At age 19, Zara Rutherford has become the youngest woman ever to fly solo around the world, after landing back at her Belgian point of departure following a journey of more than 52,000 kilometers (28,000 nautical miles) across several countries and five continents
The Belgian-British teenager touched down at Kortrijk-Wevelgem airfield - the final stop in a expedition that took off in August and lasted 156 days. Guinness World Records has confirmed Rutherford was indeed the youngest woman to complete the feat, and also the youngest person of any gender to do it in a microlight airplane.
Rutherford has thus beat previous record-holder Shaesta Waiz of the United States, who flew around the globe alone at the age of 30 in 2017. The overall record will remain out of Rutherford’s grasp, since Briton Travis Ludlow set that benchmark last year as an 18-year-old.
Rutherford flew an ultralight aircraft made in Europe called a Shark, capable of cruising at 300 kilometres per hour. Her Belgian mother and her English father are both pilots, so she grew up in an aviation environment. At 14, she learned how to steer a plane and soon starting working towards her first pilot's licence. After finishing school, she decided is the was the perfect time to do something crazy and fly around the world, Rutherford explained.
“We will celebrate this by being as a family together, at first,” her mother Beatrice said. “I think Zara wants to celebrate by sleeping about two weeks.”
Rutherford's global flight was supposed to take three months, but relentless bad weather and visa issues kept her grounded sometimes for weeks on end, extending her adventure by about two months.
After she was escorted by a four-plane formation in a huge V across much of Belgium, she did a flyby of the airport before finally landing. After waving to the jubilant crowds, she draped herself both in the Union Jack and Belgian tricolor flag.
Rutherford’s flight saw her steer clear of wildfires in California, deal with biting cold over Russia and narrowly avoid North Korean airspace. She flew by Visual Flight Rules, basically going on sight only, often slowing down progress when more sophisticated systems could have led her through clouds and fog.
“I never thought it would be possible. I thought that it is too difficult, too dangerous, too expensive,” Rutherford said.
With the final touchdown, the teenager wants to infuse young women and girls worldwide with the spirit of aviation — and an enthusiasm for studies in the exact sciences, mathematics, engineering and technology.
In September she hopes to be off to a university in Britain or the United States to study electrical engineering.