Flying on Hope

Published in Dawn

By now we all know about the daring father-son duo, Captains Babar and Haris Suleman, who attempted an ‘around the world in 30 days’ journey from Plainfield, Indiana on June 19 in their single-engine plane but met a tragic end on the last leg of their journey. Seventeen-year-old American-born Pakistani Haris didn’t care too much for records. His real aim was to raise money for the education of underprivileged children in Pakistan. “I am doing this to raise $1million for The Citizen’s Foundation [TCF] schools. I am associated with a TCF chapter back home in Indiana called Seeds of Learning. On my plane there is a list of donors, who donate money in a charity account opened for the purpose as we progress on our journey. We have already raised half a million and hope to reach our target by the end of our journey,” he had said at the Jinnah International Airport soon after landing there on July 1. Being a kid after all, his only regret was missing out on the FIFA World Cup matches. A high school junior, he also missed his friends back home. “But my friends, most of whom are my school class fellows, are also pretty excited about what I’m doing and rooting for me,” he had said. When asked if any of those friends also happened to be a girl friend, Haris giggled before shaking his head. “Nope,” he said. About his own studies he had said, “I’m doing this for education. My own education could have been disturbed plenty, only I won’t let it happen.” Though he had been seriously thinking about flying around the world and training for it for three years, Haris, who had been accompanying his father on his flights in their plane since the age of eight, only got his private pilot’s license — after logging 50 hours of flight — about a month and a half before going on their world tour. Riding camels at the Giza pyramids in Egypt Kids his age can’t even apply for a driver’s license in Pakistan but there he was smiling with pride as he stepped out of his little Beechcraft Bonanza in Karachi. “I know I am too young to fly in many countries of the world,” he said Haris’s father, 58-year-old Babar Suleman, who having got his private pilot’s license in 2004, was of course far more experienced than his son, and was accompanying him said, “I have two older kids, another son and a daughter, back home but it is my youngest Haris who takes after me and shares the passion for flying with me,” he had said. Haris before taking off on his journey Babar hailed from a family of pilots and also happened to be the younger brother of former Chief of Air Staff Air Marshall (retd) Rao Qamar Suleman. As a pre-cadet and an aspiring fighter pilot, Babar was, due to a systolic heart murmur, found to be medically unfit at the Pakistan Air Force College, Sargodha back in 1971. Most of his relatives, especially the women at home, were not too sure about their taking on such a big challenge (of flying around the world). Babar’s elder sister, Mrs Nasreen Abid Rao, who had come to receive her brother and nephew at the airport in Karachi, said that she had tried her best to convince them to drop the idea. “But once they started their journey I decided to not nag them any further. From then I only prayed for their safety,” she said. Babar himself had shared that his elderly mother who lived with him in Indiana initially thought that her son and grandson were going to travel around the world on commercial flights. “But when she realised what we were about to do, she was worried that Haris may go to sleep while flying and told me to make him drink pots full of black coffee,” he had laughed. The moment the duo had landed, Nasreen his sister and Haris’s aunt were on the phone with Mrs Suleman to inform her of their safe arrival. Then she handed over the phone to young Haris who smiled reassuringly while speaking to his mother. “Well, my mother worries if I have enough clean clothes, if I haven’t forgotten anything important behind in some city or the other,” he had explained later. Seeing the confident men and their beautiful plane, no one at that point could really have imagined the tragedy that was to befall them on the last leg of their journey when the plane went down in waters off Pago Pago in American Samoa on July 22. About 60 percent of their journey was over huge expanses of water including the Atlantic, Pacific and parts of Indian Ocean. “Single-engine planes aren’t really made for ocean voyages but we took special emergency training for that. Also we had to wear heavy suits that are also very warm while flying over the ocean,” Haris had explained while admitting that he got a bit nervous when flying over the ocean. US Coast Guards found Haris’s body soon after but his father and their plane were never found. After days of search and rescue, which then changed to search and recovery operations, the search was eventually suspended by the US Coast Guard on July 27. Haris was laid to rest in Indiana on August 1. Earlier, on July 28, there was also a memorial at sea. But perhaps there can be no greater tribute than what Haris’s elder sister Hiba Suleman posted on her Facebook timeline recently: “I can’t even be angry. My dad and bro were doing something amazing that will change thousands of lives to come. They had the chance to see my family around the world. They had the chance to see the world and to see it together. There is no better way I’d want to imagine the end: with those I love, doing what they love.” There are many things that could have gone wrong with the Beechcraft Bonanza, a single-engine, six-seater plane that Haris and Babar Suleman were flying around the world in. It was said to be fitted with all the latest gear and gadgets to aid them on their way but Wing Commander (retd) Naseem Ahmed, president of the Society of Air Safety Investigators, Pakistan, said that there is always the possibility of failure in a single-engine plane. “They are very similar to cars. If your car has engine trouble, you may pull over on one side of the road. But in the air, you can only glide a little and if you are lucky until you find a safe place to make an emergency landing. Over water, you can’t even do that. You can only ditch the plane. Then you don’t know how the sea is behaving, if the waves are rough … there are so many things that make it more difficult and dangerous,” he