Teen pilot becomes youngest woman to fly the world solo

Jan 23, 2022

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Amelia Earhart must be beaming.

A 19-year-old female pilot touched down her microlight Shark UL plane at an airfield in western Belgium last week, claiming the title of the youngest woman to fly solo around the world.

Zara Rutherford began her journey in Belgium on Aug. 18 and headed west with plans to cover 52 countries on five continents, which turned out to be 41 countries because of problems encountered along the way.

On Jan. 20, 155 days later, she landed back in Wevelgem, Belgium.

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(Photo Courtesy of Beatrice de Smet/Fly Zolo)

“With this successful circumnavigation, I am happy not only to break the Guinness World Record of youngest woman flying solo around the world, but also to reduce the gender gap by 11 years between the current youngest male record holder Travis Ludlow, 18 at the time of his record, and the previous female record  holder Shaesta Waez, who was 30 when she completed her “Dreams Soar” around-the-world flight,” Rutherford said in a statement on the FlyZolo website documenting her journey.

Rutherford’s journey was successful, but it didn’t go exactly as planned.

While she and her aircraft were well prepared for the record-breaking feat, there were some challenges and setbacks that caused her journey to take two months longer than planned.

All told, she covered 28,000 nautical miles (around 32,000 miles), flew 260 hours, and had 71 takeoffs and landings.

She wore a survival suit and carried a parachute, a personal locator beacon and a life raft for emergencies. Along the way she encountered desert heat, heavy winds, thunderstorms, typhoons, wildfires in California, smog, snow and freezing temperatures like the time she was stuck in Magadan, Russia.

“No this was not another Water Salute in Magadan” explains the note on an Instagram post on Nov. 11. “As she is in ❄️☃️#subarctic conditions by the Sea of #Okhotsk (sometimes reaching subzero temperatures of well below -20°C) her little Shark #plane 🦈 needs de-icing before she can take off. This procedure is critical, as her plane is not equipped with a de-icing system and ice on the wings is a hazard for every #pilot. It’s one of the top safety-related concerns in aviation and it’s led to hundreds of accidents.”

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A post shared by Zara Rutherford (@fly.zolo)

“The hardest part was flying over Siberia. It was extremely cold and if the engine was to stall, I’d be hours away from rescue,” she said during a press conference on Thursday. “I’m not sure I would have survived.”

But she made it, sometimes with the support of others. At times her radios did not connect with any controllers for long periods because of the curvature of the Earth. Other times she sought and received guidance from commercial airline pilots.

As part of her journey, Rutherford stopped at Boeing Field in Seattle, which is adjacent to the Museum of Flight. Museum spokesman Ted Huetter worked with her support crew in England to arrange the stop and showed Rutherford the Lockheed Electra type airplane in the museum that Amelia Earhart used for her around-the-world attempt.

“We are so proud of Zara’s accomplishment,” Sara Fisher, Executive Director of the International Women’s Air & Space Museum told TPG. “She’s following in the shoes of trailblazing women like Amelia Earhart and Jerrie Mock, who became the first woman to fly around the world almost 60 years ago. Zara is truly an inspiration.”

In addition to breaking world records, during her journey Rutherford raised funds for Girls Who Code and helped raise awareness for the role of girls and women in aviation and STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics). Along with Amelia Earhart, Rutherford cites Bessie Coleman (the first African American and Native American to hold a pilot’s license), Valentina Tereshkova (the Russian astronaut who was the first woman to go to space), and Lillian Bland — who designed, built, and flew her own plane in 1910 — among her role models.

Because this is the modern world, Rutherford’s fans can help celebrate her accomplishment by purchasing FlyZolo merchandise, including apparel, drinkware, bags and caps, and watch a YouTube video documenting her trailblazing route and the coverage she received along the way.

Featured image by Beatrice de Smet/Flyzolo.

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