19-year old flies around world in 155 days (Long Read)

On 20 January 2022, Zara Rutherford landed her small plane in Belgium, becoming the youngest woman to fly around the world solo. Her goal was to inspire other young women.

Instead of starting university, Zara Rutherford spent five months flying more than 51,000 km across five continents.  She flew in a SharkVL plane with 2 radios, 2 extra fuel tanks and a parachute.  After leaving Belgium in August, she wrote on the internet:

“I’m Zara Rutherford, a teenager. I’m attempting to fly solo around the world…  If I succeed, I will be the youngest woman (by 12 years) to do it.  And I will be the only pilot to do it in a microlight plane.”

“I have just completed my A-Levels in Mathematics, Further Mathematics, Economics, and Physics, and hope to go to university to study computer science/computer engineering. I have been flying for a long time and one of my biggest dreams is to become an astronaut.”

It would a dangerous journey across 41 countries.  She would need to make decisions every day that could mean life or death.  Why did she do it?

“Only 5% of commercial pilots and 15% of computer scientists are women. This is because our dreams are formed during childhood from the role models we see in our lives. Boys learn through history classes, street names and films that they can be scientists, astronauts or presidents. Girls are 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.”

The first month of her bold journey took her from Belgium over the Atlantic through Iceland, Greenland and Canada to New York.  She flew down the east coast of the US over the Caribbean and to Colombia and Panama, where she went north along the Pacific coast of Central America to North America and through Mexico to the American state of Texas.  From there she flew from California and up the Pacific coast to Seattle.  She constantly fought risky weather conditions.

“My flight across the Atlantic was my first big test.  There were too many clouds to fly above 1,500 feet (457 m) altitude.  My plane is not certified to fly with instruments alone, so I have to be able to see.  It was a rough flight with some turbulence, and flying so low over the ocean for so many hour was…, well, intense.  Plus, I lost radio contact for two hours.  When I landed in Iceland I texted my parents that I was alive.”

In Newfoundland, Canada, Captain Erin Pratt, a female pilot in the Canadian Air Force, gave Zara advice.  Pratt said, “Flying a small plane around the world at low altitude is exceptionally brave. She’s amazing.”  She gave Zara the ‘flying wings’ pin that she had worn for the past seven years.  It became Zara’s good luck charm.  Later in Florida, another female pilot gave her advice on dealing with adversity.

A traditional Canadian Airforce flying wings pin

Flying down the east coast one evening, it was too dark to see well, so she had to make an unplanned landing.  The airport was so small that nobody was there.  There were no taxis, so she had to hitchhike to the nearest town.

Throughout her long journey, weather was the most important factor in her daily plans and decisions. 

“When I got down to Georgia and Florida, I had to dodge some scary thunderstorms.  It was hurricane season, and I wanted to avoid them when I went through the Bahamas.  The jungles of Colombia were beautiful, but I had to constantly fly around these huge clouds, and in Mexico there was a lot of really dramatic lightning that, obviously, I had to avoid.  I can’t fly above 1,500 feet with poor visibility, so I often risk getting hit by lightning.  It was extremely close once…”

When flying to Seattle, smoke from forest fires entered her plane, making it impossible to see clearly, so she had to turn back and land at another airport.

After resting two days in Seattle, she flew up the Pacific coast of Canada to the American state of Alaska, arriving at Nome on the Bering Sea on 30 September.  She wanted to get to Siberia, Russia before bad weather arrived.  Unfortunately, her journey was delayed in Alaska for a month.  First she had to wait a week for her Russian visa, and then the weather wasn’t good enough to fly.  While she waited, she was impressed by the friendliness of strangers.  “One family hosted me for a week, even though the mother had had a baby five days before.  People were so kind.”

On 1 November, Zara set out again, flying across the sea to northeastern Russia.  But there the temperatures had fallen already.  In Siberia temperatures were -31 degrees Celsius.  When she crossed the frozen, desolate part of Siberia, she saw several airfields where she could land, but they were covered in snow.  And if she had landed in those cold conditions, she wouldn’t have been able to take off again.  Hours from nearby towns, she would have died of hypothermia.

After bad weather delays, she reached the Chinese border, but they denied her entry because of coronavirus restrictions.  So she had to fly 6 hours over the North China sea.  Storms forced her to enter North Korea, where she could have been arrested as a spy.  Finally she landed safely in democratic South Korea.  “That was a nerve-wracking experience.”

Avoiding a major storm in the Philipines, she flew to Borneo instead of crossing the dangerous Java Sea. Lt. Col. John Sham, the Malaysian military pilot who advised her was impressed with her calm attitude, humility and instincts in challenging situations. “That is one fascinating, brilliant girl,” he said.

On Christmas Eve Zara was delayed in Singapore with a mechanical problem, but her weather problems were more serious.  Air pollution was so bad in some parts of South Asia that she could not follow the coasts of India.  Instead, she had to fly 1,600 km across a remote part of the Indian Ocean.

“One thing I’ve learned on this trip — and I think this is true for everyone — is that you’re capable of more than you think you are.”

Zara also changed plans when crossing the Middle East, cancelling a landing in Dubai because of high winds.  Once in Greece, she was again delayed because of bad January weather in Europe.  “I’m looking forward to my life not being weather,” she said.

Despite two months’ of delays, she didn’t give up.  Finally, on 22 January, Zara landed in the Belgian city of Kortrijk, becoming the youngest woman to circumnavigate the world on a solo flight, and the first Belgian.

“I’m really happy to finally be in the same spot for a few months.  But I enjoyed the flight and I loved meeting young women around the world.  Many of them said that I had inspired them to take up flying.  Oh, and Captain Pratt’s pin?  I’ve been wearing it ever since Canada.  I think it worked.”

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More information:

Zara Rutherford’s official website:  https://flyzolo.com/

Full route video reel:  https://youtu.be/b8xGBV-naac

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