Around the world in 260 hours: Teenage pilot Zara Rutherford on cloud nine after record-setting dash

Faced with an ever-changing myriad of travel restrictions, any teenager would be forgiven for putting plans for a round-the-world trip on hold.

One youngster, however, took the idea one step further – she decided to fly herself.

Undeterred by the global pandemic, Belgian-British teenager Zara Rutherford set off in her one-seater Shark Ultralight plane in August last year, with her sights set on becoming the youngest woman to fly around the world solo.

After 260 hours of flying, the 19-year-old touched down at a small airfield in Flanders on Thursday, flanked by the Belgian equivalent of the Red Arrows, to achieve her goal.

Greeted by her family and well-wishers as she arrived at Kortrijk-Wevelgem airport, Zara wrapped herself in British and Belgian flags and told reporters: “It’s just really crazy, I haven’t quite processed it.”

Zara Rutherford's plane is (top) is escorted by two other aircraft as she approaches for landing at Belgium's Kortrijk-Wevelgem airport - STEPHANIE LECOCQ/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock /Shutterstock© Provided by The Telegraph Zara Rutherford’s plane is (top) is escorted by two other aircraft as she approaches for landing at Belgium’s Kortrijk-Wevelgem airport – STEPHANIE LECOCQ/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock /Shutterstock

The record had been previously held by American Shaesta Waiz, who was 30 at the time of her attempt in 2017.

Although there were many hair-raising moments during the 50,000km odyssey, it was the sub-zero temperatures of the Russian winter that proved the scariest leg of her journey.

While flying across the frozen wastes of Siberia, Zara often feared her engines would suddenly stop, leaving her stranded in -35C “hours away from mountain rescue”.

“Obviously I don’t know if I can survive very long in that kind of temperature,” she told The Telegraph.

“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 added.

Zara Rutherford at a stop off in Vladivostok, Russia© Provided by The Telegraph Zara Rutherford at a stop off in Vladivostok, Russia

When she landed in the port town of Magadan in northeastern Siberia, a local mechanic blocked up some of the air intakes on her aircraft to keep the engine warm in the extreme cold.

Despite the tweaks to the 325kg single-propeller plane, Ms Rutherford was grounded in the town for several days, before spending another three weeks in the village of Ayan near the Sea of Okhotsk as she waited for bad weather to pass.

Zara was forced to rely on the goodwill of locals for supplies, whom she said were “very willing to help with anything I might need”.

Other dangers faced by the young pilot during her journey included an earthquake in Veracruz, Mexico, which shook the sixth-floor hotel room she was staying in, as well as tackling thunderstorms in Singapore and navigating her way through wildfire smoke in California and smog over Delhi.

The route had taken her through the UK, Iceland, Greenland, Canada, the US and Latin America to Colombia, then back north via Alaska to Russia, China, Indonesia, India and the Middle East before ending in Belgium.

As well as being the youngest woman to complete the challenge, Zara has become the first woman to circumnavigate the world in a microlight, and the first Belgian to circumnavigate the world solo by air.

When asked what she is most looking forward to now, Zara, who became “obsessed” with flying from the age of eight, said: “Seeing my cats, Chai, Bash and Kaia.”

She added: “Growing up I didn’t see many other female pilots so right now I am trying to be a friendly face for other girls who want to fly or study Stem subjects and know they are not the only ones.”

Astronomical ambitions

Not content with her landmark achievement, Ms Rutherford has also set her sights on becoming an astronaut and is planning to study computer science at university next September.

She said: “I don’t think I will be doing this again exactly but I am looking forward to speaking to people about my experiences, to encourage people to do something crazy with their lives.

“It takes a lot of time, a lot of patience, a lot of work but it is incredible and it is very rewarding.”

Jane Gandee, headteacher at Zara’s old school in St Swithun’s School in Winchester said fifty of their students were now taking up flying in honour of Zara.


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