Hamish Harding, Explorer Who Knew No Bounds Until Titanic Dive, Dies at 58

Hamish Harding, an aviation tycoon and ardent explorer whose insatiable quest for probing the heavens as well as the depths landed him a place in Guinness World Records, and ultimately, on a fateful plunge to the wreckage of the Titanic on the ocean floor some two and a half miles below the surface of the Atlantic.

The submersible craft in which he was traveling with four others lost contact with its mother ship on Sunday. After a five-day multinational search, the company that sponsored the voyage, OceanGate Expeditions, said on Thursday that all five were dead. The U.S. Coast Guard said that debris from the craft was found on the ocean floor on Thursday morning, about 1,600 feet from the bow of the Titanic.

Mr. Harding was 58.

About one hour and 45 minutes into the descent on Sunday morning, the Titan, a 22-foot-long cylindrical submersible vessel made of titanium and carbon fiber, operated by the private ocean exploration company OceanGate, disappeared, inspiring a frenzied search of an area the size of Massachusetts and days of increasingly dire headlines around the world.

It was perhaps the most widely publicized oceanic search mission since Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 disappeared on March 8, 2014, en route from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, to Beijing. No significant pieces of the Boeing 777 jetliner were ever found.

Along with Mr. Harding, the British-born founder and chairman of Action Aviation, a sales and air operations company based in Dubai, were the Pakistani billionaire Shahzada Dawood and his son Sulaiman Dawood; the French diver Paul-Henri Nargeolet, a noted Titanic authority; and Stockton Rush, the founder and chief executive of OceanGate.

The passengers had paid up to $250,000 each for the privilege of plunging nearly 13,000 feet below the surface for a glimpse of the remains of history’s most storied oceanic tragedy. The R.M.S. Titanic hit an iceberg and sank in 1912, four days into its maiden voyage, about 400 miles off Newfoundland. More than 1,500 people died.

At the outset of the tour, Mr. Harding saw the opportunity as an unlikely stroke of good fortune. “Due to the worst winter in Newfoundland in 40 years,” he wrote in a social media post on Saturday, “this mission is likely to be the first and only manned mission to the Titanic in 2023.”

Mr. Harding also described himself as a “mission specialist” on the expedition.

He seemed to presage his own fate in a 2021 interview after a record-setting plunge to Challenger Deep, the deepest part of the ocean in the Mariana Trench.

At nearly 36,000 feet below the western Pacific Ocean, deeper than Mt. Everest is tall, that four-hour, 15-minute voyage took him nearly three times further down than the Titanic site. That expedition, with the American explorer Victor Vescovo, earned two citations by Guinness World Records, for the longest distance traversed at full ocean depth by a crewed vessel and the longest time spent there on a single dive.

As Esquire Middle East magazine pointed out at the time, only 18 people had ever journeyed to the bottom of the Challenger Deep, as opposed to the 24 astronauts who had orbited or landed on the moon, and the thousands who successfully had scaled the peak of Mount Everest.

He knew the risks. “If something goes wrong, you are not coming back,” he told The Week, an Indian newsmagazine. But in business, and in his life of adventure seeking, he seemed to embrace them.

A pilot licensed to fly both business jets and airliners, Mr. Harding started the first regular business jet service to the Antarctic in 2017, christening Action Aviation’s service by landing a Gulfstream G550 on a new ice runway known as Wolf’s Fang.

A lifelong space buff, he traveled to Antarctica in 2016 with Buzz Aldrin, the Apollo 11 astronaut and the second man to walk on the moon. At 86, Mr. Aldrin became the oldest person to reach the South Pole. Four years later, Mr. Harding took a similar journey with his son Giles, who at 12 became the youngest person to accomplish that feat.

In 2019, Mr. Harding set off on another record-setting venture with a former astronaut when he and the former International Space Station commander Col. Terry Virts completed the fastest circumnavigation of the world over both the North and South Poles in a Qatar Executive Gulfstream G650ER long-range business jet.

In June 2022, he finally got to experience the wonder of being an astronaut himself, soaring some 60 miles aboard the New Shepard spacecraft, from Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin space tourism company, to the edge of outer space.

“Once the liquid hydrogen/oxygen booster rocket gets the capsule to the edge of space, 350,000 feet above the earth,” he said in an interview last year with Business Aviation Magazine, “the sky above you is totally, completely black, even right next to the sun.”

Despite a life of dramatic quests that seemed drawn from boys’ adventure books, Mr. Harding was by nature “an explorer, not a thrill seeker,” Colonel Virts said in an interview with the BBC.

Mr. Harding apparently agreed. In discussing the Challenger Deep mission, he emphasized science, not derring-do.

“As an explorer and adventurer, I want this expedition to contribute to our shared knowledge and understanding of planet earth,” he said in the Esquire interview. He spoke of collecting samples from the ocean floor “that could contain new life forms and may even provide further insights into how life on our planet began.”

“And in searching for signs of human pollution in this remote environment,” he continued, “we hope to aid scientific efforts to protect our oceans and ensure they flourish for millennia to come.”

George Hamish Livingston Harding was born on June 24, 1964, in Hammersmith, London.

He was always drawn to the skies, and beyond. “I was 5 years old when the Apollo landing took place,” he said in the Business Aviation interview. “I vividly remember watching the event on an old black-and-white TV set with my parents in Hong Kong, where I grew up.”

“This event set the tone of my life in a way,” he continued. “We sort of felt that anything was possible after that and we fully expected there to be package holidays to the moon by now.”

At 13, he became a cadet in the Royal Air Force flying Chipmunk trainer airplanes. He earned his pilot’s license in 1985 while an undergraduate at the University of Cambridge, where he studied chemical engineering and natural sciences.

In the 1990s, he built a career in information technology, rising to managing director of Logica India, a company based in Bangalore. He used the money he made in that industry to found Action Group, a private investment company, in 1999. He started Action Aviation in 2002.

Information about survivors was not immediately available.

In the Business Aviation interview, he said that the Titanic dive, initially scheduled for last June, had been delayed because “the submersible was unfortunately damaged on its previous dive.” Instead, that summer he climbed Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania with 20 family members and friends.

When asked about the risks of his boundary-pushing ventures, Mr. Harding, who was the chairman of the Middle East chapter of the Explorers Club, said, “My view is that these are all calculated risks and are well understood before we start.”

“I should add that I do not go out seeking these opportunities,” he continued. “People tend to bring them to me, and I keep saying ‘Yes!’”

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