From refugee to record-breaking solo pilot: Dream Soar founder, Shaesta Waiz

Shaesta Waiz is a female aviator based in the United States who gained global recognition for becoming the youngest woman to fly solo around the world in a single-engine aircraft. The flight made history, and Waiz held the record until January 2022, when Zara Rutherford completed the flight aged 19.

After successfully completing the 145-day flight across five continents, Waiz launched a non-profit organization called Dreams Soar, where she aims to encourage young people to achieve their dreams. One of the core missions of the non-profit is to inspire women to enter STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) fields of study and careers.

The commercial pilot, who currently also serves as a STEM ambassador for the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), has already reached over 25,000 children worldwide.

Waiz was born in a refugee camp in Afghanistan in 1987, after her family fled from the war. When she was just a few months old her family immigrated to the United States, where Waiz grew up in an “underprivileged, underserved neighborhood” in California.

“I remember having a lot of substitute teachers, not having books and stuff to take home, everything was just very limited,” she said, adding that she grew up speaking Pashto and Farsi at home and English was her third language. “My parents had this idea that we were going to go back to Afghanistan when the war was done and so they held on to their Afghan traditions, in terms of like, the food we ate, and the holidays that we celebrated, and so, I just didn’t take school very seriously.”

Waiz added: “I had this idea that I was going to get married at a young age and have a big family like my mom and women generations before her.

But all that changed when, aged 18, she boarded a Delta Air Lines flight to visit relatives in Florida, and “fell in love with aviation”.

“It happened when we started to take off,” she recalled. “Being elevated and having this perspective of the city that I grew up in, and how small it was compared to the rest of the world, it was just such an eye-opening experience. I felt [that] this was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. That flight gave me the confidence, the inspiration, the motivation to go to a college and take education seriously and pursue a career as a pilot.”

Despite her initial belief that women, especially those who hailed from a tough background, were not welcome in certain industries, Waiz continued to work towards that goal.

“When I was 17, I was extremely shy and I just felt like women could not do great things, could not fly an airplane,” she said. “What was so amazing to me is when I started to fly, and when I got my private pilot license and I could officially be a pilot in command of an aircraft, and that gave me a sense of purpose and leadership.”

She continued: “What I love about flying in general is that it is such an unbiased environment. When I flew the aircraft, it did not matter what my background was and if I was a refugee. None of that mattered. The only thing that mattered was my ability to fly that aircraft. And I felt like I could truly be myself and not be judged. So, when I experienced that level of belonging and purpose, I wanted to continue to be in aviation and surround myself with it.”

Waiz also noted that she wanted “to take it a step further and share the message with other young people around the world,” particularly women, showing them that they too could consider a career in aviation. She is especially interested in helping would-be aviators to rid themselves of any fear or doubt that could limit their potential.

“During my bachelor’s degree, I had a chance to intern with a major airline as the chief pilot intern here in the US and it was an incredible experience,” Waiz recalled. “I got to sit on the flight deck. I got to jump seats a lot all over the US and I got a good taste of what it meant to be an airline pilot. I had this sense of duty that I was so lucky to get into aviation.

“I thought if I could do anything in aviation, I would love to get into an airplane and fly it around the world and meet with young people and talk to them about aviation. So, I started my non-profit, Dream Soar. I didn’t want to just fly around the world. I ideally would love to land in countries along the way and connect with young people.”

Waiz revealed that it took five years of patience and dedication to plan, raise the funds for and execute the round-the-world flight. The record-making endeavor, which took place back in 2017, was dedicated to promoting the idea that the aviation industry supports women professionals.

“I had competitors coming together to really help me get around the world,” she added. “And when I went around the world, I got to meet 3,000 kids face to face. We had created content to introduce these kids to careers in STEM and aviation.”

She added: “I remember when I was flying across the Atlantic Ocean when I got [to] my point of no return. Halfway through the flight, I finally looked up and I had a moment to just be there at 7,000 feet over the ocean. I thought: ‘in the history of aviation, only seven women have ever crossed this ocean in a single-engine airplane. And who would have thought the eighth woman would be a woman from Afghanistan, a refugee, one of six daughters, who was terribly shy, and probably one of the worst students in the school system?’ But because I applied myself and I found something that I loved there; I was setting a world record of being the eighth.”

While noting that aviation is still “a very male dominated industry”, Waiz believes that the most important thing when it comes to achieving gender equality is to remind women that they deserve a place in the industry.

“I’m very privileged that I get to be a role model,” she said. “And hopefully just serve this role and reach people who wouldn’t normally think aviation is the possibility.”

Waiz said that it was “quite an honor” to become an ambassador for the FAA because “they had never had a woman ambassador” and she became the first.

“That was special,” she added. “What I admire about this position is that the FAA is trying to reach more young people. They are trying to make the whole regulation and the work that they do more easily accessible.”

“We are doing well in terms of bringing awareness. The FAA came out with the Women in Aviation Advisory Board that really dissected the challenges that women have in aviation, diving deeper into some of those problems and offering recommendations. So, I thought that was very powerful. It’s really good to just see the progress. It’s very hopeful.”

She continued: “But there’s certainly so much more that we need to do. One thing that I noticed [is] that right now we have women in leadership, but when you look at the organizational chart to see, okay, when this woman moves on or goes to a different company, or retires, who is going to fill her shoes? How do those leadership positions look like? You might have a person there now. But what about the future?

“So I think just being mindful of not just now, but making decisions and implementing things, that’s just going to continue this trend of having a more balanced industry in terms of gender and just giving that sense of belonging for women, that they can be in aviation, be themselves and have just the runway for them to explore their careers, then advance as they would like.”

She added: “One of my favorite moments is right now because we took a lot of time when the global flight was completed. We had made a total of 60 outreach events. With Dream Soar, we got to meet with 25,000 kids face-to-face across over 30 countries and so, that was amazing to meet all of these young people and get them excited about aviation.”

However, Waiz noted that aviation currently lacks a single hub focused on directing young people to the industry.

“What our non-profit is working on right now is becoming that industry hub,” she revealed. “Our idea is, let’s give young people the ability to go online and have access to aviation. As long as they have access to the internet and a computer or their phones, and present content that is interesting and rich, we give them the ability to explore.”

Waiz is also keen to highlight the number of interesting aviation roles available to young people.

“I believe there are over 900 aviation sectors within the industry. Usually, young people only hear about pilots or mechanics,” she said. “But what about all the other exciting careers in aviation?”

Thanks to Waiz and the tireless work of her non-profit, information and guidance could soon be readily available.

“We are building this hub where young people can go and explore these different careers,” she said. “And then once they decide what they want to do, the next part of the hub is building a bridge program where they [are directed, ed.-] to that career field. And they know exactly all the steps they need to take to get there.

She added: “I think this is going to serve the industry so well. I think that [it] is going to help a lot of young people out there.”

Shaesta Waiz speaks with AeroTime

The AeroTime Global Executive Committee recognizes Shaesta Waiz’s positive influence, and the significance of her efforts on both the aviation industry and its people. AeroTime Chairman & Editor in Chief Richard Stephenson said that AeroTime Aviation Achievement award is “in recognition of her contribution to the aviation sector and highlighting opportunities for young women by becoming the youngest female pilot to fly solo around the world in a single-engine aircraft in 2017; for her advocacy and devotion to inspiring and supporting the next generation of STEM and aviation professionals through Dreams Soar and as an Ambassador to the Federal Aviation Administration.”

He added: “The AeroTime Global Executive Committee recognizes the positive influence of these efforts and the significance of the impact on the aviation industry and its people, both today and into the future.”

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