Afghan Refugee Completes Historic Flight Around The World

Overcoming war and poverty, Shaesta Waiz hopes her personal struggle for the skies will inspire the next generation of women.

Beating the odds is not a new concept for Captain Shaesta Waiz. She escaped war as a child during the Afghan-Soviet conflict, is the first in her family to attend college, the first Afghan woman to be a certified civilian pilot, and now—at 30—the youngest woman in history to fly solo around the globe in a single-engine plane.

The journey took Waiz 145 days, 22 countries, and one single-engine 2001 Beechcraft Bonanza A36 aircraft. On Wednesday evening, October 4th, she touched down to complete her circumnavigation. She landed in Daytona Beach, Florida, the city where she first pursued her dream of aviation, at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.

Waiz’s trip took her to India and Singapore, where she spent afternoons with fellow female pilots and the next generation of aviation professionals. Her trip took her to Australia, Egypt, and Sri Lanka, where young men and women lined up with flags to meet her. Speed wasn’t the point. At all her stops, she spread the message of women in STEM and in aviation.

Australian Lachlan Smart flew around the world solo at age 18 in 2016, one-upping American Matt Guthmiller, who was 19 when he made the trip in 2014.

EARLY DAYS

Waiz was born in a refugee camp in Afghanistan, while her family fled from the war. When she was an infant, her family immigrated to America. Waiz grew up in an underprivileged neighbourhood in Richmond, California. There, Waiz says, no one in her family or community took her interest in aviation seriously.

Waiz says her inspiration to fly came to her at 17, when she boarded a commercial flight from California to Florida. At that time, she remembers being afraid of many things, including planes. As a child, she feared that aircraft would fall from the sky and crush her.

But as she grew more confident she enrolled in aviation classes. Still, it wasn’t easy. “I got a lot of pushback from people,” she says. “It wasn’t like, ‘Wow! Keep going, you have our support.’ It was more, ‘What are you doing? You’re really doing this?’”

Waiz’s biggest challenge in her career pursuit was paying for the expensive schooling, with Embry-Riddle costing up to $25,000 a year. Her flight training was often delayed as she applied for scholarships and sought donor support to fund her education.

“I just didn’t have the financial support. People saw me going to Embry-Riddle and didn’t understand why I was not an airline pilot yet,” she says. “I often had to tell people if you look around the airport, pilots usually have white hair. It takes a long time to get up there.”


Waiz is greeted by students in Kabul on July 10, during her voyage around the world. She hopes to return to start a school for girls.
PHOTOGRAPH BY SHAH MARAI, AFP/GETTY

She also didn’t have many mentors to look up to. Today women make up only 6 percent of the world’s pilots. To balance the scales, Waiz founded a mentorship program for women with the goal of increasing female enrolment. The success of that endeavour led her to launch Dreams Soar in 2014, a non-profit with aims to empower women around the world to pursue STEM and aviation careers.

Waiz cites the late Jerrie Mock, the first woman to fly solo around the world, in 1964, as one of her biggest inspirations and mentors. “Shaesta, happy landings in faraway airports,” reads a note that Mock sent before she died in 2014.

"It never really felt like a solo flight,” Waiz said in a speech celebrating her final return, referring to the people who supported her from the ground and along her journey.


OUTREACH

From a crowd at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. to an audience of young girls in Kabul, Waiz’s ambition has been to show young girls that they can pursue their goals.

“On July 10, 2017, I boarded an aircraft to fly to my country that I left 29 years ago as a refugee,” Waiz wrote in a newsletter recapping her trip. “I had several mixed emotions about my experience of traveling to Afghanistan. Will the Afghani people accept me? Will they judge me for being a female pilot? Will I connect well with the women and children and inspire them to believe in their dreams?”

But then she met a handful of Afghan girls who want to be pilots, too. “They greeted me with mock flight suits and explained they joined the military to fly. But these military opportunities are very hard to find and usually granted to men.”

FUTURE


Waiz met with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani on July 10. They discussed improving education for girls as well as Waiz's personal experience.
PHOTOGRAPH BY AFGHAN PRESIDENTIAL PALACE VIA AP

Waiz’s stop in Kabul came at a time of continued turmoil. Just two weeks before she arrived, the German embassy there was bombed in a deadly terror attack.

But while she was there, Waiz met with President Ashraf Ghani. She told the president about her hope to return to Afghanistan to start a STEM school for young girls.

“When I was there I saw there was a big opportunity for me to make a difference for these girls,” she said. “[I want to] help solve some of the challenges Afghan people face on a daily basis.”

Correction: A previous version of this story stated Waiz was born in a refugee camp in Pakistan, but the camp was actually in Afghanistan. We also clarified that Waiz has become the youngest woman to fly solo around the world in a single-engine aircraft, not overall. The final journey ended up taking 145 days, not 138.

Lead Image: Shaesta Waiz poses with her plane in Cairo, Egypt, while en route on a historic trip around the world. Waiz hopes to inspire women to purse their dreams, particularly in her native Afghanistan. PHOTOGRAPH BY KHALED DESOUKI, AFP/GETTY

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