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Teen pilot’s world record flight ends in tragedy

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Days short of completing an around-the-world flight with his father, Haris Suleman’s plane crashed just after take-off from Pago Pago, part of the American Samoa, on July 23. Parts of the single-engine Hawker Beechcraft Bonanza were found on July 24 but his father, Bahar Suleman, is still missing.

The 17-year-old had been flying with his father for years and in June qualified for his pilot’s license with instrument rating, which is necessary to fly an aircraft over oceans. The Suleman’s plan was for the teenage boy to be the youngest “Pilot in Command” (PIC) and he would assist with flight plans, monitoring instruments, and providing instructions for the teen when he wasn’t sure how to proceed in different situations. Both checked the plane before take-off and worked with ground crew during fueling.

While flying around the world has been on Babar’s bucket list for years, his son said "he was taken by surprise by his dad’s wild suggestion." Haris was home in the Indianapolis suburb of Plainfield when his dad approached him. “If Jules Verne could dream up flying around the world in 80 days for his classic adventure novel, surely they could do it in a month’s time,” Babar posed.

“We might never get a chance like this again,” Babar told his son. “If you’re game, let’s get a plan together.

Haris Suleman told media that he was awestruck by the potential record-breaking flight. "First of all I’m flying, then I’m traveling, and then I’m seeing all these places and meeting all these people at the same time," he said. "I can’t imagine something better to do with my summer.”

The teen had taken time preparing for the flight. He knew that it would be a test of his stamina, attention-to-detail, and knowledge. It certainly tested them. During the last half of the trip Haris battled food poisoning that required IV’s and antibiotics. Both fought exhaustion and muscle cramping due to the limited space in the cabin.

"I feel like becoming a pilot has changed me a lot," he said. "It's really hard to get to a point where you can fly around the world."

The Sulemans prepared for different types of weather and emergency landings. They had taken an open-water survival training course before, wore ocean survival suits when over water, and Babar Suleman wore a locator beacon on his person. Family members said that Babar was concerned about the weather around American Samoa on July 23. Only an investigation of the plane will show if bad weather was a factor in the crash.

The family was surprised that they left Pago Pago at 10 p.m. but felt confident that the elder Suleman had a good reason, perhaps weather related.

"If they had known there was bad weather, they would never have taken off," she said. And although the record was part of the goal father and son shared, she said safety still trumped all for her father. "Time wasn't really an issue."

The Sulemans also used the trip to raise money for building schools in the father's home country, Pakistan, as part of the Citizen Foundation project that builds schools in Pakistan. They had raised around US $500,000 at the time of the crash.

Haris Suleman was not the only teen trying to set a world record in aviation this summer. Matt Guthmiller, 19, may go down in history as the youngest person to fly solo around the world to date. His journey began May 31 and ended on Monday, July 14 in San Diego, CA. Guthmiller's parents said he sent documentation to Guinness World Records which must confirm that he broke the record. Guthmiller had been approved to try and break the record before he left.

Other kids have tried to set aviation records. In 1996 a 7-year-old California girl was killed when her single-engine plane crashed shortly after take-off in thunder and driving sleet. Her father and a flight instructor were also killed. She was attempting a cross-country record and bound for the next stopover in Indiana when the plane nose-dived just moments after it lifted off in Wyoming.

She had been inspired by Vicki Van Meter who flew from Maine to San Diego in Sept. 1993. I was there when her plane landed and spent some time interviewing her. I was impressed by the amount and type of preparation she spent prior to the trip. Her teachers had given her extra science, geography and math homework to help her understand the dynamics of flight and to prepare her for unexpected weather.

Do these young pilots who aspire for world records have the skills and maturity to react appropriately to emergency situations? Could it be the co-pilots who question the PIC’s skills and in an attempt to avoid errors contribute to these crashes?

What do you think? Please leave your comments below.

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