport. Greenwood-area pilots had rallied around them as they prepared for their trip. Residents and pilots attended a festival at the airport in June to send them off.
They had been keeping a travel blog throughout the trip, and their last update was made on Sunday from Bali, an island in Indonesia.
They lived in Plainfield, where Haris attended high school and would have started his senior year Aug. 6. His plans for after returning from the trip included taking the SAT and applying to college engineering programs, Hiba Suleman said.
“Plainfield Community School Corporation is deeply saddened to learn of the death of one of our students,” the school district said in a statement Wednesday. “Seventeen-year-old Haris Suleman completed his junior year in May and left Plainfield only days later in an attempt to fly around the world with his father. Haris’ adventurous spirit and huge heart led him to reaching for this personal goal while also seeking to raise funds and awareness for schools supported by The Citizens Foundation, a nonprofit organization headquartered in Karachi, Pakistan.
“The loss of Haris is a sobering tragedy for our school community. We extend our heartfelt sympathy to Haris’ family,” the statement said.
Babar’s blog detailed their stops across the world and challenges and experiences in the air. The writings show the precautions they were taking and the memories they were making. The Sulemans had trained extensively on what to do if their plane crashed over water and planned to follow major shipping routes, since ships would be more likely to pass by if they did crash over open water.
The final leg of their trip between Australia and the continental U.S. is where a majority of the ocean flying was set to happen. From American Samoa, they planned to fly northeast to Christmas Island to fuel up and prepare for a long flight over the Pacific Ocean to Hawaii.
From Hawaii they would be exclusively over the ocean before arriving in California, which was the longest leg of the trip, taking 14 to 15 hours. That was the leg of the trip the family was most concerned about because of the length of time in the air, Hiba Suleman said.
Babar Suleman has been flying since 2004 and has logged more than 1,700 hours of flight time and would take over the controls if his son ran into any problems during the flight. Babar Suleman had made an emergency landing before in 2008, when he safely landed a small plane on Interstate 70 after it had engine trouble.