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‘Just go for it’

The 19-year-old already had experience with long-distance legs, demanding flying days, and overwater crossings from accompanying her father, a ferry pilot, on trans-Atlantic flights. The flights helped prepare her for the solo crossing and the earthrounding journey ahead.

“One flight that we did was Texas to India, and that was really fun,” Rutherford said, noting that she had to cut her participation in that ferry trip short to get back to high school. “So that is kind of some experience where it’s really quality over quantity and has been really helpful on this trip.”

Rutherford grew up in an aviation family and earned her pilot certificate at age 15. She had always dreamed of flying around the world, but “it was more of a ‘You know, that would be a really cool thing to do,’ but as if it’s ever going to happen. Then I finished school, so I figured, well, I could use that time off to do something pretty crazy and fly around the world.”

After departing Belgium on August 18, she has since flown across the Atlantic to Greenland, then Canada, down the U.S. East Coast to the Caribbean Islands, Colombia, Panama, Costa Rica, Mexico, and up the U.S. West Coast to Nome, Alaska.

“I like to say it makes me see the world. There are some days when you just want to get to your next destination…but when you are VFR you are forced to stay below the clouds and see the world right as you’re flying around it,” Rutherford said, adding, “It does make it harder, but it’s been really fun.”

Zara Rutherford works to encourage young people through science, technology, engineering, and math during her solo circumnavigation. Photo courtesy of Zara Rutherford.The Shark is produced in Slovakia, and its 100-horsepower Rotax 912 ULS engine burns minimal fuel while enabling the aircraft to cruise at more than 140 knots, one of the reasons Rutherford chose the aircraft, even though it is VFR only. It also features retractable landing gear, a variable-pitch propeller, and fantastic views. (AOPA Editor at Large Dave Hirschman reviewed the Shark in 2017.)

“It is the fastest microlight in the world, so it was a relatively easy decision to make. It’s just a very safe [airplane that is] efficient fuel wise,” Rutherford said. “I’m halfway around the world and I’m really happy with it. It gets me to places relatively quickly, but then I also get to enjoy the views. So, I love it.”

The decision to fly a VFR-only aircraft has caused its share of challenges.

“I think the first week was tough because I went straight into the trans-Atlantic. So that was Scotland, Iceland, Greenland, and then Canada. The weather was OK, but the cloud base was relatively low, which meant that, because I’m VFR I have to stay below the clouds. At one point from Iceland to Greenland I was at 600 feet above the water, which isn’t fun, especially when you know it is very, very cold down there,” Rutherford said, explaining that she also lost radio contact with air traffic control because of her low altitude.

“Mentally that was tough because there’s also the point of no return, so you have to commit and keep going. It was my first solo long leg over water, but I was so happy when I reached Canada and even Greenland…. I felt like I really accomplished something. I was pretty proud of myself. I wouldn’t do it again too soon.”

Rutherford has been in Nome since September 30. Her Russian visa had expired, so she waited in Nome, the last stop before crossing the Bering Strait to Russia, for her new visa. Two female professional pilots worked to pick up Rutherford’s passport and, between their schedules, fly it to Nome. (She was set to pick up the visa just minutes after our interview on October 6.) Rutherford had been eyeing the weather for possible departure dates, but as of publication deadline October 13, she remained in Nome.

Rutherford has received support from another female aviator, Shaesta Waiz, who is currently the world record holder for being the youngest woman to fly solo around the world at age 30. Waiz circumnavigated the globe in 2017 in a Beechcraft Bonanza. (Rutherford would become the youngest woman to fly solo around the world once she completes her trip. The youngest man to fly around the world is 18-year-old Travis Ludlow, who completed his jaunt in July.)

“She’s amazing,” Rutherford said of meeting Waiz. “It’s really nice being able to talk to someone who kind of knows what you are going through, knows what kind of challenges you are facing…. Every once in a while, I’ll text her and I’ll say, ‘You know I’m flying here now, what was your experience, do you have any tips?’ I don’t know anyone who has flown in Southeast Asia apart from her and other worldrounders, so it’s great having that person there that I can turn to if I need advice.”

Follow Zara Rutherford on the Fly Zolo Facebook page (www.facebook.com/FlyZolo/) to learn how Miffy, the pilot bunny, has been helping out on the around-the-world flight. Photo by Scott McMurren, courtesy of Zara Rutherford.Rutherford still needs to fly to Russia, South Korea, Taiwan, the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, Thailand, Myanmar, Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Greece, Bulgaria, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Germany, and France, before landing in Belguim. While she had hoped to complete the journey in November, the delay in Nome has pushed her schedule to early December, according to the route on the Fly Zolo website. She should cover 28,000 to 29,000 miles on the trip.

Once she completes the circumnavigation, she plans to attend university to study engineering, though she has ideas for more aviation adventures, including earning her commercial certificate, helping her father ferry aircraft, and eventually ferrying airplanes herself.

“In Greenland I met some NASA scientists and they were doing climate change measurements…they would take a DC–3 and fly around Greenland and drop probes into the water. I spoke to the pilots that were bringing them around, and they are really cool,” Rutherford said. “So, they would spend their summers in Antarctica, usually bringing scientists around, and every once in a while, they’d go up to Greenland. And I just thought that is the coolest flying, it’s challenging, but you get some amazing, amazing stories from that. So, I thought that might be a potential future.”

Rutherford also aspires to become an astronaut but is taking it one step at a time, including going to and completing university. “I’m really doing it one step at a time because it is a lot of work and chances are slim.”

She encourages other young aviators to follow their dreams, just as she is. “What I always say is, ‘Just go for it.’ You get such amazing opportunities. Yes, you’ll have some moments where you’re unsure. I had that a lot thinking about whether I wanted to go into engineering or not…. If you’re unsure about something because you’re not used to it, it’ll take you out of your comfort zone.

“Whatever happens, you’ll learn from it. You learn from it. If it doesn’t work out, it doesn’t work out. If it does, then you just got yourself an amazing career, amazing opportunities, and I think that’s priceless.”

The Shark is produced in Slovakia, and its 100-horsepower Rotax 912 ULS engine burns minimal fuel while enabling the aircraft to cruise at more than 140 knots, one of the reasons Zara Rutherford chose the aircraft, even though it is VFR only, for the around-the-world mission. Photo by Jo Vlieghe, courtesy of Zara Rutherford.

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