Belgian-British teenage pilot Zara Rutherford powered through typhoons, visa complications, and weeks of isolation in a tiny Siberian village to become the youngest woman to fly solo around the world. She dedicated her achievement to young women looking to succeed in male-dominated avenues like aviation and made her final, historic touchdown in western Belgium on Thursday. By Eshita Srinivas
Aviator Zara Rutherford strapped into her Shark ultralight aircraft on August 18, 2021, to embark on her dream to fly around the world. 155 days and several challenges later, she landed at Kortrijk-Wevelgem airport in western Belgium, breaking two Guinness World Records in the process. Besides being the youngest woman to circumnavigate the globe, she’s also the first woman to do so in a microlight aircraft. Adding to that is the fact that she’s the first Belgian to fly around the world alone. This feat earned her a rapturous welcome on her arrival.
Zara Rutherford’s journey spanned five continents, 52 nations, and 52,000 kilometres
VIDEO: ???? Teenage pilot Zara Rutherford lands in Belgium after completing a record-breaking 52-country, five-continent flight around the world.
The 19-year-old British-Belgian has become the youngest woman to circumnavigate the planet flying solo pic.twitter.com/8VhMtxeJPY
— AFP News Agency (@AFP) January 20, 2022
When she’d first set out on her flight course, she had hoped to be back by Christmas. However, bad weather and visa hold ups got in her way. Along the way, she had to spend weeks isolated in Ayan, a tiny Siberian village with barely any contact with the outside world. At one point, she needed to steer clear of wildfires in California, as the stench of the flames filled up her plane. She also had to charge through biting cold weather in Russia, carefully avoid North Korean airspace, and account for typhoons in the Philippines, reports NPR.
She covered 28,000 nautical miles over the course of the past few months, making a stopover in 52 countries and five continents. Reflecting on her thrilling journey, she said, “Go for it. It takes a lot of time, patience, a lot of work, but it is incredible,” as per a report by CNN. The aviator flew by Visual Flight Rules, relying on her sight only, which slowed down the progress, when more sophisticated systems could have led her through fog and clouds. Firstpost reports that Rutherford feared for her life and yearned for the comfort of home at different points. “I would say the hardest part was definitely flying over Siberia — it was extremely cold. It was minus 35 degrees Celsius on the ground,” she added as per a report by KESQ News. “If the engine were to stall, I’d be hours away from rescue and I don’t know how long I could have survived for.”
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The title of the youngest woman to fly around the world solo was earlier held by 30-year-old American aviator Shaesta Waiz, who made the journey in 2017.
The aviator, who is the daughter of two pilots, has been travelling in planes since she was six and began flying herself at 14. Although she dreamed of flying around the world, she didn’t think it was possible. “I thought that it is too difficult, too dangerous, too expensive,” she said as per a report by the BBC. Sponsorship and contributions took care of the expenses while the rest she managed herself. And with her being in that transitory stage between high school and university, she couldn’t have timed it better. “I thought, actually, this is the perfect opportunity to do something crazy and fly around the world,” she added.
The teenage aviator pushed for greater visibility for women in aviation
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Rutherford dedicated her win to young women who are looking to enter into and succeed in male-dominated sectors like aviation. Last year, she’d expressed her disappointment at the fact that only 5.1 percent of airline pilots around the world are women (based on figures from the International Society of Women Airline Pilots). “5 percent is such a small number, considering it’s a career where you basically get paid to travel around the world — obviously it’s work, but it’s an amazing career with amazing opportunities,” she told CNN.
She’s been supporting two charities while on her journey, Girls Who Code, which supports young women looking to study computer science and Dreams Soar, a nonprofit that backs women entering STEM fields. The teenager hoped that her journey would encourage more young women to consider a career in aviation. “It’s an easy thing to say, but just go for it,” Rutherford said. “If you don’t try and see how high you can fly, then you’ll never know.”