A 19-year old Belgian woman by the name of Zara Rutherford completed a solo circumnavigation of the planet by aircraft last week, setting a couple of new records in the process. Rutherford landed at a small airfield in the Belgium town of Kortrijk on January 20, ending an epic journey that included numerous challenges and required more than five months to complete.
The young pilot set out from her home country on August 18 with the simple goal of completing a solo flight around the world. She grew up in a family of aviators, with her parents and grandparents all being pilots and role models. That means she has spent much of her life in and around planes. Before she could embark on the trip, however, she had to get a pilot’s license of her own—something that required more than 80 hours of training. That flight time was also supplemented with navigation and survival courses.
For her aircraft, Rutherford chose the two-seat Shark Aero, a lightweight, low-altitude plane that is known for its speed and agility. The aircraft tips the scales at just 606 pounds (275 kg) when empty and can reach a maximum speed of about 190 mph (300 km/h). The plane is reliable, easy to maintain, and fuel-efficient, with the ability to cover more than 1000 miles (1600 km) without refueling.
Before setting off, Zara knew that she would be chasing history. The youngest person to fly solo around the world is Brit Travis Ludlow, who complete his flight last year at the age of 18. Rutherford couldn’t beat that record, but she could set a new mark for women. Previous to her departure, the youngest woman to complete that feat was 30-year old Shaesta Waiz, who made her record-setting flight in 2017.
When Zara set out from Kortrijk last August, she turned her Shark Aero west towards the UK, where she made her first stops. From there, it was on to Iceland, then Greenland, Canada, and across the US. Her course took her down the East Coast of North America into the Caribbean, with stopovers in the Bahamas, Turks and Caicos, and the British Virgin Islands. Later, she would visit Colombia, Panama, Costa Rica, and Mexico, before returning to the US once again.
Eventually, she would cross over the Northern Pacific, leaving Alaska for Russia. Her route would turn towards South Korea, the Phillippines and Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, India, and beyond. When she returned to Europe, Rutherford had stopovers in Blgaria, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, and Germany, before returning home to Belgium.
All told, Zara visited 41 countries and flew 28,000 nautical miles (32,222 miles/51,856 km), visiting five continents on her journey. The trip took a total of 155 days to complete, which ended up being two months longer than expected. Much of that time was spent on her own, in the cockpit of the Shark Aero, making her way across remote regions of the planet.
Challenges and Setbacks
Part of the reason it took an additional two months to complete her solo flight was due to roadblocks that Rutherford ran into along the way. Her aircraft required maintenance at several points along the way, which took several days to fix. She also had challenges obtaining entry visas to several countries, with especially long delays when leaving Alaska for Russia and then proceeding on from there after she had entered the country.
Zara had to alter her course a few times to avoid issues too. While flying north over California, smoke from wildfires forced her to take alternate paths and as she approached South Korea she had to be careful not to stray into North Korean airspace. Bad weather was a persistent concern as well. With a flight ceiling of about 13,000 feet (3921 meters), she couldn’t just fly over storms, particularly at sea.
In the end, she was successful in her quest to not just fly around the world but set a new record for the youngest woman to do so. She also became the youngest person to accomplish that feat in an ultralight aircraft.
What’s next for Zara Rutherford? She hopes to use her newfound fame to inspire other girls and women to not just peruse big adventures, but to go into engineering and science-related fields. Zara herself is pursuing a degree in mathematics and hopes to become an astronaut someday.
I’d say her resume is looking good so far.
- Adrian Ballinger Makes First Ski Descent of Makalu - May 17, 2022
- Everest 2022: More Climbers Make History on the World’s Highest Peak - May 13, 2022
- Kami Rita Sherpa Nabs Record 26th Summit of Everest - May 11, 2022