Belgian-British Zara Rutherford braved acrid smoke and freezing Siberia on round-the-world journey in two-seater microlight
It should have been perfect flying weather when Zara Rutherford set off from Palo Alto in California for Seattle, a month into her attempt to become the youngest woman to fly solo round the world. But while the skies were clear, wildfires were raging on the ground.
She tried to avoid the towering plumes of acrid smoke by climbing to 12,000ft, but to no avail. “I couldn’t see in front of me,” she said. “It was all kind of a brownish, smoky, orange, dirty colour. I could smell the smoke as well, which was quite unpleasant.”
By the time she was enveloped in smoke and could no longer see the ground from her plane, she realised she would have to turn back. She was only in the smoke for a few seconds, but it felt “like for ever, especially because the turbulence went from zero to everything very quickly.”
The incident was just one of many heart-stopping moments on Rutherford’s record-breaking journey, which took in 31 countries over five continents and ended on Thursday.
“I am really happy. I think it’s finally kicking in,” the 19-year-old said in a Zoom interview from her home outside Brussels. Phones were pinging and the Rutherford cats miaowed as she was momentarily interrupted by a luxuriously furred grey tabby who hogged the screen.
The domestic calm was a far cry from the Belgian-British teenager’s 155-day odyssey, which took in some of the coldest, smoggiest and wettest places on earth, all experienced in a two-seater Shark microlight, a plane so easy to manoeuvre that one person can push it along the runway.
The flip side of the plane’s carbon-fibre ultra-lightness is its susceptibility to severe turbulence. Flying over Bulgarian mountains a week ago, the turbulence was so severe it triggered a G-force warning that Rutherford described in her typically understated way as “very uncomfortable”. Even on the final hop from Frankfurt to Kortrijk in western Belgium on Thursday, she hit her head on the canopy.
Her journey started in August in Belgium, from where she headed west over the UK to the Americas via Greenland and on to Russia, then down to south-east Asia, looping north over India, the Middle East and finally back to Europe.
Rutherford, who was first taken up in small planes by her pilot parents when she was a toddler, gained her flying licence at 17. But temperate Belgium had not prepared her for the extreme conditions she would encounter on her epic trip.
One of her most daunting tasks was flying over Siberia. “It is beautiful but it is intimidating … The ocean is frozen at this time of year. There are no trees, there are no people, no roads, no electricity cables. In terms of wilderness there is nothing quite like it.”
The flight over the snowy vastness was nerve-racking because she knew if her engine were to fail, there would be a long wait for rescue. “Spending hours in -35C, I don’t know if that’s achievable really, and I didn’t have quite the survival gear needed to spend hours and hours outside.”
Unable to fly at night or in clouds, she was often racing against time – and the weather. Rather than dwell on what might happen, she concentrated on flying her plane: “It’s about living in the present; the next five, 10 minutes, rather than the next four hours, because in four hours the weather can change.”
Music helped her stay focused in the cockpit. She set off with “a huge playlist” of pop songs from 2010 to 2019. Her tunes also eased the culture shock of being far from home. “It was good to have things I was familiar with, because especially in Siberia, Saudi Arabia and most of Asia, everything was so different, the culture, the climate the people – everyone was very generous and very kind, but I felt so, so far away from home, so having music I could sing along to was really helpful.”
Avoiding bad weather meant she often had to change her plans. A thunderstorm prevented her from landing in Jakarta, forcing a diversion to the small domestic airport at Ketapang on the island of Borneo. As the terminal had no immigration office, she had to stay in the airport for two days – “the people were very generous [and] I got some very good local food”.
The young pilot is aware of the environmental impact of her journey. She had hoped to make the trip in an electric plane, but found that wasn’t possible and said her plane used far less fuel than a commercial jet. “For my whole trip around the world it uses the same amount of fuel as a Boeing does in about 10 minutes, so although it has a negative impact, it’s not as big as it seems at first glance. And I was also doing some carbon offsetting.”
Rutherford, who plans to study electrical engineering in the UK or the US, thinks she could be involved in making aviation greener. “Right now obviously aviation is not sustainable whatsoever, but it is heading in that direction.”
More immediately she hopes her trip will inspire women and girls to fly planes and study science, engineering, technology and mathematics. “Aviation is a very big industry and it’s not going anywhere. As we go towards electric aircraft, we will continue to need pilots, so I am hoping to get more women involved.”