Updated: Mar 9, 2022
✦ She may have arrived at her destination two months later than originally planned but it was definitely a case of worth the wait for Zara Rutherford who became the youngest woman to fly solo around the world earlier this year.
Nineteen-year-old Zara, who has dual British-Belgian nationality, had originally scheduled three months to complete the daunting voyage, as detailed in a previous preview story by Brilliant-online. However, due to inclement weather conditions and difficulties securing the necessary visa clearance in certain destinations, the trip ultimately took a total of five months.
After starting her journey from Kortrijk in Belgium on August 18 last year, Zara travelled over 32,000 miles (51,000 km) and made more than 60 stops across five continents during her trip, breaking two Guinness World Records in the process. She spent a month stuck in Nome, Alaska and a total of 41 days in Russia, with a variety of other obstacles thrown in for good measure.
‘I made it!’
On landing in Kortrijk-Wevelgem in Belgium on January 20, she was greeted by her family, friends, journalists and well-wishers in addition to four planes from the Belgian Red Devils aerobatic display team.
“I made it,” a delighted Zara told the crowd once she had exited the cockpit of her bespoke Shark ultralight aircraft.
“It’s just really crazy, I haven’t quite processed it,” she told the waiting press as she wrapped herself in British and Belgian flags.
She later told a press conference she was “so glad” she took on the challenge and urged others to not hesitate in undertaking similarly-testing endeavours.
“I’m looking forward to telling people about my experiences and encouraging people to do something crazy with your life. If you have the opportunity - go for it!”
The record for the youngest woman to fly solo around the world was previously set by American Shaesta Waiz, who was 30 at the time of her challenge in 2017. Not only did Zara beat that record but she also now holds the title for the first woman to circumnavigate the world in a microlight aircraft. Furthermore, she is also the first Belgian to fly around the world alone.
Despite the incredible achievement, there were a myriad of challenges en route - some anticipated, some not.
The weather was the major factor on several occasions, ultimately adding to the two month delay. Severe weather conditions in Nome, Alaska forced her to be grounded longer than planned and the delay saw her Russian visa expire as a result. She then had to wait as her passport was sent to the Russian consulate in Houston to secure her visa.
Even after receiving her passport with Russian visa included, Zara still had to wait a further three weeks before she could cross the Bering Strait with only three of 39 flights permitted to take to air during that period.
“It is -18C and my hands are literally so cold,” Zara posted in a video update on her Instagram account when stranded in Nome.
“I’ve been here for almost a month. I’ve been keeping busy, I’ve been applying to universities and keeping the plane ready to go.
“The weather hasn’t been great. Every time, either Russia has been looking bad or Nome has been looking bad.”
Beautiful and diverse
Siberia is renowned for its freezing conditions, forcing a mechanic to modify Zara’s aircraft by blocking some of the air intakes in order to keep the engine warm in the extreme cold, as the temperature crept as low as -35C on the ground and -20C in the air.
Despite the mechanic’s best efforts with the tweaks, Zara was still delayed, forcibly grounded in Magadan for a week and then in Ayan for three weeks.
“The hardest part was flying over Siberia,” Zara told reporters when she made her final stop in Belgium. “It was extremely cold and if the engine was to stall I’d be hours away from rescue. I’m not sure I would have survived.”
However, the never-ending expanses of Siberia also provided one of the trip’s highlights.
“One of the most impressive moments was flying over Siberia, because it is just so remote and I don’t know if I’ll ever get to see it again,” she said. Saudi Arabia also stood out as “really beautiful, very diverse and the weather was great”.
Another highlight was when Zara managed to take time out in the British Virgin Islands where she was a guest of Sir Richard Branson at his Necker resort, enjoying lunch and a day of paddle-boarding, playing tennis and exploring the island with the famed entrepreneur. "I was blown away by how brave and inspiring Zara is," commented Branson on his personal blog.
Back in the air and further adverse weather forced her to make an unscheduled stop at Bandar Udara Rhahadi Osman in Indonesia. To compound her woes, it transpired she did not have the necessary paperwork allowing her to leave the airport so she had to sleep in the terminal for two nights while it was addressed.
A further challenge involved flying through wildfire smoke in California where the young pilot was forced to make an unscheduled stop in Redding due to poor visibility and dangerous flying conditions.
She also experienced optical illusions when flying over large stretches of ocean, and battled against intense turbulence while navigating a storm over Scotland.
In Veracruz, Mexico, she experienced an earthquake which, literally, left the youngster shaken. As her sixth-floor hotel room began to sway and rumble, she exited the building as fast as she possibly could.
“Suddenly the building started to sway. I don’t think I’ve ever run faster down the stairs. I was really expecting the most dangerous part of this trip to be in the air!”
One of the scariest moments of the trip came after she was denied permission to fly over China meaning she had to navigate one of the busiest aviation routes in the world to reach South Korea while avoiding Chinese and North Korean airspace.
Zara also experienced instrument malfunctions in New Mexico and a flat tyre in Singapore which left her stranded in the Lion City over Christmas. It was her first festive season and New Year away from her family but she remained upbeat, posting cheerful updates on her Instagram account.
From a safety perspective throughout and in the event anything were to go wrong, the plane had a parachute and Zara had been trained in how to evacuate the aircraft under water. Thankfully neither were needed at any point.
Despite her challenge clearly being that of an airborne one, one disappointment for Zara was not being able to explore the destinations she stopped at while on the ground due to strict COVID-19 regulations in many countries. However, her experiences in the skies more than made up for it.
One of the main objectives behind her challenge was to shine a light on and provide opportunity for women in aviation, something that Zara feels passionate about.
She has previously stated her disappointment that only 5.1% of airline pilots around the globe are women, according to figures from the International Society of Women Airline Pilots (ISA).
“[5%] 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,” Zara told CNN prior to her round-the-world trip.
Now she is back on the ground, with her impressive feat achieved and the record books re-written, Zara is looking towards her next challenge in September: University. She plans to study electrical engineering and harbours hopes of eventually becoming an astronaut.
Only a fool would bet against this incredibly impressive and ambitious young lady one day achieving that goal.
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