There is a small, but elite group of aviators who have earned their membership in the “earth-rounders” club by flying around the world in a light aircraft. This group, which includes the likes of Wiley Post, Amelia Earhart, and Dick Rutan, gained some esteemed company in 2017 when then 30 year-old Shaesta Waiz completed her round-the-world flight in a Beechcraft Bonanza, duly dubbed the Dream Catcher. In addition to this amazing feat of flying that spanned 145 days, 22 countries, and nearly 25,000 nautical miles, her accomplishment comes with some important distinctions that put her in some truly rarified air.
Shaesta’s record-breaking round-the-world flight spanned 145 days, 22 countries, and nearly 25,000 nautical miles.
First, Shaesta became the youngest female pilot in history to fly solo around the world in a single-engine aircraft. (Note — at the time of this writing, Belgian teen Zara Rutherford is hot on her heels in pursuit of this record.) Shaesta also accomplished her historic flight as the first female civilian certificated pilot from Afghanistan, becoming a critical beacon of inspiration to the millions of women in her native country who aspire to have careers in the science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields. Superlatives aside, it was her educational outreach role that Shaesta considered to be the most notable and important part of her around-the-world trip. Emboldened by her ability to make a lasting impression on thousands of youth, this leg of her journey continues to this day.
A Dream was Born
Shaesta wasn’t always crazy about flying. After fleeing Afghanistan with her family in 1987, Shaesta grew up in Richmond, Calif., with her parents and five sisters. She had little to no exposure to aviation, except for the news or occasional airline disaster show on television, which ironically fomented a fear of flying. It wasn’t until a commercial flight at age 18 during a family vacation to Florida when everything changed. The formative and freeing experience of flight gave Shaesta an instant sense of belonging, which for years she had struggled to come to terms with. “I was always too American to be truly Afghani, and too Afghani to be truly American,” she explains. But after the flight, she found a place where she could claim her true identity: her mind was set on becoming a pilot.
While earning her pilot certificates and pursuing a degree at Embry Riddle Aeronautical University (ERAU), Shaesta’s career path in aviation began taking shape. But instead of pursuing an airline or military flying job, Shaesta decided her true passion was helping to inspire other people discover their own passions — particularly those who, like her, remain vastly underrepresented in the aviation industry.
“I realized that I needed to do something with my story,” says Shaesta, reflecting on her family’s refugee experience and growing up as a minority female in an underprivileged city. “More importantly, I wanted to talk to young kids about believing in themselves, taking a leap of faith, and going after things they are passionate about.”
She started with the Women’s Ambassador Program, an initiative that helps mentor and support young women pursuing an education in aviation and engineering. Her efforts soon shifted to a more global scale. After meeting Barrington Irving, a Jamaican-born pilot and fellow earth-rounder, she got the idea of doing a round-the-world flight to expand her outreach platform.
“It wasn’t my mission to set any kind of world record,” says Shaesta, who admits not even knowing who held the record before her. Instead, her goal was to reach as many children in as many countries as she could to help spread her “Yes, you can fly!” message. To help facilitate these efforts and gain support for her flight, she founded Dreams Soar, a non-profit organization dedicated to sharing and promoting the importance of STEM education for girls and young women.
Let the Flight Begin
After several years of planning, Shaesta’s round-the-world trip finally took flight in May 2017 with 30 stops strategically selected to maximize STEM outreach. With the help of sponsors, local ground support, and various civil aviation authorities (including the FAA), Shaesta was able to inspire and visit with more than 3,000 children during the trip. Highlights included a stop in her native Afghanistan to discuss STEM opportunities with its former president and an incredibly warm welcome in Egypt where authorities arranged for an all-female crew of air traffic controllers to handle her flight. “I was really blown away by the hospitality I received,” said Shaesta. “It was simply incredible.”
Shaesta also made sure to take time during the flight to reflect on the personal significance of her voyage. She remarks that when reaching the “point of no return” over the Atlantic Ocean, pride washed over her when she realized that only seven other women had crossed this ocean solo in a general aviation aircraft. “It felt special that this was something I uniquely shared with someone like Amelia Earhart.”
Of course, with a trip as long and complicated as this, things are bound to go awry. Shaesta had her share of challenges along the way, including mechanical issues, unexpected weather, and a rather frustrating bout of head lice towards the end. On the longest and most stressful leg of the flight, from Honolulu to Hayward, Calif., an extra one-knot of headwind forced her to turn around three hours into the flight. Shaesta was understandably frustrated, but proud of her decision to call out mission creep when she saw it, especially in light of the razor thin safety margins for this leg of her flight.
