On February 24, 2021, aviation YouTuber Josh Cahill took a flight that landed him on the Taliban’s threat list. Cahill was covering Kam Air’s first-ever flight operated by an all-female crew ‒ the first such flight in Afghanistan’s history.
In a special “Behind the Scenes” interview for AeroTime, Josh talks about the historic flight, the realities of today’s Afghanistan, and what it means to be threatened by the Taliban. He also talks about his admiration for the first Afghan female pilot – the 22-year-old first officer.
Afghanistan’s changing landscape
Aviation YouTuber, Josh Cahill, visited Afghanistan for the first time in 2015, but he has been fascinated by the country and its history long before that. Another reason why Josh, a self-proclaimed aviation geek, is passionate about the country is the chance to see and fly old aircraft that in much of the world have already been retired.
“Yesterday, I flew the Airbus A310, which only operates in Afghanistan and in Iran, and which is a real old-timer,” Josh says. “And when you love and appreciate aviation, flying a bird like this is a very unique and rare opportunity.”
Yet when talking about Afghanistan, it’s not the image of old historic aircraft that first comes to mind, but rather the country’s tortuous history. And among the images of war, suffering, and religious extremism, one might themselves be surprised to hear about how women’s rights are progressing in this very conservative society.
“The country is very misunderstood through the media,” Josh says. “We believe it’s a war zone, it is a place of conflict. However, if you go to the country and you dig a little deeper, you are able to see the beauty and the great stories that are hiding there. And I think this is what my most recent trip to Afghanistan was all about. To see the role of women in aviation, especially and private airlines that are growing there. And I think that was what made m return to Afghanistan.”
Vygaudas Usackas, who served as the European Union’s Ambassador to Afghanistan from 2010 to 2013, has a similar view about the country and its development. He says the country has gone through many changes in the last 20 years, but the most memorable to him was the progress with respect to women’s rights, equality, and opportunities.
“When I arrived in Afghanistan in 2010 I talked to many people including the Taliban leaders who were fiercely against a so-called imposition of western values. Three and a half years later, I visited a newly established Kabul University where the former foreign minister of the Taliban regime introduced me to the students. Half of them were girls.”
Historic achievement incognito
Yet while the country is making progress on women’s rights, there is still some way to go. Kam Air’s flight on February 24th was historic for several reasons. Besides being the country’s first all-female crewed flight, it was piloted by the first female Afghan pilot ‒ a 22-year-old first officer Mohadese Mirzaee. While in many places such an occasion would be celebrated with much fanfare, that was not the case in Afghanistan.
“Afghanistan is a place where you don’t celebrate for security reasons, obviously,” Josh explains, adding that there were no announcements to the passengers about the flight’s significance. Besides security, another reason for the lack of celebration is related to the locals’ mindset. While attitudes are changing, one can only guess how many passengers would have gotten off the plane if they knew it was piloted by women.
“This was the first female flight in 2021. And it took so long, but unfortunately, there were no flowers. There was no celebration, it was a quiet flight, but a significant one. I think the message was sent to the international community, rather than to the 140 people that were sitting in the back ”.
The flight which landed on the Taliban’s threat list
How do you capture history in the making? Josh says the idea to go to Afghanistan and take a flight on Kam Air started from plans to make a documentary about the airline, as it had recently been removed from a blacklist and was operating in one of the most difficult places in the world. But with time and changing circumstances, the idea evolved. It was the recent addition of Mirzaee, the Afghan first female pilot, that finally prompted organizers to make the first all-female crewed flight.
However, the historic flight almost didn’t happen. “Actually, it didn’t happen on the day we planned, because there was heavy fog in Kabul and all planes happened to be diverted. But I’m glad it did,” explains Josh.
Because of bad weather conditions, the organizers had to change the flight. Instead of a short hop to Masar, in the North, the new destination was changed to Herat. The longer, 90 minutes flight left more time for Josh to have conversations with the crew and thus more content for this video and more opportunity to tell the story. “I guess it was a blessing for us that sometimes things don’t go the way you wanted.”
The most challenging part was dealing with cultural differences, Josh recalls. “I tried to avoid going into the cabin because there are a lot of Afghan people who don’t like cameras.” Another difficulty was related to visibly being a foreigner. “In Afghanistan, there is no such culture that white people just walk around the streets, because most of them work with the UN or they’re with the troops. They live in compounds. They are far away from real life because there is still a security threat.”
The security threat came as another unforeseen consequence of the flight’s popularity. “A few days after we made headlines, the Taliban issued attacks. They are obviously against these kinds of stories, they have an opposite idea of what a woman should be, which I’m very opposed to.”
Josh says he accepts the danger and challenges associated with the story because change needs to start somewhere.
Afghanistan’s women pilots
In a conservative society like Afghanistan, you can still expect some women to be wearing burkas and refusing to talk to men. But Josh says his experience was completely the opposite. Conscious about cultural differences, Josh says he even had doubts if it was appropriate to shake Kam Air’s historic flight pilot’s hands at first, but soon found them to be just like women anywhere else in the world. They were ambitious, but having to work two or even three times as hard to get into positions like this, Josh says.
“I’ve been on a lot of inaugural flights, I’ve been on a lot of historical flights, I’ve done a lot of things,” Josh says. “But I think this was probably the most meaningful flight for me because it has such an impact. We broke some stereotypes.”
That is exceptionally true when it comes to first officer Mirzaee. The 22-year-old is one year younger than the aircraft that she piloted on the historic flight, thus breaking stereotypes not only about gender but also age. After the story hit headlines in both local and international news, Mirzaee became very popular in her home country.
“There are people who said, women shouldn’t be flying planes, or she’s too young, and all these things. But you have to start somewhere. And this is what we took away from this flight. It was one of the greatest memories that I’ve created in my aviation career,” Josh says.
Women in Aviation
Now, Josh hopes that the story about the first all-female crewed flight in Afghanistan will inspire men and women alike. “I hope women are going to be inspired by the young female pioneers and say ‘Yes, I want to be charged with such a big plane as well’. But I also hope that men will start also changing their minds”, he says, adding that attitude change among men is important in the male-dominated society, so the effort is needed on both sides.
“We need ladies who are brave enough to take those steps. And for them, it’s twice as hard. And then, of course, we have to have more accepting men. To accept that a woman is just more than a mother.” Josh hopes that one day, conservative men will see the story and think: “Wow, they did a great job planning this. Why not my daughter?’