A close family friend says that 17-year-old Haris Suleman’s attempt to circumnavigate the world in 30 days really wasn’t about breaking any records. “He said that he would not be in the U.S. if it wasn’t for the education that his father got in Pakistan,” says Azher Khan, a close family friend. “And he wanted to raise awareness about impoverished children there.”
Haris was in the final days of his whirlwind journey intended to do just that when the single-engine plane he was flying went down in the Pacific Ocean between American Samoa and Honolulu. Crews recovered Haris’ body after a crash late Tuesday and are still searching for his father, Babar Suleman, a 58-year-old amateur pilot who accompanied Haris on the trip.
If the two had completed the trip, Haris would have set the record for the fastest circumnavigation of the world in a single-engine plane, and he would have become the youngest pilot to lead such a journey (Babar only logged three minutes as the pilot in command). Investigators are still looking into the cause of the accident.
As family members and friends gather at the Suleman home in Plainfield, Ind., their Ramadan prayers have been tinged with memories of their lost family members.
“It was a noble cause and that is something that is important,” Khan says of the inspiration for the trip that led to Haris’ death.
Haris was the youngest of the Sulemans’ three children, all of whom were born in the U.S. after the family emigrated from Pakistan. Khan says Haris was a free spirit and a popular student at Plainfield High School, where he was soon to begin his senior year. Haris played varsity soccer and was “a joker on the bus,” according to Khan. But he was serious about flying.
Haris began flying with his father when he was just eight years old and received his pilot’s license in June. The around-the-world trip was planned as a fundraiser for the Citizens Foundation, a nonprofit that builds schools in Pakistan. The duo went to great lengths to prepare, simulating plane crashes in water and taking survival courses. Babar had mapped the trip so they would be close to major shipping lanes if the plane crashed, thinking it would give them a better chance of being rescued.
“They knew the perils and had been training,” Khan says. Babar, an engineer, “had this love for flying that his son took upon him and carried on.”
During the trip, Haris occasionally blogged for the Huffington Post. On July 16, he wrote a piece explaining why the spirit of the trip was more important than its risks:
A lot of people have expressed concern that the journey that my father and I have set out on is a risky venture. Some have even questioned why we would put ourselves through such a challenge. I simply ask them: Why did Edmund Hillary Climb Mt Everest? Why did Christopher Columbus discover America? Why did Marco Polo travel to China? There is a part of everyone that craves discovery and adventure and we have chosen to live out this craving. Breaking out of the routine of day to day life requires bravery in more than one form.
Adventure for the sake of a good cause is a Suleman family tradition, Khan says: While in the Peace Corps, Haris’ older brother climbed Mount Kilamanjaro for charity, despite breaking his hand shortly before the ascent.
Khan, who became close to the Suleman family through their childrens’ friendships, says he was receiving regular updates from them during the trip. He opened his last email from Babar, which included pictures of Pakistani children at schools built with funds from the Citizens Foundation, on Wednesday morning.
“While I was sharing those memories with others,” Khan says quietly, “at that time the accident had already happened.”