October 4, 2017, Florida. A single-engine A36 Beechcraft Bonanza has just landed in Daytona Beach International Airport. Shaesta Waiz, a 30-years-old Afghan female pilot, is getting off the plane. She bends down and touches the ground with both hands. After a while, wiping tears from her eyes, Shaesta hugs people who came to the airport to greet her. At that moment, she became the youngest woman in history to complete a solo round-the-world flight.

Shaesta Waiz has started her trip on May 13, 2017, taking off at the airport in Daytona Beach, as part of her own Dreams Soar project. She decided to fly solo around the world to encourage children to pursue STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) and aviation education. Shaesta flew a total of 24,800nm and 176 flight hours. During her trip, she visited 5 continents and 22 countries overall and had a chance to talk to over 3,000 children.

Shaesta Waiz does her final walk around after landing in October 2014 

Photo:Dreams Soar

Following her trip, AeroTime had the chance to talk with Shaesta and discuss not only her journey but also her future plans.

Facing fears

Born in a refugee camp in Afghanistan in 1987, Shaesta with her family traveled to the US to escape the Soviet-Afghan war. She grew up with her parents and 5 sisters in an underprivileged school district in Richmond, California, where substitute teachers, sharing textbooks with classmates and watching friends drop out of high school was the norm. Weird as it may sound today, another norm in Shaesta’s life was her fear of flying. 

–  In my childhood, I had very low self-esteem and I grew up just afraid of the world. I didn’t live nearby an airport and nobody in my family pursued aviation. So the only exposure that I had to aviation was watching aircraft accidents on TV. And every time when my family was watching the news, once in a while I would see an airplane accident. Then I would look at my mom and say: Mom, I hope I will never have to fly in an airplane. I thought the only thing airplanes do is a crash. I remember from the time I was at school, planes would be flying by and I would get out of the way because I was afraid it was going to fall on me. When I graduated from high school my mom and dad got me an airline ticket to fly from California to Florida. I don’t think that they remembered that I was afraid of flying. But I’d just graduated from high school and I felt like I was on top of the world. When I was on my way to the airport I didn’t know what the terminal was, what the gates were, it was a whole new world for me. I went inside the airplane. I sat down. I was sweating. I was thinking that the plane was probably going to launch into the sky like a rocket and it was going to be like a roller coaster. But when the plane took off – my life completely changed. I fell in love with aviation.

Shaesta Waiz in Monreal, Canada, 2016

Photo: Dreams Soar

Following her desire to work in aviation, Shaesta went to Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. Studying there, she realized that aviation is a very male-dominated industry – most of the students at her college were men. So in 2011, Shaesta founded the Women’s Ambassadors Program to increase female enrollment at the University.

–   I think the reason why a lot of women are not in the aviation field is that it’s a very male-thinking industry. So when I was in college I started a program called the Women’s Ambassadors program. As part of the program, current college students were serving as ambassadors to the young girls who were thinking to pursue aviation. We were talking with these girls, explaining what they can do to become pilots. And just having these conversations was really helpful. In 2012 the female population at my university was 13%. In 2 years that number increased from 13% to 22%, all because as women we sat down and we made time for these girls.

Dreams Soar

After the success of the Women’ Ambassadors program, Shaesta decided to go on with her idea and try to increase the number of women in STEM and aviation not only at her college but all over the world. To encourage more women to pursue STEM and aviation-related degrees, in 2014 she founded a non-profit organization Dreams Soar. The main concept of Dreams Soar and the first stage for Shaesta within it was to fly around the world, visit different countries and to show to children, who are still to decide on their future career, a video explaining what STEM is about.

–   There are so many amazing careers out there all over the world involving STEM, and kids should really consider it as the career for them. I told myself: go around the world and bring aviation and STEM through these videos to young girls. It’s important that people actually see the airplane and they actually see a woman pilot flying in and getting out of the aircraft. Seeing is believing. Aviation is what I love. So if I want to promote something that I am passionate about I have to do it by flying.

The preparation for round-the world-flight took Shaesta 3 years was full of various challenges she had to overcome.

–   These 3 years taught me so many lessons. It was me researching what type of aircraft is the best for this kind of flight, how people fly internationally. I’ve learned how to speak to people from different countries. I’ve learned more about aviation, about flying around the world. I’ve learned about the STEM. When I had the basics done I needed to go out and find sponsors to help me pay for the trip. We had some sponsors joining our efforts and then at the last minute, they dropped out. There were many roadblocks on my way. The hardest thing during the arrangement of the flight was staying motivated. But the reason why I flew around the world was to inspire girls who I can see myself in, girls who are thinking just like I was thinking when I was a young girl. So my purpose was very strong and connected to me. That’s what gave me the patience to keep going and not give up.

Shaesta Waiz is taking off from Daytona Beach International Airport in May 2017

Photo: Dreams Soar

Opening eyes to different possibilities

Originally Shaesta had planned to go to 28 countries. But weather conditions shifted her plans. In the end, she had 30 stops in 22 countries.

