High flying teen pilot Zara Rutherford beats solo round-the-world record

·3 min read

Teenage Belgian-British aviator Zara Rutherford this week became the youngest woman to circumnavigate the world in a solo aircraft, flying 52,000km by microlight over 31 countries.

"It was very difficult but very rewarding," confessed the 19-year-old after completing her solo round-the-world odyssey, breaking the record set by American Shaesta Waiz in 2017.

She touched down at an airfield outside the Belgian town of Kortrijk, welcomed by a crowd of journalists, well-wishers and family just over five months (159 days) after she set off on 18 August, 2021.

"It's very strange being back here," she told a media conference, adding that after her epic journey she was looking forward to putting her feet up in just one place.

"I'd like to do nothing next week," she laughed. "It was harder than I imagined."

Rutherford, whose parents are both pilots and whose father flew for Britain's air force, fielded questions in English, French and Dutch.

She explained that Russia's vast, frozen expanse of Siberia was the "scariest" leg of her journey: a place of overwhelming distance between habitations, and where the temperature fell below minus 30 degrees Celsius.

"I'd be going hundreds and hundreds of kilometres without seeing anything human ... no electricity cables, no roads, no people ... and I thought if the engine stopped now I'd have a really big problem," Rutherford said.

'Nerve-wracking'

Navigating the world in a tiny 325-kilogramme Shark UL single-propeller plane, loaned to her under a sponsorship deal, meant Rutherford had to skirt around clouds and could not fly at night.

Many times she was made to divert or make hasty landings, including taking to ground quickly early this month just a short distance from Dubai, to avoid getting caught in the first thunderstorm that city had seen in two years.

There was also a three-week stretch for most of November in a Russian eastern coastal town called Ayan where she could not take off because of the weather, relying on kind locals who were "very willing to help with anything I might need".

Rutherford did not escape the Covid pandemic and related restrictions, either.

China barred her from its airspace because of virus curbs, "which meant I had to do a huge detour to avoid North Korea – and that took six hours over water," she said. "That was a pretty nerve-wracking experience."

Rutherford was subjected to PCR tests "all the time" to get clearance, and "Asia was extremely strict, so I had to make sure that I stayed in hotels".

But the 52,000-kilometre trip, tracked on her website and caught on cameras she took with her, also brought its share of unique experiences.

They included flying around the Statue of Liberty and seeing a SpaceX launch in California, soaring above Saudi Arabia's "diverse" landscape, stopping in Colombia, seeing an isolated house on its Icelandic island, and powering along "beautiful" Bulgarian valleys.

'Go for it'

Rutherford is not the youngest person to have flown around the world solo. That title goes to an 18-year-old Briton, Travis Ludlow, who completed his feat in July last year.

But, once confirmed by Guinness World Records, she assumes the title of the youngest woman to do so, displacing a US pilot of Afghan origin, Shaesta Waiz, who circumnavigated the planet in 2017, aged 29.

Rutherford said she hopes she'll serve as an example for girls and women to go more into aviation and studies traditionally dominated by men: science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

More than that, though, she said her feat is a tribute to seizing hold of dreams and making them happen, saying she had to get past her initial fears that her goal would be "too expensive, too dangerous, too complicated".

"I want to encourage people to do something crazy with their lives – to go for it."

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