DAYTONA, Fla. — The trip would test her and when it was over, Shaesta Waiz’s 145-day, nearly 29,000-mile flight would set a new world record, place her with a sitting president, and leave the Daytona Beach pilot a changed woman.
The journey spanned five continents, 22 countries and numerous cities. Its completion put Waiz, 30, in the record books as the youngest woman to fly solo around the world in a single-engine aircraft — a milestone for someone once “terrified” of flying.
Her voyage ended Oct. 4 where it began nearly six months earlier, in Daytona Beach. And it wasn’t long after the wheels of her 2001 Beechcraft Bonanza A36 lifted off the runway that Waiz realized how difficult the trip would be.
“It takes toll on you, the fatigue from flying,” she said. “Especially when you know you have a long way to go.”
But as Waiz tells it, she’s always had a long way to go.
Born in an Afghanistan refugee camp during the Soviet-Afghan war, Waiz’s family fled the country just before her first birthday. They left behind everything, settling in Richmond, California — ranked among the top 15 most dangerous cities in the nation on more than one occasion.
And it was in a small house in Richmond that Waiz grew up in as the second oldest of six girls in a traditional Afghan family that spoke no English. The clashing of the two cultures tore Waiz between two worlds.
“My family didn’t know anything about the American culture,” she said. “At home, it was as if I was living in a mini Afghanistan, but then I would go out to school and interact with my friends and it was America.”
Placed in Richmond’s struggling school system, Waiz didn’t become fluent in English, her third language, until after she entered middle school. Once there, things worsened.
“A lot of my friends that I grew up with were either dropping out or they were joining gangs that were all over Richmond,” she said. “Most of my friends were getting pregnant at a very, very young age.”
A far from serious student, Waiz’s goal in life was to, as her mother and grandmother before her, fulfill the traditional role of an Afghan woman: Get married and have children. She thought college a waste of time.
Later, upon seeing how her older sister had to work instead of doing more in life, Waiz reconsidered her future. She worried her younger sisters would succumb to the same fate and decided to show them what else a woman could do. She focused and improved her grades.
But as someone with a deathly fear of flying, the notion of being a pilot, much less of setting a world record, wasn’t on her radar.
That changed when Waiz received a frightening graduation present: A flight to visit relatives in Florida — her first flight since leaving Afghanistan.
“I was terrified,” Waiz said. “I took my seat and I strapped on my seatbelt and I kept thinking in my mind, ‘This plane is going to launch into the sky like a rocket.'”
With nowhere to run, she had to face her fears.
“It was all this anticipation that built, built, built,” she said. “And then as soon as we started taxiing and the plane took off, to my surprise it was such a beautiful lift off. … It was just very romantic and beautiful.”
She was hooked.
“I had read in geography books about countries all over the world and to me, they were always just names. I honestly thought geography was one of the most pointless things I could ever learn because I never had had any intention of visiting these countries or continents,” she said. “As I’m sitting there in my seat, I’m thinking, ‘Through aviation those names don’t have to be names in book. One day they can be memories.'”
By the time the six-hour flight landed, Waiz had made up her mind. She was going to become a pilot.
Her father, too, always wanted to be a pilot, but after having children he juggled three jobs at gas stations to support the family. He hoped one day his sons would fulfill his dream, but with six daughters, he knew it was impossible.
He never shared his secret and Waiz learned of it only after she broke the news. He was skeptical, at least at first.
She stayed the course and in searching for inspiration, reached out to the government of Afghanistan for a listing of commercial women pilots.
There were none. At least, not yet.
Upon telling her family of her dream to become Afghanistan’s first certified female civilian pilot, they had a change of heart.
But she still needed to learn how to fly. And that would require convincing dad to help pay for college.
A woman? Go to college? Her uncle balked at the notion.
“You grew up here in America, but don’t think for a minute you’re not Afghan,” he told her. “You need to realize where you’re coming from and who you are.”
And in her own way, she did just that.
Waiz earned a bachelor’s and master’s degree from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, becoming the first in her family to do so. There she started the Women’s Ambassadors program, which helped increase female enrollment at the school.
