By Peter McLaren-Kennedy •
Published: 16 Jan 2022 • 14:26
A 19 year-old teen flies solo round the world, becoming the youngest woman to circumnavigate the globe beating the previous record set by 30 year-old American Shaesta Waiz.
Zara Rutherford set out from Kortrijk, Belgium, 150 days ago. During her trip she encountered almost every hurdle imaginable including squeezing between North Korean airspace and a massive cloud threatening to cut off passage for her ultralight plane.
Both parents are pilots so flying runs in her blood, having flown in small planes since she was 6. She started flying at the age of 14 and had about 130 hours of solo flights under the belt before her record attempt. She hopes her record will have a bigger meaning, the Belgian-British teenager wanting to enthuse young women and girls worldwide with the spirit of aviation, as she does their enthusiasm for exact sciences, mathematics, engineering and technology.
Currently only five percent of commercial pilots and 15 percent of computer scientists are women. Rutherford said: “The gender gap is huge.”
Rutherford used Visual Flight Rules, basically going on sight only, danger lurked even closer than when she would be able to use fancy navigational instruments to lead her through the night, clouds or fog.
Crossing northern California she headed into the huge wildfires blighting the area. She had to climb to 10,000 feet to avoid the smoke, making it difficult to keep her eyes on the ground.
“The smoke was building up and up, to the point that the whole cabin stank of smoke and I could not see anything but a burnished orange colour,” Rutherford said after she had to abort her route and make an unscheduled landing in Redding, California.
Over Siberia, the light played tricks on her vision, sometimes casting doubt whether she saw mountains or clouds. “And for me clouds are a really big deal. Especially in Russia,” with its biting cold. Cutting through such clouds, too much ice might build up on her wings, paralyzing control. “At that point your plane is no longer a plane,” she said.
Coronavirus also got in the way with her plans to fly over China to South Korea having to be changed after China refused permission citing Covid-19 restrictions. She said: “that was slightly frustrating because I’m in the plane at 6,000 feet (around 1,800 meters). I’d be very impressed if I could pass on COVID like this.”
She also had a brush with North Korean airspace with a massive cloud threatening to cut off passage for her ultralight plane resulting in her flying less than 15 minutes away from the dictatorship. Speaking of the close call, the clouds cleared enough to let her through, she said: “Well, they test missiles once in a while without warning.”
Much of her trip was delayed by bad weather, a flat tire and visa issues. These extended her planned month flight into a three month one.
She said of the journey and the difficulties she experienced: “In wealthy nations we grow up in a world with a huge amount of safety nets. Actually flying over Alaska, Russia or Greenland, that’s when you realise, there is no safety net. Like, this is really just me. There’s nobody here to help me if anything is wrong.”
For all the bad experiences there were good ones, the Saudi Arabian desert with its changing colours of sand and rock, the barrenness of northern Alaska, the huge circular Apple Park in Cupertino, California, or the sight of what’s been called the world’s loneliest house on Iceland’s deserted island of Ellioaey.
The teen is happy to be home after she flies around the world solo, saying: “Before, it was, yeah it was about the grand adventure, but actually I think, you know, watching TV with your cat has its special things as well. It is very unique as well.”
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Originally from South Africa, Peter is based on the Costa Blanca and is a web reporter for the Euro Weekly News covering international and Spanish national news.
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