INDIANAPOLIS — Haris Suleman, 17, was on the adventure of his young life.
He died nearing the end of that adventure, his family learned Wednesday. But the Suleman family now hopes — and prays — that Babar Suleman, Haris's father and co-pilot, will still be found alive.
The Plainfield teen was piloting a single-engine aircraft around the world under the watchful eye of his father to try to set a world record and raise money to build schools in Pakistan.
Their plane crashed about 10:15 p.m. American Samoan time Tuesday, just 20 minutes after taking off from that island en route to Hawaii, Haris's sister, 26-year-old Hiba Suleman, said Wednesday.
"They were together and doing what they loved," she said.
Hiba Suleman and Azher Khan, a family friend and local president of the charity for which Haris and Baba Suleman were trying to raise money, spoke at a news conference at the Islamic Society of North America in Plainfield.
The family was notified of the crash by the U.S. Coast Guard early Wednesday, Indianapolis time, Suleman said. At that point, the Coast Guard had searched about six hours, found Haris but was still looking for her father, Hiba Suleman said.
They were about 23 miles off the coast of American Samoa when radar indicated the plane had gone down, she said. Beyond that, the family doesn't yet have details, but even in grief over Haris, they cling to hope.
"It is a tragedy of immense proportions," Khan said. "We are all still hopeful that we will have Babar come back."
Haris was testing the limits of his patience and endurance on the grueling monthlong trip, facing travel delays, discomfort from sitting long hours in a cramped cockpit, food poisoning and more. He and his father still faced more stops in Hawaii, California and Texas before their expected arrival home in Indiana on Saturday.
But on Tuesday, several hours before leaving American Samoa, Haris still held on to his enthusiasm for the journey, taking time to tweet that "Pago Pago is without a doubt (among the) top 5 places I've been this summer."
All of that came to a sudden, tragic end when the Beechcraft A36 Bonanza crashed into the sea.
The National Transportation Safety Board confirmed Wednesday afternoon that officials were investigating the accident. The cause of the crash is not yet known. But Khan said the plane's "black box" was pinging, allowing searchers to home in on it and, the family hopes, find Babar Suleman.
Hiba Suleman said her father and brother had taken an open-water survival training course before they began their adventure, wore ocean survival "Gumby suits" and that her father also wore a locator beacon on his person. She last spoke to her father Tuesday morning, local time, and said he told her he was watching the weather and would not leave American Samoa if threatening weather were still in the area.
It's not known whether weather was a factor over the ocean after the plane took off, but Hiba Suleman said she is certain of her father's safety precautions.
"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 night-time takeoff was unusual, she said, but there so far are no explanations for it.
"We don't know why they did that."
Khan, who is board president of Seeds of Learning, the Indianapolis chapter of The Citizens Foundation, said the trip "was for a noble cause. It was for building schools for impoverished children."
Haris had fun-loving personality
Haris was going to be a senior at Plainfield High School in the fall. He is being remembered as an outstanding student and a talented soccer player who played for the junior varsity soccer team, said his coach David Knueve.
Haris had a way of lifting the spirits of his teammates, Knueve said. Often, he would tell jokes on the bus as the team traveled to matches.
"Haris loved to joke a lot," Knueve said. "He just got the team sort of laughing at the right moments. That's the biggest thing."
The Plainfield Community School Corp. released a statement saying they were "deeply saddened to learn of the death of one of our students. ... Haris's adventurous spirit and huge heart led him to reaching for his personal goal while also seeking to raise funds and awareness for schools supported by The Citizens Foundation."
The school district will offer counseling to students and staff Thursday morning at the high school.
The Sulemans have raised more than $500,000 for The Citizens Foundation. Since word of the crash, people have donated at least $400 to the Sulemans' fundraising campaign.
Haris had recently acquired his pilot's license and instrument rating, which authorized him to fly an aircraft over oceans. He took an interest in the round-the-world flight after years of flying with his father, an engineer who flew in his spare time.
Haris told The Star last week that he also enjoyed the lessons he learned through aviation.
A hurried return home
"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."
Hiba Suleman was at a conference in Washington, D.C., Wednesday, when her mother Shamim Suleman, contacted her. Hiba hurriedly flew back to Indianapolis.
Her older brother, Cyrus Suleman, 29, was in London and Wednesday was on his way to bring Haris's body home, she said.
Sunday is the last day of Ramadan, a monthlong Islamic holiday of fasting, family and prayer. The Suleman family would normally have hosted a big gathering and feast to celebrate, Hiba Suleman said.
"But that won't be happening."
Before the pair left, the family talked about the possibility of a worst-case scenario, Hiba Suleman said, but in her fog of shock Wednesday, she said that conversation felt a little vague.
"I feel like we didn't really talk about anything important," she said. But, she said, reality also had not set in.
"We knew there was a risk, but you can never expect something like this."