Meet the Female Refugee Who Flew Solo Around the World in a Single-Engine Airplane

April 8, 2019 Updated: April 8, 2019
Role model and aviation pioneer Shaesta Waiz overcame the perils of war to realize her dream, and now she’s helping fulfill the dreams of women everywhere. Especially if they want to fly airplanes. Waiz was born in Afghanistan, lives in Florida, and became the youngest woman to fly solo around the world in a single-engine airplane in 2017. The airplane is “an extension of my hand,” the young pilot told NBC.

Waiz started “Dreams Soar,” a global initiative championing young women in aviation and STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) in 2014. “Every time I open the door to an aircraft,” Waiz writes, “I ask myself, ‘How did a girl with my background become so lucky?’ The truth is,” she continues, “anyone can be me.”

The 32-year-old journeyed to the United States with her family in 1987, fleeing the Soviet-Afghan war as refugees. They settled in an underprivileged district in Richmond, California. “Substitute teachers, sharing textbooks with classmates, and watching friends drop out of high school was the norm,” Waiz shared, regaling her early life story on the Dreams Soar website.

Waiz, as a child, assumed she would lead a traditional life: marriage, babies, and domestic responsibility. But a commercial flight from California to Florida at the age of 17 sparked a lifelong love affair with all things aviation.

Fast-forward to the age of 30, and Waiz undertook the journey of a lifetime. Over the course of 145 days, the pilot flew through 22 countries in a 2001 Beechcraft Bonanza A36 aircraft. She hosted 32 outreach events along the way, spreading words of encouragement to budding aviation professionals and emerging women in the field.

Waiz landed ceremoniously on the 145th day in Daytona Beach, Florida, incidentally the home of Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. Waiz and Embry-Riddle go way back. The pilot earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from this university.

She also inaugurated the Women’s Ambassador Program during her program of study.

However, tuition fees were no joke. Waiz’s study at Embry-Riddle cost up to US$25,000 a year, but the industrious student sought donor support to fund her education. “I just didn’t have the financial support,” she shared with National Geographic, before lamenting the length of the program. “I often had to tell people if you look around the airport, pilots usually have white hair,” she joked. “It takes a long time to get up there.”

Today, alarmingly, women make up only 6 percent of the world’s pilots. But Waiz has never felt alone. Jerrie Mock, the first woman to fly solo around the world in 1964, has long provided Waiz with courage and inspiration. Mock even wrote a note to Waiz before her death in 2014: “Shaesta, happy landings in faraway airports,” the note read.

On July 10, 2017, Waiz made the long journey back to Afghanistan, but not without some trepidation. “I had several mixed emotions,” Waiz wrote, recapping her trip for Dreams Soar. “Will the Afghani people accept me?” she worried. “Will they judge me for being a female pilot?”

However, upon arrival, it became apparent that there was ample opportunity for Waiz to make a difference. “[I want to] help solve some of the challenges Afghan people face on a daily basis,” she shared. And as for being accepted, Waiz was “humbled beyond means” after the Afghani government honored her with the official title of “Ambassador of Peace” for the country.

Referring to both her history-making solo flight and the advocacy work that has followed, Waiz shared: “When you go from an idea to actually building it, engineering it, and then seeing it come to life, it’s just such a rewarding feeling.”

Waiz is a role model for women. And she carries that sense of community solidarity wherever she goes.

“My copilot was a 59-gallon aluminum tank and my passenger was another 165-gallon fuel tank,” Waiz shared, “[but] it never really felt like a solo flight.”



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