Afghan-American pilot Shaesta Waiz is one of the many Afghan women that inspire me. Shaesta is the first female certified civilian pilot from Afghanistan, and the youngest woman to fly solo around the world in a single-engine aircraft. She returned from her the record-breaking “Dreams Soar: Global Flight for STEM” on October 4, 2017. In celebration of one year since her return, she spoke at an event at the National Air and Space Museum where she received the 2018 National Air and Space Museum Trophy for Current Achievement in March. I had the opportunity to attend the event and listen to her inspiring words of wisdom.
According to the Centre for Aviation, only 6% of pilots in the US and the UK are female. Shaesta flew around the world because she wanted to promote STEM education to the next generation of STEM and aviation professionals and inspire girls to challenge what is possible.
“I believed my future consisted of getting married at a young age and starting a big family. It wasn’t until I found aviation that I started thinking about having a career and going to college.”
She found flying empowering, a way to escape the boundaries created for many women.
“When I’m up in the air, I’m a whole different person. It is a magical experience. Flying gave me confidence. I trusted my life with this plane. I thought, if only people could experience aviation through my eyes,” she said that the event.
Driven by her own experience and passion, Shaesta created Dreams Soar, a non-profit organization. Her team of 40 dedicated volunteers worked during the Global Flight to mentor students, fund scholarships for STEM education, and plan outreach events where students could see the plane, hear her speak about her adventures, and learn about the world of possibilities open to them.
“Every time I open the door to an aircraft, I ask myself, ‘How did a girl with my background become so lucky?’ The truth is, anyone can be me. You must believe in yourself and allow your dreams to soar,” Shaesta says.
Shaesta’s journey around the world was far from easy. She was born in a refugee camp in Afghanistan and fled with her family to the U.S. in 1987 to escape the war. Time and time again, her family struggled with the many issues immigrants and refugees face. She says that every time she doubted herself or felt scared and homesick, she persevered and it was an amazing and empowering feeling.
Thousands of feet high in the sky, Shaesta realized that regardless of our backgrounds and the hardships we endure, we can do anything with the support of a mentor, someone who believes in us.
“There is immense power in believing in yourself,” Shaesta remarked. “You have to make mistakes and grow as a person.”
In a male-dominated industry, Shaesta was constantly told things that could lead her to doubt her ability and credibility. When she is up in the air, in an unbiased environment, Shaesta realized how little our differences mean, and that the borders between our countries are not even visible from the sky.
Shaesta says one of the toughest parts of her journey waswhen she was leaving Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada. She was preparing to fly over the Atlantic in an airplane with only one engine. She knew if she hit the water, hypothermia would kill her in just a few minutes. She continued despite knowing that risk. Once she was in the air, she was cruising, but then she noticed the high frequency (HF) antenna cable came loose and whipped around, snapping and hitting the body of her aircraft. Shaesta peered down at the ocean and saw icebergs, recalling the fateful scene from the Titanic film. She gained strength by remembering Amelia Earhart’s historic journey and she quickly took action, turning the plane around and landing in French territory. Once on the ground, the Customs agent approached her and asked, “Where is the pilot?” He didn’t believe that Shaesta was the pilot of the plane. Then he asked if her parents knew she was flying. His words gave Shaesta even more resolve to show the world what is possible when women fly.
When she was back in the air, Shaesta passed the “point of no return.”
“It hit me that I’d be the 9th woman in history to make the flight,” Shaesta said. “This shy Afghan girl who wasn’t even the brightest in her class.”
Shaesta made 30 stops in 22 countries on five continents with outreach events inspiring more than 3,000 young girls and boys to engage in STEM. Now, Shaesta is an Ambassador of Peace for Afghanistan.
During her stop in Afghanistan, Shaesta’s father picked her up and they were greeted by young girls and boys wearing mock flight suits and explaining that they joined the military to fly. They were looking to Shaesta as an inspiration, but she was looking to them, equally as inspired by their ability to endure dangerous conditions on a daily basis. The Afghan Government and the United Nations organized a series of outreach events where Shaesta was able to share the importance of STEM and aviation to the next generation in Kabul.
“I wanted to return to Afghanistan to show girls that they have not been forgotten,” she says.
Learn more about Shaesta’s work here.
Feature image courtesy of Ashley Buckley from Indie Atlantic Films.
By: Aisha Azimi, Free Women Writers