–  There were many factors that went into this route. My airplane was very small, so I did remove all of the seats on the plane and put extra fuel tanks so I could fly long-distance. When I was choosing the countries where to go, the first criteria was which countries need the most help with young girls being supported in the STEM. And also I was thinking about the limitation of my airplane, about fuel for it. Avgas is very difficult to find in many parts of the world. So I had to make sure that all the stops have fuel for me to refuel and get going. Overall, the trip went well. The only biggest problem on this trip was the weather because this is something that you cannot predict. I couldn‘t fly through thunder and storms with my plane. Also, it flew at a very low altitude. Throughout the trip, I had 4 major weather delays.

In order to prepare everything for Shaesta’s coming, the members of Dreams Soar were reaching out to all the countries where she had to land and were working with their Civil Aviation Authorities. So the officials helped to organize different events and to provide Shaesta with all necessary support.

–  In total, we organized 32 events during the trip. Most of the time I would meet young boys and girls in different schools. But, for example, the Civil Aviation Authority in Greece offered to go to an orphanage and talk to children there and it was a great experience. In the end, I was able to get in front of 3,000 kids from all over the world and talk about Dreams Soar. The most important part of all these events was that the kids, especially the young girls, could see that you can come from nothing and achieve your wildest dreams if you work hard at it, and you work persistent, and you apply yourself. That was the biggest message I wanted to share. Sometimes we invited women from local communities who are pilots, air traffic controllers and women in the STEM fields to come and talk to the children face to face and share their experience. At one event 2 people came up to me and said that they had started their licenses to become pilots and they never finished, but in the future, they’re going to start flying again. Seeing me, an airplane and the kids have reignited this passion within them to go back to flying. Also, there were some young girls that were saying: aviation is really cool, but pilots are usually men and we don’t know if we can even be pilots because we are women. So these events were opening their eyes to different possibilities.

Shaesta Waiz with children at an event in Montreal, Canada

Photo: Dreams Soar

Afghan women say “welcome”

During her flight, Shaesta also had a stop in Kabul, Afghanistan. Her main fear was that people from her native country would look at her and not accept her for who she is, or that they would think that she is doing something that is against the traditional woman role in Afghanistan. But everything was the complete opposite. People there greeted her with flowers and applause.

–   When I went to Afghanistan, I was blown away. There were about 300 people, mostly women, with flowers. They came to tell me “welcome”.  I did a couple of events in Afghanistan. The last event was with the United Nations and I remember when the event was done one of the girls came up to me asking: “Why are you here? Life in the US is so comfortable, why you should even bother with Afghanistan? It’s a country that’s always in war.”  And I said that I am here because of her, because of women like her. I said that I want to recharge them and give them hope that women from our country can be successful, that we are intelligent, that we can fly planes and to inspire them to look for the future and to help rebuild the country. Right now there are about 36 million people in Afghanistan and there are only 4 women pilots. If you put this in a statistic – 0% of the women in Afghanistan are pilots. The situation remains like this because women do not have any opportunities to pursue aviation.

After her visit to Kabul, Shaesta is thinking about the opening of school for girls where they can pursue their dreams in the STEM field.

–   During my stay in Kabul, I saw that the majority of the fathers have a job and they work. The sons usually work as well. The moms stay home and the daughters get to go to school. Not every young girl, but in most households the young girls do go to school. I met a few of them and they were explaining to me how great students they are, on every assignment they get an excellent grade, and they really enjoy studying. And I asked them: what’s next? What you have to do with this education? And they said: nothing. Once we are old enough we are going to get married and then we going to have children, and that’s the end of our education. So I was thinking about the possibility to start a school in Afghanistan that will allow young girls to go there and pursue in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math. It would enable and empower women in the country. So after graduating, they can use their knowledge to help Afghan people with many difficulties they face.  It is important for me to come up with the concept of this school. My network mainly consists of western companies and organizations. I believe the organizations in the East can better help me with my plans.

Shaesta Waiz together with woman at her event in Dubai

Photo: Dreams Soar

As we spoke with Shaesta, she was in Dubai to attend the Dubai Airshow and built a network with companies and organizations in The Middle East.

“I’ll always be flying”

Shaesta’s journey around the world ended 145 days after her aircraft took off from Daytona Beach International Airport. But the work on inspiring women to enter STEM and aviation continues. For now, Dreams Soar team is building a Scholarship Fund for those who want to start their career in STEM and aviation.

–   We are fund-raising for a scholarship fund that will be available to children around the world regardless what country they are from. To be awarded the scholarship applicants have to be either boys or girls from any country. They should submit a short paragraph in their own language describing what they will do with this scholarship and how will they benefit.  But the most important thing for the awarding committee will be not the extract of the story, but the reason.

Also, Shaesta together with Dreams Soar team is planning more outreach events around the world to inspire the next generation. But it will not be solo flights anymore. This trip is over.

-   Aviation is a part of my life. It’s my passion. It’s my love. I’ll always be flying.  I just won’t be flying around the world by myself.