Teenage Pilot Completes Around-the-World Flight, Sets World Records

Nineteen-year-old Zara Rutherford becomes youngest woman to fly around the globe solo and the first woman to do it in a microlight.

Zara Rutherford made 68 stops along her historic journey. [Courtesy: FlyZolo]

At 19 years old, Belgium’s Zara Rutherford (FlyZolo) has become the youngest woman to fly around the world solo in a single-engine airplane. 

One hundred and fifty days after departing the Flanders International Airport (EBKT) in Belgium’s city of Kortrijk, and after 68 stops around the globe, Rutherford arrived home Thursday.

The previous record holder, Afghani-American pilot Shaesta Waiz, was 30 years old when she did it in 145 days in the summer of 2017.

Rutherford is also the first woman to circumnavigate the globe in a microlight, and the first person from Belgium to do so in a single-engine aircraft.

The composite-built Shark Aero microlight that Rutherford flew is a high-performance, two-seat tandem aircraft with retractable gear and a two-bladed, variable-pitch propeller. It is powered by a Rotax 912 ULS 100 hp engine, which allows it to achieve cruise speeds of up to 140 kts, one of the fastest in its category.

Why She Did It

Rutherford said the goal of her trip was to encourage young women to pursue their dreams and bridge the gender gap in aviation as well as in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).

“Only 5 percent of commercial pilots and 15 percent of computer scientists are women,” she said in a statement. “In both areas—aviation and STEM—the gender gap is huge. 

“But during my journey, I met many incredible, talented women—pilots, engineers, car racers. I believe together we can make a real change. We can encourage other women to be bold, ambitious, and pursue their dreams,” she said.

She said that she only had about 150 hours of flight time before she departed, and some of that came from ferrying airplanes across the Atlantic for clients with her father, who is also a pilot.  

Waiz Passes the Torch

Waiz ceremoniously passed the torch Wednesday in a LinkedIn post, saying she was “euphoric to know that 19-year-old Zara Rutherford will soon become the youngest woman to fly solo around the world.”

She shared how Rutherford reached out to her in the spring of 2021 to get her blessing to go after the record, to which Waiz said, "Of course, Zara! Records are meant to be broken.”

She divulged how they had the opportunity to meet up during Rutherford’s trip when she stopped in Florida in August.

“Your support has been amazing,” Zara later commented.

Delays Slowed Her Down

Rutherford initially planned to take 45 days to do the trip, but encountered operational and weather delays, as is typical with trips of this nature. She reached her halfway point the first week of November, and considering the delays, was unable to make it home for the holidays.

She spent her Christmas in Singapore and reported that she’d be delayed again following a flat tire.

After landing at Frankfurt-Egelsbach Airport (EDFE) in Egelsbach, Germany, on Wednesday for her second-to-last-stop, she shared that coming from Benesov Airport (LKBE) in the Czech Republic was quite challenging.

“Today was a pretty difficult flight; the clouds were pretty low and sometimes it took me some time to find the best and safest route forward but reaching Egelsbach was great and I’m so happy to be here,” she later shared on Instagram.

At a news conference Wednesday, she spoke candidly about delays she faced in Siberia as a result of the cold weather, but that “it was more difficult to navigate around the equator because thunderstorms popped up all of the time.”

There were also wildfires in southern California.

“It got to a point I just couldn't see anything anymore. You could smell the smoke up to 10,000 feet,” she shared.

What’s Next 

Rutherford says she’s looking forward to seeing her parents, the long drive home, her cats, and visiting her favorite local sandwich shop. 

She plans to enroll in a university in September to study engineering, in either the U.S. or the U.K., depending on where she’s accepted. But before that, she looks forward to sharing her story with other girls.

One of her first public appearances post-flight will be as a keynote speaker at the European Business Aviation Convention and Exhibition (EBACE) in Geneva, Switzerland, in May 2022. 

Michael Wildes holds a master’s degree in Logistics & Supply Chain Management, and a bachelor’s degree in Aeronautical Science, both from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. Previously, he worked at the university’s flight department as a Flight Check Airman, Assistant Training Manager, and Quality Assurance Mentor. He holds MEI, CFI & CFII ratings. Follow Michael on Twitter @Captainwildes.
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