Q&A: Was Teen Pilot's Tragic Round-the-World Flight Attempt Too Risky?

Record-setting pilot Barrington Irving questions 30-day timeline.

Babar (center, in pink shirt) and Haris Suleman (holding flowers), seen here visiting a Citizens Foundation school in Lahore, Pakistan, undertook their plane journey partly as a fund-raiser for the organization.

A father and son's attempt at a record-breaking flight around the world ended Tuesday night with a fatal crash into the Pacific Ocean.

The body of Haris Suleman, the 17-year-old pilot from Plainfield, Indiana, was found after his plane crashed off the coast of American Samoa. His father and companion on the trip, Babar, is still missing. Investigators are looking into the cause of the crash.

Haris Suleman aimed to become the youngest person to fly around the globe in 30 days. He and his father also embarked on the journey as a fund-raiser for Citizens Foundation, an Illinois-based organization that builds schools in Pakistan.

There were several factors about the Sulemans' journey that made it very risky, according to Barrington Irving, who himself set records when he became the youngest person to fly solo around the world at age 23, in 2007. Today, he runs a nonprofit educational organization, Experience Aviation.

National Geographic talked with Irving, a 2012 emerging explorer, about the tragedy.

What do you think could have happened to the Sulemans' flight?

There could be a number of factors. There were high gusty winds, about 40 knots. It was pitch black. Turbulence from mountains. They were heading eastbound, so they were losing time, not gaining time. But in aviation, when you have an accident, there's a chain of events that occur. It's not just one thing. It's a chain of things over time that lead to a consequence.

There were a few things against them. They were trying to do it in 30 days. That's a very difficult timeline to keep, very ambitious. The weather basically always had to be right. They shouldn't have been flying a single-engine airplane in the middle of the night over the Pacific. They were in a rush. There were trying to make up time. As much of a rush as you can be in, you never want to be flying single-engine in pitch-black night over the ocean. Let's say you're driving or walking up a mountain: no lights, no stars. You could get vertigo. That's very possible here, because you have no visual reference of the horizon, the water. Your body starts to play tricks on you.

I flew in a single-engine plane, but I was only landing, arriving at night [not taking off]. It looks a lot easier than it is. You just had Amelia Rose Earhart [complete a round-the-world flight], but she [flew] a high-performance single-engine that was like three or four million dollars, a much more capable machine. But a plane is not really the issue. It could be fuel, maybe a mechanical issue, vertigo. Of course, an investigation will tell us what happened.

His goal was partly to be the youngest to circumnavigate the globe. There are teenagers who summit Everest. But is this getting too young, in aviation?

I brought the record age down from 37 to 23. And then someone beat me a few years ago at 22, and lots of people have beaten me. But this case was 17 years old. He definitely didn't have the experience. I only had 340 flight hours. That's baby hours. He just finished his second license, so I'm going to guess in training he had around 100 hours. That's not enough. But when you know you're chasing to break a record, or claim a record—to do this in 30 days—that's a lot of pressure.

We just had a young man from MIT [Matt Guthmiller] flying around the world at 19. But this kid didn't have the experience. I'd compare it to playing flag football, then putting on pads and playing in the pros. You're clipping through time zones like crazy; fatigue [is] a major issue. It's not like flying in the United States, from A to B. There are permits, waivers, clearance, environmental fees, all of these things you have to take care of. You have to look at how much rest you're truly getting. Without rest, you start making poor decisions, whether it's flying an airplane or driving a car.

Barrington Irving became the youngest person (and first African American) to fly solo around the world in 2007. He said the Sulemans had "a very difficult timeline" for their journey.

Is it worth the risk?

It's not worth the risk, but when you put a timeline gun to your head, it changes things. I would've never done it. You would never see me, for example, fly a single-engine plane from Miami to the Bahamas in pitch black at night. There are flight schools that don't let students do that. It's not smart. When you're flying around the world, you want to mitigate your risks. Any pilot can get into [a bad] situation; the skills are for getting you out of [it].

If you have a driver's license, that doesn't mean you know how to drive 160, 180 miles per hour. I did my flight in 97 days. It was supposed to take 45 days. But when people are pushing you and cheering you, it's important to stop, to step aside and know what's best. I was stuck in St. John, Canada, for two weeks, two weeks of waiting for major snowstorms to pass over. But I waited, because I didn't want to risk it. There's risk, there's calculated risk, and then there's dancing with death. Every pilot has an envelope and should stay in it: stay within your skills, stay within your limits. There comes a point when you feel uncomfortable with what you're doing and you stop. But time crunches make it difficult.

Who benefits from these trips? Scientists? Mechanics? Anybody?

What it helps is other pilots. Most accidents are rarely the fault of the airplane. I studied people who made it and people who didn't make it. This helps people realize it's about experience, not license. Carol Ann Garrett—I think she's been around the world in 29 days. But she has flown around the world a number of times. She built up the fundamental skills to do that. The first time she did it, it wasn't 29 days.

It's a tough time for aviation. This tragedy, the plane down in Africa, the one shot down over Ukraine, the other Malaysian plane that was lost. But you're sticking with aviation. What's next for you?

It is a tough time. People either like aviation or they don't, and I worry about moments like this, when lots of rumors and bad information [spread]. But you have to keep going. I'm transforming a jet into a flying classroom, like a real-life Magic Schoolbus: 16 expeditions in North America, Asia, Australia, and Indonesia. Starts September 23. I'm very excited about it.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.