Sept. 26, 2018
Shaesta Waiz always thought she’d grow up to be a housewife. Barrington Irving was focused on football – earning a coveted scholarship to play the sport in college. Neither grew up around airplanes or knew anyone that flew planes as a hobby or for a career.
Both went on to set aviation records and become two of the most recognizable pilots in the world.
In 2007, at age 23, Irving became the youngest pilot to fly solo around the world in a single-engine airplane. On his 97-day journey, he flew 30,000 miles in a single-engine plane. This past year, Waiz, the first certified female civilian pilot from Afghanistan, became the youngest woman to fly solo around the world in a single-engine aircraft.
At a Sept. 25 event, sponsored by the Aero Club of Washington, DC and held at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, Irving and Waiz shared their inspirational stories with students from several local high schools – encouraging them to pursue their dreams for an aviation career, or in the science, technology, engineering or math (STEM) fields.
When Irving was still in high school in Miami, FL, he walked into a store, saw a man wearing a uniform and couldn’t stop looking at him. The man approached Irving, told him he was a pilot, as well as what his annual salary was, and that changed the course of Irving’s life.
Though college football beckoned, and he didn’t think he was smart enough to pursue a career in aviation, a teacher believed in him and encouraged him to reach for his dreams. “I made the best decision I ever made in my life,” he said. “I ended up turning down a football scholarship to the University of Florida to pursue a career in aviation.”
When he decided he wanted to fly around the world, people told him “no” for two years, but eventually, he was able to find sponsors to help support his dream.
After flying around the world, Irving said he thought about pursuing a career in commercial aviation, but he went into education instead and launched numerous programs to inspire young people to pursue aviation and STEM careers. Irving shared pictures of some of his former students, talking about the careers they went on to pursue later in life. Among the students he worked with was a young Trayvon Martin, who was later shot and killed.
“You have an opportunity to succeed,” Irving told the Washington, DC students. “Trayvon never got a chance to live that dream. You have that opportunity.”
Born in Afghanistan, Waiz and her family immigrated to the U.S. when she was young, settling in Richmond, CA. A self-described “shy girl” and poor student, an airplane flight at 17 changed the course of her life.
Looking out window, “I realized the world is so much bigger, and that my dreams, my way of thinking, it was so small,” Waiz said, adding by the time the plane landed, she knew she wanted to become a pilot. She went on to community college to get an associate’s degree before transferring to Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University and earning her bachelor’s and master’s degrees.
Upon graduation, she decided to fly around the world to inspire young people, and created her non-profit Dreams Soar to accomplish that goal. Waiz told students about the challenges she encountered during her solo flight, but stressed the need to never give up.
“When you go out there to pursue your dream, you’re going to come across some big hurdles,” she said. “When times do get tough, that’s not a moment where you give up. That’s a moment where you pull yourself together, you find something that inspires you and you keep going.”