A shot of Urooj walking to her plane, with her backpack on and headset in her hands.

Imagine flying a plane. Now imagine what it feels like the first time you take off, on your own, with nobody else onboard.

“It’s beyond nerve wracking,” says Urooj. “I remember the instructor saying it was time to go, and I was like, wait — you want me to fly this 2,500-pound aircraft on my own?” Then suddenly, out of nowhere, Urooj felt a wave of confidence just before takeoff. “I said to myself, ‘I can do this!’”

It was a 15-minute flight at the Waterloo Wellington Flight Centre, what they call a circuit. As soon as she landed, both Urooj and her instructor were greeted with a bucket of water thrown at them. “It’s tradition after your first solo flight,” says Urooj. “It’s how we celebrate each other’s success.”

Now in her fifth year studying Geography and Aviation at Waterloo, Urooj still feels a thrill whenever she takes to the sky. Like many people, she loves travelling and experiencing new cultures. “This is what drew me to Waterloo and to study aviation,” says Urooj.

I get to visit incredible places and meet new people, and call it a career? That’s incredible.

Besides working toward her commercial pilot license, Urooj is learning about remote sensing and how to interpret satellite data using geographic information systems (GIS). These skills are especially important for studying climate change, and can help us understand — and prepare for — changes related to everything from air quality and extreme weather, to crop production and land management.

While the aviation industry is often cited as one of the causes of climate change, Urooj sees a new future for flying. “Aircrafts and airports are becoming much more environmentally friendly,” she says, adding that the aviation industry only accounts for about 2% of global carbon dioxide emissions. “We’re moving toward a greener future, and I want to be part of that change.”'

Urooj inside a small plane, getting ready for takeoff.

Since she first became interested in flying, Urooj has seen another change take place. “Every year I see more women and minorities becoming interested in aviation,” she says. “That’s one of the reasons I volunteer and join so many clubs and organizations. I want to continue breaking down barriers and be part of this change.”

Between classes and flights, Urooj spends her time as a ground-school instructor and is part of Waterloo’s Aviation Society and Winged Warriors, a student-led group and mentorship program for aviation enthusiasts.

“Aviation opens so many career opportunities,” says Urooj, who hopes to become an airline captain, or to work with Transport Canada to create greener airports.

You might think, with COVID-19, this isn’t a great time to get into flying, but people will always fly. Once it’s safe for us to take vacations and fly around the world, we’re going to need a lot more pilots.


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