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Teenage pilot Zara Rutherford becomes the youngest woman to fly solo around the world

Belgian-British pilot Zara Rutherford, 19, gestures following her landing at Kortrijk-Wevelgem Airport in western Belgium on Jan. 20 after becoming the youngest female pilot to circle the planet alone. (Pascal Rossignol/Reuters)

Teenage pilot Zara Rutherford became the youngest woman to fly around the world solo when she touched down in western Belgium on Thursday, completing a more than 32,000-mile journey spanning five continents.

The 19-year-old British-Belgian aviator used her gap year after high school to break two Guinness World records, becoming the first woman to circumnavigate the globe in a microlight aircraft and the youngest woman to make such a journey. American pilot Shaesta Waiz, the previous record holder, was 30 when she flew around the world in 2017.

The youngest male record holder, Travis Ludlow, completed his solo flight around the world in July at age 18. When Rutherford set out on her flight, she aimed to “reduce this gap from 11 years to 11 months,” she wrote on her website.

When she landed her Shark UL plane at Kortrijk-Wevelgem Airport in western Belgium after a five-month trip plagued by unexpected obstacles, Rutherford opened the cockpit and stood up to greet a cheering crowd, her arms in the air and a grin on her face.

“I made it,” she told reporters.

The daughter of two pilots, Rutherford grew up around airplanes and started training for her pilot license in high school. She had “always dreamt” about flying around the world but thought it would be impossible, she told The Washington Post.

“And then I was finishing school — this was back in July last year — and I thought, actually, this is the perfect time to do something crazy and fly around the world,” she said.

With the Guinness World Record requirements, a map and a pen in hand, she sketched out a route. She funded the entire trip through sponsorships, she said. Web hosting company ICDSoft was the main sponsor.

Rutherford set off from Belgium in mid-August, expecting the journey would take three months. But a series of unforeseen setbacks — including visa problems, coronavirus restrictions and bad weather — complicated the travel. Originally intending to pass through 52 countries, she ultimately flew through 41.

Flying during the pandemic meant she had to constantly take PCR tests and follow strict isolation measures in some countries where she stopped to refuel and recharge, Rutherford said.

When weather forced her to stop in Indonesia, Rutherford had to sleep in the terminal for two nights since she wasn’t permitted to leave the airport. In California, she had to fly through wildfire smoke. China wouldn’t let her cross its airspace due to coronavirus protocols, forcing her to take a lengthy detour to skirt North Korean airspace. And a flat tire left her stuck in Singapore over Christmas.

But it was flying over Russia that drove home the risks of her endeavor.

“Although I thought Alaska was remote, Siberia was just extremely remote,” Rutherford said. “I would go for hours and hours without seeing anything human-made — no villages, no roads, no electricity cables.”

She added: “At the time, it was minus-31 degrees Fahrenheit, I believe, so that meant that if the engine was to stop for any reason, I would have a huge problem, right, because I’m hours away from rescue. There’s nobody near me. And I don’t know how long I can survive in that kind of temperature.”

She didn’t have any air support, though a team back home in Belgium tracked her flight progress and sent her updates about weather conditions. Rutherford documented her journey on social media, sharing videos on Instagram of gliding over mountains in South Korea and sitting on snowy runways in Vladivostok, Russia.

Highlights of her trip included swooping down over Saudi Arabia to spot camels and flying over an active volcano in Iceland, she said.

Waiz congratulated Rutherford on her record-breaking flight Thursday, tweeting, “You have inspired so many people, especially me!”

Rutherford promoted two charities during her trip: Girls Who Code, which supports young women entering computer science, and Dreams Soar, Waiz’s organization that advocates for women and girls in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math.

Even though she didn’t remember seeing other girls or women at flying school, Rutherford said she was still shocked to learn that only 5 percent of commercial pilots are women.

“Growing up, I never really saw many other female pilots, and that was really discouraging. So right now I’m doing my best to try to be a friendly face” to inspire girls with an interest in flying, she said.

Bringing new demographics to aviation will be particularly important as the industry transitions to more environmentally-friendly electric aircraft, she added.

“As we transition to electric aircraft, we must still continue to seek new pilots,” she said. “I’m just hoping to get a few more women into it because aviation affects every single one of us, whether we want it to or not, and so I think it’s very important to have diversity and representation.”

Rutherford plans to begin studying either computer science or electrical engineering at university in the fall, with the hope of one day becoming an astronaut. Having circumnavigated the globe, she said she’s eager to take on an even vaster challenge: Space.