Coming Full Circle
On her next attempt at reaching the California shore, she encountered unavoidable dense fog. Despite feeling fatigued, Shaesta remained laser-focused on her instruments, wondering at times if she was even moving. “When I finally heard ATC’s voice on the radio, it sounded like opera!” she exclaimed. Her arrival into Hayward was all the more rewarding given it was just a stone’s throw from her Bay Area hometown. “It sounds cheesy, but at that moment, it dawned on me that you really can achieve anything you set your mind to.”
That sense of accomplishment is the very thing Shaesta worked hard to instill in the minds of youth during her flight. It didn’t take long to see the fruits of her labor, either. Thanks to Shaesta’s inspiration, a young woman she encountered in Spain immediately began flight training to pursue her dream of flying. Over the years, Shaesta has watched her blossom from a student pilot to a now gainfully employed commercial pilot.
From STEM to Stern
Since her historic flight, Shaesta has continued her work with Dreams Soar, promoting STEM outreach to nine additional countries and hosting another 30 outreach events to a total of 12,000 children. Going forward, Shaesta is excited about inspiring the next generation of aviators by focusing the organization on three main pillars: outreach, scholarships, and innovation. Dreams Soar presented its first flight training scholarship in 2019 to a woman at ERAU and hopes to provide more.
Her educational outreach activities have also received the attention of the FAA, who made Shaesta an official STEM ambassador for the agency in 2020. “The FAA has always been very supportive of my activities, including the round-the-world flight,” said Shaesta. “Since we were doing a lot of the same work in terms of engagement and outreach, it just made sense to collaborate efforts.”
This new symbiotic relationship allows Shaesta to showcase the work of Dreams Soar at different events, while also helping people understand the FAA’s organizational values and safety mission. Shaesta collaborated with the FAA on one such event — the USA Science and Engineering Festival (SciFest) this past October, where she helped support a Girls in Aviation themed pavilion.
Watch: A Passion for Aviation
In and On the Air
At EAA’s Airventure 2021, Shaesta launched another new and exciting outreach platform — her AVIATE with Shaesta podcast, which brings together female aviators to have open and honest conversations about what it means to be a woman in aviation. Discussion topics have spanned everything from balancing motherhood and flying, to dealing with social media pressures, to mental health issues. Shaesta is pleased with the podcast’s success thus far, including its ability to attract many international listeners. She plans to wrap up season one with a celebration event at the National Business Aviation Association’s annual conference in October and begin the planning process for season two in 2022.
To augment her podcast, Shaesta also launched an app that she based on building a community for female aviators. “What if there is an aspiring aviator who wants to be a pilot, but has questions about motherhood? Who does she turn to?” asks Shaesta. The idea is to continue the important conversations she has with podcast guests in a more intimate setting on the app. Shaesta hopes to be able to host live discussions on the app as well with herself or other experts. Find out more about the app and catch up on all the podcast episodes here: aviatewithshaesta.com.
Embracing the Future
On a more personal note, Shaesta has focused much of her energy in recent years on starting a family and maintaining a residence overseas, leaving her little time for personal flying. She aims to get back to more regular flying with aspirations of some future glider and aerobatic training. “I also like the idea of teaching,” says Shaesta, “I feel like the perspectives I’ve gained would be fun to impart.” No matter what, Shaesta says flying will always be a part of her identity.
That same belief goes to the core of her outreach messaging. “You need to embrace who you are and embrace your challenges,” says Shaesta. “You might not see people like you in aviation — but that’s a cue that you’re needed. The aviation community is an incredible community to be a part of, and we need more people that look different to be a part of it so that it is more diverse and inclusive.”
As for ways that you, the GA community, can help inspire interest in aviation and STEM careers, Shaesta offers that engagement is essential. “Keep showing up, keep sharing your stories, keep inspiring. Whether you think it might help or not, at one point in a youth’s journey to becoming a pilot, they’re going to remember the people who were there contributing their time. It just takes one person to inspire another, so any contribution you can make is going to have an impact on the bigger picture.”
Watch: Let Your Dreams Soar
In line with her own advice, Shaesta has magnanimously offered counsel to 19-year old Zara Rutherford, who is currently on her way to beating Shaesta’s record as the youngest female to solo around the globe (read about Zara’s flight at flyzolo.com). “I wished her safety and success, and to go out there and show the world that women are capable of doing great things.”
Terrific advice for Zara, as well as for future generations of young aviators!
Tom Hoffmann is the managing editor of FAA Safety Briefing magazine. He is a commercial pilot and holds an Airframe and Powerplant mechanic certificate.