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Plane never gained altitude, initial report says

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The airplane that left Greenwood to fly around the world and then crashed off the coast of American Samoa last month never gained altitude at takeoff.

The crash killed Babar Suleman of Plainfield and his son, 17-year-old Haris Suleman, who were attempting to fly around the world in 30 days.

A witness told investigators that the wind was strong the night of July 22, and the plane was moving up and down and from side to side as it left the ground, according to a preliminary report from the National Transportation Safety Board.

He saw the two pilots complete pre-flight checks of the plane, and Babar Suleman told him the weather was great, the report said.

Another witness said he thought the engine was loud, and the plane didn't immediately gain altitude. Within a few seconds, he saw the aircraft suddenly go nose down into the ocean, the report said.

The pilot flying the single-engine Beechcraft Bonanza was Haris Suleman. He and his father were attempting to circumnavigate the globe to draw attention to Seads of Learning, an organization that builds schools in Pakistan, and raise $1 million for the cause. If successful, Haris would have been the youngest pilot to fly around the world in a single-engine plane.

The duo had planned to visit 14 countries, and then return to the U.S. from American Samoa. When they left American Samoa, the father and son had four days left of their trip if they had landed in Greenwood on July 26 as planned.

About 60 percent of their trip was over the ocean, and Babar Suleman had planned the flights to follow shipping routes so he and his son would be easier to find if they needed to be rescued from the water, he said prior to the trip.

The night of the crash, the aircraft stayed low after leaving the runway, headed toward the ocean and continued to dip until it disappeared, the report said. A witness told the investigators he didn't see an explosion or hear any noise.

The American Samoa Department of Public Safety found the body of Haris Suleman, which was strapped to a seat cushion, smelled liked gasoline and had been burned, the report said. Babar Suleman's body was not found.

The American Samoa agency also found a life raft, a survival suit and clothing, a piece of the plane's fuselage, a duffel bag, two insulated survival suits and other debris. Babar Suleman had bought two life vests to wear instead of the insulated survival suits, which he had initially planned to wear for much of the trip, the report said.

A pilot who was experienced in flying over the ocean and had stayed in touch with the Sulemans during their journey also talked to investigators.  The pilot said Babar Suleman wanted to leave at night from American Samoa so his son could land by daylight in Hawaii, and they had 249 gallons of fuel in the plane.

The flight from Pago Pago, American Samoa, to Hawaii was the first of the trip that would require so much fuel, Tom Jeffries, one of the pilots who trained Haris Suleman to fly, said. Babar Suleman had to get a special waiver from the Federal Aviation Administration to fly with extra fuel on board, he said. The Sulemans had had an extra fuel tank installed in the plane to allow them to take longer flights over water.

They wouldn't have gotten the waiver if the additional fuel were a safety issue, Jeffries said. But, the extra gas would have made it more difficult for the plane to gain lift, he said.

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