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Most 19-year-olds are still trying to perfect their driving skills. But Zara Rutherford had her eyes set a little higher. The British-Belgian teenager wanted to be the youngest woman to fly around the world solo. On January 22, 2022, Rutherford fulfilled her lifelong dream when she successfully landed her two-seat ultralight aircraft back at the Kortrijk-Wevelgem Airport in Belgium, where she had departed from 155 days ago.
Rutherford's historic flight broke Shaesta Waiz's five-year-old record. The Afghan-American pilot was 30 when she completed the solo around-the-world excursion in 2017. The teenager is also the youngest person to make the epic journey in a microlight plane and the first Belgian to do so.
"With this successful circumnavigation, I am happy not only to break the Guinness World Record of youngest woman flying solo around the world, but also to reduce the gender gap by 11 years between the current youngest male record holder Travis Ludlow, 18 at the time of his record, and the previous female record holder Shaesta Waez, who was 30 when she completed her "Dreams Soar" around-the-world flight," Rutherford wrote on her blog.
Rutherford's epic journey, spanning five continents and 52 countries, began on August 18, 2021. Her route traversed over the UK, Iceland, Greenland, Canada, USA, Latin America, then back north via Alaska, to Russia, Korea, Indonesia, India, the Middle East, Europe, and, then, finally, Belgium. The young pilot had expected to complete the journey by mid-October 2021 but faced numerous unexpected delays along the way.
They included an unscheduled stop in Redding, California, due to wildfires, and a month-long stop in Nome, Alaska, to renew her Russian visas. Inclement weather in Siberia cost Rutherford another month while obtaining the appropriate exit aviation documents in Indonesia tacked on another two days.
The young pilot also faced several challenges while in the air. Since the airplane was not certified to fly using instruments, Rutherford could only maintain visibility by avoiding clouds. As a result, the teenager had to sometimes fly as low as 1,500 feet, putting her in the crosshairs of inclement weather. "In Singapore, I got quite close to a lightning strike," she told NPR.
When flying from Iceland to Greenland, Rutherford lost radio contact with her ground team for much of the 3-hour flight. The delays also resulted in her having to cross over Russia in harsh, sub-zero temperatures. “The hardest part was flying over Siberia—it was extremely cold and if the engine was to stall I’d be hours away from rescue. I’m not sure I would have survived,” she later said at a press conference. But despite the severe difficulties, the determined young pilot never gave up on her dream.
Rutherford grew up around airplanes. Her British father flies commercially, while her Belgian mother is a recreational pilot. The young girl began learning how to fly at age 14 and obtained her aviator's license in 2020. With her goal of flying around the world accomplished, Rutherford now has her sights set on the stars. She wants to become an astronaut and explore space!
The 19-year-old hopes that her epic journey will encourage more young women to pursue careers in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) and aviation. Currently, only 15 percent of computer scientists are women. The number of female pilots — just 5 percent — is even smaller. Rutherford says, "It's an easy thing to say, but just go for it. If you don't try and see how high you can fly, then you'll never know."
Resources: Smithsonian.com, CNN.com, airwaysmag.com, BBC.com