Teenage pilot Zara Rutherford becomes youngest woman to fly solo around the world

·4-min read

A British-Belgian teenager has become the youngest woman ever to fly solo around the world, after completing an epic five-month journey.

Zara Rutherford, 19, who gained her pilot’s licence two years ago, covered 51,000km in more than 70 flights across the globe.

Starting out from Belgium last August, Ms Rutherford first flew her Shark plane – the world’s fastest ultralight aircraft – over the Atlantic. She then headed south from Canada to reach Colombia via the Caribbean.

From there, the teenager looped up the west coast of the US to Alaska, before venturing over the dangerous Bering Sea to Russia. The last stages of her trip took her across Asia and the Middle East to Europe.

When she reached Kortrijk-Wevelgem Airport in Belgium on Thursday, Ms Rutherford eclipsed a record set by the 30-year-old Afghan-born American Shaesta Wais in 2017.

To qualify for the round-the-world feat, the British-Belgian had to visit two places at opposite ends of the globe. She achieved this by traversing Tumaco in Colombia and Jambi in Indonesia. In total, she flew over 52 countries.

Ms Rutherford, whose British father and Belgian mother are both pilots, undertook the journey in the hope that she would inspire more women to become involved in the aviation, science and technology sectors.

Shortly before finishing her trip, the aspiring university student, who hopes to start an engineering degree in the UK or US later this year, told The Independent about her motivations in a phone interview.

Ms Rutherford did not know any other girls who flew while she was growing up, and felt inspired to change things for younger generations. “I hope that in the future a girl flying is no longer unique,” she said.

This challenge to gender stereotypes chimes with a message she left on her website. “Boys learn through toys, street names, history classes and movies that they can be scientists, astronauts, CEOs or presidents,” she posted online.

“Girls are often encouraged to be beautiful, kind, helpful and sweet. With my flight I want to show young women that they can be bold, ambitious and make their dreams come true.”

Zara Rutherford on the first day of her around-the-world trip (FlyZolo)
Zara Rutherford on the first day of her around-the-world trip (FlyZolo)

The teenager said that she met some female role models en route, including a rescue helicopter pilot in Canada whom she described as “incredible”. She also had memorable conversations with astronauts in America and fighter pilots in Malaysia.

Reflecting on her achievement, the teenager said it had always been her dream to circumnavigate the world by plane.

“I just never thought it would be possible, I always thought it’d be too difficult, too dangerous, too expensive, so I never thought twice about it.”

That changed at the end of her time at school, when she suddenly felt it was “the perfect time to do something a bit crazy”. With the help of her parents, she turned to the logistics of the operation.

The resulting journey saw her visit more than 30 countries and contend with temperatures ranging from 32C in Indonesia to -34C in Russia. Highlights included flights over New York and an active volcano in Iceland.

A view over the Saudi Arabian desert as seen from Zara Rutherford’s Shark plane. (FlyZolo)
A view over the Saudi Arabian desert as seen from Zara Rutherford’s Shark plane. (FlyZolo)

But it wasn’t all plain sailing. “The trip was more difficult than I thought it would be,” she admitted before its conclusion.

She had to make last-minute changes to the route, avoiding northern India because of the smog and altering her flight path over the Philippines due to Typhoon Rai. Earlier, she had got stuck in Alaska for a month while waiting for a Russian visa, and was forced to wait in the far east of Russia for 41 days owing to the freezing temperatures.

Most of her main difficulties were weather-related, she told The Independent. “Even in California, when the weather was nice, the wildfires became an issue. It was just very smoky. I couldn’t see much at all, and I had to divert at the end.”

Ms Rutherford said she had received widespread support for her voyage, but also spoke of the trolling she faced online. “I didn’t take them too seriously,” she said.

As well as breaking the female age record, the teenager, who wants to be an astronaut, became the first ever Belgian to fly around the world solo in a single-engine aircraft.

Zara Rutherford lands at Gimpo Airport, South Korea, on 11 December, 2021 (FlyZolo)
Zara Rutherford lands at Gimpo Airport, South Korea, on 11 December, 2021 (FlyZolo)

As she neared Belgium, Ms Rutherford reflected on some of the things she was most looking forward to about home. “I think I’m just looking forward to my life not being completely reliant on the weather any more.

“I’ve missed the small things that make home home – walking to the bakery on Sundays, getting croissants, watching TV with the cat. I guess, even my own bedroom. And my parents of course.”