She became Afghanistan’s first certified female civilian pilot in 2008. Liberation, as much as determination, drove her.
“There were times … I would think, ‘Maybe I shouldn’t do this. Maybe this is something that I can’t really be successful at.’ But then, I would always think … of how empowered I would feel in the airplane,” Waiz said. “It always overpowered any negativity or backlash that I received from anybody. … I can’t just walk away from that feeling. That defines life for me.”
Wanting to share the feeling of empowerment that had eluded her most of her life, Waiz founded the nonprofit Dreams Soar to encourage more women to pursue STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) and aviation-related degrees.
“When I discovered my passion for aviation … I kept asking myself, ‘What can I do to help girls around the world who weren’t able to leave of feel their countries as refugees and they feel stuck or … oppressed in the situations they are in?'”
Soon she set her sights on another venture — one that would match the deeds of the world’s greatest female aviators.
Following in the footsteps of role model Jerrie Mock, who in 1964 became the first woman to complete a solo flight around the world, Waiz affixed her heart on a similar journey: She would circumnavigate the globe in hopes that her efforts would inspire young girls and women.
Dream Soar secured a host of corporate sponsorships to help pay for the venture, but even with funding money, the trip wouldn’t be simple.
“We had insurmountable setbacks and challenges, and a lot of people said we couldn’t do this,” friend and Dreams Soar Chair Lyndse Costabile said. “It wasn’t just about pressing the easy button. It was, ‘How do you show girls no matter what the challenges, you can make it work?'”
Those around her pressed Waiz to “do the right thing” and take a man along.
She didn’t listen.
On May 13, the then 29-year-old embarked from Daytona Beach, marking the first leg of her journey. She would head west to Ohio, then up into Canada, before crossing the Atlantic Ocean to Portugal.
It would also return her to Afghanistan, the homeland she never knew, and of that, she worried.
Would they accept her?
Was she too Westernized?
Her fears were unfounded. Upon landing in Kabul on a commercial flight, Waiz was greeted warmly.
There she met President Ashraf Ghani and was designated an ambassador of peace. They talked about Waiz’s plans to open a school for young girls where students could use STEM skills to help solve the country’s problems of hunger and lack of proper shelter.
Waiz continued her travels, checking off “names in book.”
Bangkok. Singapore. Honolulu.
Along the way, Waiz partook in more than 30 outreach events where she met more than 3,000 children, their little faces finding inspiration in her words and actions.
“I would have young girls came up to me and say that, ‘All we hear about when it comes to women from our country is oppression and just hardship and sadness, but you give us hope that we can do something in life and be successful at it and it shines a positive light for our futures.”
It wasn’t all pleasant. Weather and other delays stifled her progress, increasing the trip’s duration from 90 to 145 days.
Alone and in the dark for much of the trip, Waiz guided her small plane across the some of world’s largest oceans. Being out of range of radio contact, she knew all too well that no one would know if she crashed — at least not right away.
The long, “dead-quiet,” isolated days left her too much time to think, and Waiz found herself confronting her worst enemy: self-doubt. She considered quitting more than once.
But she couldn’t quit. And for the children, especially the girls, she wouldn’t.
“I kept thinking about the kids I had already inspired, and I kept thinking about the kids who were waiting for me,” she said. “Just that impact and seeing their faces and reactions is really what got me through flying around the world and to stay strong and to keep going.”
In regards to advocating for women, Waiz said there’s still work to do, especially in other countries.
“Sometimes I feel like we say we believe in women, but when it comes down to it, (there’s) this resistance that we just need to all get over,” she said.
Waiz said she’ll continue working with Dreams Soar to inspire young women.
“One thing that I’ve learned is, when it comes to women’s rights, I feel like who we really have to speak to and try to empower are actually women,” she said. “You’re always going to have people who are going to doubt you … but go out there and have confidence, most importantly in yourself.”
Information from: Daytona Beach (Fla.) News-Journal, http://www.news-journalonline.com