At only 19 years old, Zara Rutherford became the youngest woman to circumnavigate the globe and the youngest person to fly solo around the world in an ultralight aircraft. In addition to her two Guinness World Records, she has also become the first Belgian to fly around the world alone.
After a victorious formation flight with the Belgian Air Force’s Red Devils and a celebratory low pass prior to completing her circumnavigation, Rutherford told reporters and fans on the ramp at the Kortrijk-Wevelgem Airport that she had “made it.”
After 155 days of VFR-only flying, weather delays, pandemic complications, and visa hang-ups, Rutherford achieved just what she had set out to do: The teenager departed on a solo flight around the world on August 18, 2021, with the mission to reduce the gender gap in science, technology, engineering, and math careers in addition to “show[ing] young women that they can be bold, ambitious and make their dreams come true,” Rutherford stated.
The trip, which Rutherford had hoped to have completed by Christmas, was anything but “blue skies and tailwinds” for the young aviator. From hitchhiking in North Carolina to flying in minus 31 degrees Fahrenheit weather in Russia, Rutherford stayed the course.
Although this was Rutherford’s first solo circumnavigation, she was no stranger to flying over unfamiliar terrain and open water. Her father, a professional pilot who also served as flight operations and sponsorship chair for the mission, had taken Rutherford along on several trans-Atlantic flights prior to the teenager’s successful adventure. “One flight that we did was Texas to India, and that was really fun… So that is kind of some experience where it’s really quality over quantity and has been really helpful on this trip,” said Rutherford told AOPA in October.
Her VFR-only Slovakian Shark aircraft featured a fuel-efficient 100-horsepower Rotax engine capable of cruising up to 140 knots. The Shark, which proved to be quite dependable throughout the 32,300-mile circumnavigation, was reportedly an easy choice to make for the earthrounder. “It is the fastest microlight in the world… It’s just a very safe [airplane that is] efficient fuel wise,” Rutherford previously told AOPA.
The previous record-holder, Shaesta Waiz, who has served as a mentor to Rutherford throughout the trip, earned the record at 30 years old after piloting a Beechcraft Bonanza around the world. “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 [Waiz] 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,” Rutherford told AOPA while stuck in Alaska waiting on a renewed Russian visa.
Now that Rutherford has returned home, she will be attending college, working toward her commercial pilot certificate, and helping with her family’s aircraft ferrying business.
But in true Rutherford fashion, the already accomplished aviator has her eyes set on another significant challenge—becoming an astronaut. “I’m really doing it one step at a time because it is a lot of work and chances are slim,” Rutherford said previously.
Although most young aviators may feel Rutherford’s accomplishments are out of reach, Rutherford told AOPA that her message to other aviators her age is simple: “Just go for it.”