A photo provided by the Museum of Flight shows Zara Rutherford after landing her small plane in Seattle in September 2021. Before reaching the city, she flew through the smoke of a wildfire over Northern California. (Museum of Flight via The New York Times)
She could have started college. Instead, she spent five months flying more than 32,000 miles across five continents.
“My name is Zara Rutherford, a teenager,” she said on the internet after leaving Belgium in August. “I try to fly solo around the world,” she said, aiming to be the youngest woman to do so.
Rutherford, 19, dodged giant clouds in Colombia and lightning in Mexico. In Alaska, his small plane was grounded for weeks by bad weather and a visa delay.
This was before the British and Belgian airman crossed a frozen and desolate part of Siberia. Before China banned it from its airspace. And before the smog scrambles its way through India.
As the delays piled up, Rutherford fell more than two months behind schedule. But she didn’t give up. When she touched down in the Belgian city of Kortrijk on Thursday, she became the youngest woman to circumnavigate the globe solo. Fans lined the tarmac to show their support and welcome her home.
“It will be very strange not having to fly every day or trying to fly every day,” she told a press conference after landing. She added, “I’m just happy to finally be in one place for a few months.”
Rutherford broke a record set in 2017 by Shaesta Waiz, an Afghan American pilot who was 30 at the time. Before Rutherford landed on Thursday, Waiz said she didn’t expect a 19-year-old to break her record: “It just goes to show that it doesn’t matter your gender or your age; it’s all about determination.
(The youngest person to circumnavigate the globe solo was Travis Ludlow, a British aviator who did so in July at the age of 18.)
Form an ocean to another
In August, as Rutherford was flying over the Atlantic Ocean, clouds forced her to fly as low as 1,500 feet. She couldn’t fly through them because her plane, a two-seater that’s only about 22 feet long, wasn’t certified for instrument flight alone.
When she landed in Greenland after losing radio contact for several hours, she sent her parents — her mother is a recreational pilot; her father, a professional — a two-word text: “I’m alive.”
She later said she assumed things would get easier in North America. This was not the case.
In Florida, she maneuvered around thunderstorms in the middle of hurricane season. As she was flying to Seattle in September, wildfire smoke seeped into her cockpit over Northern California, obscuring her view and forcing her to turn back.
Rutherford said she was touched by the kindness of strangers she met along the way, including the man who put her up in Alaska, even though her family had just welcomed a newborn.
“When I left, her daughter was 5 weeks old, so I was there for more than half her life,” she said.
Rutherford, who said she planned to study electrical engineering or computer science in college and wanted to become an astronaut, also received moral support from other female aviators.
During a layover in Florida, Waiz greeted the teenager and gave him advice on how to deal with adversity. And in Goose Bay, Newfoundland and Labrador, Canadian Armed Forces search and rescue pilot Captain Erin Pratt donated the flying wings she wore every day for seven years to Rutherford as a show of solidarity. .
From the tundra to the tropics
Rutherford said in August she was under pressure to reach northeast Russia in late September to avoid the onset of bad weather. She finally crossed into Siberia in early November – at a time when ground temperatures were as low as minus 31 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 35 degrees Celsius).
While flying over a remote area, she said she saw airfields where she could, in theory, have made an emergency landing. But they were covered in snow.
From Russia, where bad weather again blocked it for a few weeks, Rutherford had planned to cross into mainland China. So when China barred her from its airspace under a coronavirus protocol, she had to fly more than six hours over water towards South Korea.
In Borneo, she is grounded for several days by bad weather and faces the difficult choice of when to leave. In the end, she passed through the tropical island but made an unscheduled landing at a domestic airfield at its southern tip. It was a safer bet than crossing the Java Sea – a notoriously dangerous place for planes – in poor conditions.
A retired Malaysian fighter pilot who advised her on this Borneo leg, Lt. Col. John Sham, later said by telephone that he was impressed with the poise, humility and Rutherford’s instinct in very difficult circumstances.
“She’s a fascinating, brilliant girl,” he said.
In late December, a puncture that set Rutherford back a few days in Singapore was quickly overshadowed by a larger challenge: smog had made air quality so poor in parts of South Asia that it could not not cross the region safely along the coast. Bangladesh and India, as planned.
This required another workaround: a flight of nearly 1,000 miles over a remote part of the Indian Ocean. (Sponsors and airports paid for the cost of the trip, regardless of the route she took.)
“One thing I learned on this trip – and I think it applies to everyone – is that you are capable of more than you think,” Rutherford told reporters after crossing this ocean and landed in Sri Lanka at the end of December.
At this point in his journey, logistical problems were not just tolerated, but expected. After a long flight over the Arabian Sea from Mumbai, India, Rutherford was unable to land in Dubai due to high winds. Last week, his scooter plans across Europe were delayed by bad weather after landing in Greece.
“I can’t wait for my life to be weather-free,” she said in a phone interview this month from Saudi Arabia.
Still, she says, she loved taking flight and had been encouraged to meet young women around the world who said she had inspired them to fly.
As for that pendant of flying wings she had received from Pratt, the search and rescue pilot in eastern Canada? He was on his backhand from Goose Bay.
“It was a sign of good luck,” she said. “I think it worked.”
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