In 1964, Jerrie Mock became the first woman to complete a solo flight around the world, breaking gender barriers in aviation at time when few women were pilots. She went on to set numerous records, a total of 21 for speed and distance in all. Now, over 40 years after Mock completed her solo flight, Shaesta Waiz, who found in Mock both a hero and a mentor, plans to continue her legacy of breaking barriers in aviation to inspire a new generation of women to pursue education in Science Technology Engineering and Math (STEM).
Shaesta, the first civilian female pilot from Afghanistan, will embark on a historic solo flight around the world in May through her Dreams Soar initiative. When she completes her trip, she will be the youngest woman to fly solo around the world. With the help of the Dream Team, a group of graduate and undergraduate students supporting the initiative, Shaesta will collaborate with inspiring women to host outreach events focused on careers in STEM and aviation at stops along the way.
In 1987, Shaesta arrived in the United States as a refugee, fleeing the Soviet-Afghan war with her family. The second oldest of five sisters, she attended an underprivileged school district in Richmond, California where she “didn’t really learn how to speak English until middle school.” Shaesta did not grow up with dreams of becoming a pilot, “I grew up thinking I was going to become a housewife like my mom and generations before her,” she said. “And that would be my life.”
Her horizons grew when she discovered aviation. She was accepted to Embry Riddle Aeronautical University in Florida, where she earned a Bachelor in Aeronautics and a Masters in Aeronautical Science with Specialization in Management and Operations, and is currently pursuing her MBA.
The number of women in aviation remains staggeringly low- only 0.6% of airline pilots worldwide are women. To counter this, she started the Women’s Ambassadors Program at Embry Riddle. The goal of the program is to strengthen the bond between prospective female students, current students, and alumni by working together to form a healthier and more diverse future for the University. As a result of the program’s efforts, female enrollment at the university increased from 13% in 2012 to 22% currently.
The success of the Women’s Ambassador’s Program inspired Shaesta to make a similar impact on a global scale by founding Dreams Soar. Shaesta believes that more living aviation female role models are needed to change the statistics of women in aviation and STEM. “I think if I can use this love of aviation to show people I’m capable of doing these things, they won’t let any limiting factors make them think they are not capable of achieving something in aviation or STEM,” she said.
Shaesta will make her solo flight in a 2001 Beechcraft Bonanza A36. Her trip, which will start and finish in Daytona Beach, Florida, will take about 90 days to complete and will include 28 stops on five continents. The total distance for the journey is 24,805 nautical miles.
Supporting Shaesta are the students who make up the Dream Team. The team applies their education and talents towards building the foundation of the Dreams Soar organization, managing everything from social media to route planning and legislative communications. The team also includes an advisory council of industry professionals who help lead the Dream Team, make decisions and enlist help from the industry.
The team selected stops in countries where the statistics on women in STEM and aviation were poor and could benefit most from outreach. At most of the stops along the route, Dreams Soar will host outreach events in partnership with the civil aviation authorities for each country to encourage women to pursue careers in STEM. The events will feature local female role models in STEM and aviation. “These local heroes can tell these kids ‘this is what I did in our community to become successful in this industry. This is what is possible,’” said Shasta.
As to how she plans to tackle such a long and grueling journey, Shaesta refers to the advice of one of her mentors, Barrington Irvine, who held the world record for being the youngest to fly around the world in 2007. “He told me, ‘If you look at flying around the world as a whole, it’s like trying to eat an elephant in one bite,’” Shaesta explained. “I have 28 different stops and flight legs. I just focus on the one I am about to fly, I don’t think of past flights or upcoming flights.”
The Dreams Soar Initiative also has the support of the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) Aviation and Space Education (AVSED) program link.
The AVSED program supports the message that Shaesta is promoting worldwide about empowering the next generation of aviation professionals and spreading the message about women taking on careers in aviation and STEM. To this end, the program has helped Dreams Soar gain increased industry visibility.
The FAA’s International team also supports the initiative by connecting the Dreams Soar initiative to its international representatives all over the world. The FAA sits on the Next Generation of Aviation Professionals (NGAP) Implementation Group (NGAP info) at the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO).
Shaesta’s journey to empower women in STEM will not end when she completes her final leg of her trip. She plans to continue growing the organization, because “Once you inspire someone, you have to enable them,” she said.
Shaesta recalls flying to Indonesia with her mentor and being the only female on the crew. “A young girl ran up to me with tears in her eyes. She drives 45 minutes going to and from work every day just to be around airplanes,” said Shaesta. “That’s her passion. She wants to be a pilot but her family could never afford it and she just wanted to find a job where she is around airplanes.”
“When I heard that it made me sad and it opened my eyes that providing scholarships for young women to pursue aviation or stem in their own communities is so essential.” The team is building scholarship funding, so that when Shaesta’s trip is complete, any child from any country who is inspired to become a pilot can apply.
On her way around the world, Shaesta will make a stop in Afghanistan (on a commercial airliner for security reasons). This will be her first trip back since her family left in 1987. “To leave the country as a refugee, with so much uncertainty and then come back as a woman who is flying around the world- I think it’s going to be very emotional,” Shaesta said.
Shaesta shared, “If you are passionate about something and you want to do it, you just have to go for it. I hope this will open the eyes of a lot of women to show them that they are just as capable of doing this as I am.”
Soheila is the founder of Thinkstr.co and the Principal of Oppfinn Consulting. As a project manager and consultant, her interests lie at the intersection of innovation and societal impact. On Thinkstr.co, she writes about business, technology, travel and smart cities.