pointed out. “Your chances would depend more on your survival training in water then and how you coordinate with the rescue and survival organisations,” he added. “Also how capable are your survival suits, are you even wearing them, which, quite frankly many people don’t, though they won’t admit it, of course.” The aviation expert also said that single-engine planes can fail for any number of reasons. For example, you make three stops and ask someone to fill up the fuel tanks. Now, what if all the tanks are not filled and the fuel gauge is not giving the correct reading? It is a very common occurrence,” he said. Also he mentioned that there are always inherent risks involved when you have a father and son team attempting such records. “It’s an emotionally charged environment where they are more self-assured with the sense of completing the mission becoming paramount. Even if they do notice something wrong, they may not stop or go back. Their handling of aircraft and handling of emergencies won’t be how, say, two professional air force pilots would behave in a similar scenario. Private flying is a big responsibility on the pilot. I know that some time back Babar Suleman did have to make an emergency landing on a highway due to engine failure. Such past experiences build up your confidence levels and you start thinking that bad things happen to others not me.” Another experienced pilot, Capt Sohail Baluch, former president Pakistan Airlines Pilots’ Association, said that the area Haris and his father were flying in shortly before they crashed is known for sudden changes in weather. “And I’m talking about severe weather conditions. There could have been a wind shear. One is not to take off during a lone wind shear. Usually, pilots are informed about such conditions when another plane that may have taken off earlier reports back. It could be that they were the first to be taking off that day and couldn’t be warned of the weather up there until they faced it themselves. It could also be that they may not have been able to read the weather very well themselves. It is also possible that they got caught in a cumulonimbus cloud or CB, as it is known. CBs can throw a jumbo off its course and this was just a little single-engine plane,” he pointed out. “Another thing, which also shouldn’t be taken lightly, is the fatigue factor. They crossed the Atlantic and reached here and then they had to cross the Pacific, too. They must have been really tired,” he said. “Haris was just a 17-year-old kid with only 50 hours of flying experience. And Babar, who was a little junior to me in Sargodha, did take his license and everything after moving to the US, but he was really not that experienced. They had a six-seater plane. It would have helped to take along another professional pilot. Still, their cause of doing it for collecting funds for education of underprivileged children in Pakistan was a very noble one. They must be lauded for it,” he said. Meanwhile, Capt Fahim Zaman, former head of Edhi Air Ambulance, was of the view that it was a miracle that Haris and Babar Suleman got as far as they did in their single-engine plane. “Then Haris, also, was simply too young and inexperienced for such a challenge. Aircraft on long cross-country flights spread over many days need thorough maintenance. Babar, Haris’s father, wasn’t an airframe and power mechanic [A&P]. There you are constantly flying from one airport to another, you need dedicated aircraft engineer to inspect the plane and check it. There are daily, weekly, 25-hourly and even monthly inspections but the level of inspection the Beechcraft Bonanza received is not clear. “Annual inspections, of course, are more detailed in nature. But routine inspections are based on the pilot’s report. There are gauges a pilot needs to constantly monitor. Seasoned pilots watch the behaviour of their plane through keen observation of their gauges. For instance, oil pressure, engine temperature, exhaust gas temperature, etc. The needle may be in the green but despite that the pilot would monitor if the oil pressure is dropping or the engine temperature is increasing. And if a pilot is not able to see that, his engine can seize,” he explained. “Pilots maintain logs in which they make entries such as engine, instruments ‘ok’ or otherwise for ground crew to take care,” he said. “Then if we suppose they were able to notice such ‘cautions’ and had a good understanding of their instruments, where was their maintenance support? You need proper maintenance support for people to see different things such as a person to note tyre pressure, check the propeller, etc. When, during a period of rigorous flying it’s the same people handling the aircraft, they can tell if there has been any adverse change through monitoring trends or you have a recipe for disaster right there,” he pointed out. “Also every aircraft is structurally certified to a certain extent. It can be 3G or 7G for example. A good pilot will not subject his plane to go beyond its design capacity of stress,” he said. “Weather pattern, too, changes with different places. Before taking on a challenge such as flying around the world, the pilot should be familiar with intended routes and the weathers there,” he added. “Yes, fatigue, too, is a major factor here. You may be able to see the horizon as a sharp line on a crisp cool morning but as the day passes, you may start losing the horizon due to fog, haze or otherwise. Then you have to depend on your instruments. But there, too, if you are staring at the instrument for long your eyes start playing games. So you have to take your eyes off the instruments for a while at least. That’s where the autopilot becomes useful. But the autopilot also needs to be fed correct information about the changes in the ambient conditions. “In a fixed-wing aircraft the pilot-in-command sits in the left seat. Babar Suleman was the more experienced of the two pilots but if he had put Haris in the left seat he must have been sitting on the right, of which he must have less experience and he was not an instructor himself. I don’t know what happened or what they did but these are some of my concerns. There are no
shortcuts to experience in aviation, more so flying a single engine aircraft over the ocean,” he concluded.

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