Beaming and waving her arms in the air, teenage pilot Zara Rutherford was euphoric Thursday after completing a solo, round-the-world flying odyssey with the dream of getting into the record books.
“It was very difficult but very rewarding,” confessed the 19-year-old Belgian-British sensation who can claim to being the youngest woman to have circumnavigated the globe alone in a cockpit.
She touched down at an airfield outside the Belgian town of Kortrijk, welcomed by a crowd of journalists, well-wishers and family just over five months after she set off on 18 August, 2021.
“It’s very strange being back here,” she told a media conference, adding that, after an epic journey with stops in nearly 30 countries, she was looking forward to putting her feet up for a while in just one place.
“I’d like to do nothing next week,” she laughed. “It was harder than I imagined.”
Rutherford – whose both parents are pilots and her father flew for Britain’s air force – answered questions in English, French and Dutch.
She explained that Russia’s vast, frozen expanse of Siberia was the “scariest” leg of her journey: a place of overwhelming distance between habitations, and where the temperature fell below minus 30 degrees Celsius.
“I’d be going hundreds and hundreds of kilometres without seeing anything human – I mean no electricity cables, no roads, no people – and I thought ‘if the engine stopped now I’d have a really big problem’,” she said.
Navigating the world in a tiny, 325kg Shark UL single-propellor plane, loaned to her under a sponsorship deal, meant she had to skirt around clouds and could not fly at night.
The restrictions meant many times she had to divert or make hasty landings – including taking to ground quickly early this month, just a short distance from Dubai, to avoid getting caught in the first thunderstorm that city had seen in two years.
There was also a long three-week stretch for most of November in a Russian eastern coastal town called Ayan where she could not take off because of the weather, relying on kind locals who were “very willing to help with anything I might need”.
She did not escape the Covid pandemic and related restrictions, either.
China barred her from its airspace because of virus curbs, “which meant I had to do a huge detour to avoid North Korea – and that took six hours over water,” she said. “That was a pretty nerve-wracking experience.”
She was subjected to PCR tests “all the time” to get clearance, and “Asia was extremely strict, so I had to make sure that I had to stay in hotels”.
But the 52,000km trip, tracked on her website and caught on cameras she took with her, also brought its share of unique experiences.
They included flying around the Statue of Liberty and seeing a SpaceX launch in California, soaring above Saudi Arabia’s “diverse” landscape, stopping in Colombia, seeing an isolated house on its Icelandic island, and powering along “beautiful” Bulgarian valleys.
Do something crazy
“I’ve been through some stuff,” Rutherford said, adding: “So many countries, so many kilometres, but every single one was amazing.”
“It will be very strange to not have to fly every single day anymore – or try to fly every single day,” she said.
“I’m just happy to finally be in the same spot for, you know, a few months hopefully.”
Rutherford is not the youngest to have flown around the world solo. That title goes to an 18-year-old Briton, Travis Ludlow, who completed his feat in July last year.
But, once confirmed by Guinness World Records, she assumes the title of the youngest woman to do so, displacing a US pilot of Afghan origin, Shaesta Waiz, who circumnavigated the planet in 2017, aged 29.
Rutherford said she hopes she’ll serve as an example for girls and women to go more into aviation and studies traditionally dominated by men: science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
More than that, though, she said her feat is a tribute to seizing hold of dreams and making them happen, saying she had to get past her initial fears that her goal would be “too expensive, too dangerous, too complicated”.
In sum, she said, “I want to encourage people to do something crazy with their lives – to go for it”.