SUFFIELD TWP. — On Shaesta Waiz’s fourth swing, Champagne exploded all over her — and over Wingfoot Three, Goodyear’s newest blimp.
In the Thursday christening of the third and final next-generation airship owned by Goodyear, it was women who marked the occasion. The blimp, as it often does in memorable experiences across Northeast Ohio, hovered overhead.
Waiz was the guest of honor. Last year, the 30-year-old Afghani-American became the youngest woman to fly solo around the world. Fittingly, Waiz took the bottle of Champagne from Taylor Deen, the 31-year-old captain of Wingfoot Two and one of only three women known to be actively piloting blimps.
At the 100-year-old blimp factory along Wingfoot Lake, hundreds of Goodyear employees, a few dignitaries and an aspiring group of young girls laughed as CEO Richard Kramer joked that his Akron-based international tire company may be better known for blimps.
Kramer spoke of Goodyear’s commitment to community and service. And its history punctuated by blimps. He reminded guests that in Cleveland on the same day 89 years ago, it was Amelia Earhart who christened the Goodyear Defender, a predecessor to today’s semi-rigid blimps.
Then Kramer introduced Waiz, the first licensed female pilot from Afghanistan. She was one month old when she and her family arrived in America, refugees during the 1980s Soviet occupation of the Middle East.
Waiz reflected on her more recent feat of traversing the planet in a Beechcraft Bonanza. Her story takes a globe to tell. The shortened version includes a first stop in Columbus — the birthplace of aviation.
She spoke of the thousands of WASPS (Women Airforce Service Pilots) who flew B-17s during World II out of Rickenbacker Air National Guard Base near Columbus. And she reminisced about her personal inspiration, Geraldine "Jerrie" Mock, a Columbus housewife who took up aviation later in life.
In 1964, 27 years after Earnhardt disappeared trying, Mock became the first woman to fly solo around the world. These are the women who drove Waiz along her round-the-world flight.
A few stops later, Waiz found herself waiting out bad weather on the shores of Waikiki Beach. She would have to muster the courage to make the next 14-hour lonely leg across the Pacific Ocean to Asia. Guided by a local, she spent a few awe-inspiring moments at a marker on the beach. There, commemorated in stone, was a monument noting Earhart’s 1935 solo flight from Hawaii to the mainland — the first ever by a man or woman.
The weather broke. And she took off, completing her six-month marvel by October 2017.
Listening intently from seats near the stage, a group of female students from Akron’s National Inventors Hall of Fame (NIHF) middle school soaked in the stories of female legends whose legacies intersect the history of aviation and America.
"I was like, ‘That’s so empowering. I want to do that,’" said Mylia Butler, an eighth-grader who left the hangar Thursday afternoon strongly considering a career as a pilot.
"It’s really inspiring," said seventh grader Alexandria Vardon, who’s planning a future as an aerospace engineer, starting with her education at the Akron school specializing in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math).
"It made me think that I could be a pilot, too, someday," added eighth-grader Reese Latta, also headed for the engineering field. That’s possible. After all, it was something as simple as a single commercial flight from California to Florida that convinced Waiz, at 17, to pursue a pilot’s license.
Waiz had visited the girls of NIHF the day before to speak about her life and the nonprofit organization she founded, Dreams Soar, which is dedicated to helping underrepresented girls aspire to careers in STEM and aerospace.
The christening Thursday was immediately followed by Wingfoot Three’s maiden voyage, or at least the first trip carrying members of the public. Waiz was the first passenger, piloted by Deen and Jerry Hissen, a Cuyahoga Falls native and chief pilot with Goodyear Airship Operation’s blimp base at Wingfoot Lake.
Waiz, for all her feats at high altitudes, said she’d never been in a blimp. Offered a chance to pilot the dirigible, she later said she had a "newfound respect for blimp pilots."
Wingfoot Three, completed earlier this year by German-based Zepplin, first rolled out of the hangar in June, limited to test flights from Mogadore to southeast Akron on a trial basis until she earned her tail wing number (N3A) about three weeks ago. At that time, Goodyear took ownership of the blimp from its German maker.
Wingfoot One, built in 2014, is stationed in Florida. Wingfoot Two, built in 2016, sat in the Wingfoot Lake hangar Thursday awaiting an annual inspection after wrapping up a tour of the Midwest.
A crew member in the hangar said the airship will be hung upside down and drained of helium so that workers can safely inspect the innards. Then, after the all clear, Deen will fly her assigned Wingfoot Two back out to California.
At the christening, CEO Kramer acknowledged the attendance and enduring support of U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan and Akron Mayor Dan Horrigan. Also in the crowd was state Rep. Tavia Galonski of Akron, who spoke fondly of her days as a Delta Airlines stewardess while starting to practice as a lawyer.
Reach Doug Livingston at 330-996-3792 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him @ABJDoug on Twitter or http://www.facebook.com/doug.livingston.92 on Facebook.