Meet the teenage pilot who battled thunderstorms in her around-the-world solo flight

Zara Rutherford, 19, touched down in Dubai this week before the final leg of an incredible journey

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Flying over an active volcano may sound like a scene from a Hollywood movie, but Zara Rutherford faced it head-on – and completely alone.

Ms Rutherford, 19, has been on a mission to break records as the youngest woman to fly solo around the world in a microlight aircraft.

After taking off from her home in Belgium on August 18 last year, she faced ferocious storms, last-minute detours and hours alone in the cockpit.

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I spent Christmas fixing a flat tyre on my plane in Singapore and New Year’s Eve in bed in Mumbai, utterly exhausted
Zara Rutherford

The brave teenager comes from a family of aviators – her parents are both pilots. She began flying at 15 and earned her pilot's licence in 2020.

She has stopped in 23 countries and will touch down in 10 more over the next week.

“If all goes to plan – which I can assure you doesn’t always happen – then I should land back in Belgium on January 13 to complete my journey,” she told The National during a stopover at Expo 2020 Dubai.

“In total, I will travel through or over about 52 countries. My route so far has included the UK, Iceland, Greenland, Canada, South Korea and Indonesia.

“It’s been a tough haul. I haven’t been home in five months; I spent Christmas fixing a flat tyre on my plane in Singapore and spent New Year’s Eve in bed in Mumbai, utterly exhausted.”

Flying in her Shark UL, a two-seater, high-performance ultralight aircraft that can reach speeds of up to 300 kilometres an hour, Ms Rutherford said her parents inspired her solo flight.

Clocking up about 200 flying hours from start to finish, she said the journey so far had been full of ups and downs.

Although her round-the-world route was carefully planned out before the trip, last-minute detours caused by travel restrictions and bad weather plagued her.

Thunderstorms

In early December, Ms Rutherford, who completed her A-Levels in mathematics, further mathematics, economics and physics last year, was denied entry to China because of Covid-19, so had to travel through South Korea instead.

She has also come face-to-face with huge thunderstorms at several points along the way.

“I got an awful fright when flying from Singapore to Indonesia.

Zara Rutherford, 19, with her mother Beatrice de Smet and her father Sam Rutherford at Kortijk-Wevelgem Airport in Belgium. Photo: Flyzolo

"I could see huge lightning strikes about 3km away so had to liaise with people back home through radio to divert my route and avoid entering the storm. It was touch and go.”

Flying at a height of about 1,100 metres, Zara said the longest she spent in one journey was eight hours, from Mumbai to Dubai.

Commercial jets that fly at high speeds can complete the journey between the two cities in less than three hours.

“I also flew across the expanse of northern Siberia. It was a highlight and a lowlight for me as it was eerily isolated and I could see nothing for miles,” she said.

“You definitely get lonely up there and think a lot. The whole experience has been a lot tougher than I ever imagined.

“Flying itself isn’t the hard part. Navigating the weather is. It’s so unpredictable, despite constantly reading radars and weather updates.

“If you’re stuck somewhere and the weather turns bad, you have to think on the spot.

“Sometimes the hardest thing to do is clock up the willpower to get back in the plane again.”

Stopping in Dubai for a few days before continuing her onward journey to Saudi Arabia, Ms Rutherford, who is sponsored by ICD Soft, a company providing web hosting services, will journey over or through countries including Egypt, Greece, Bulgaria, Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Germany before ending her flight in Belgium.

To break the world record, Ms Rutherford has to meet several special requirements, including carrying no passengers along the way.

“I also have to cross through two antipodal points, which are two countries diametrically opposed to one another," she said.

“For this, I chose Colombia and Indonesia."

The current record-holder, Shaesta Waez, was 30 when she completed her Dreams Soar around-the-world flight in a single-engine aircraft in 2017.

If Ms Rutherford succeeds in her circumnavigation, she will not only break the record but she will also reduce the gender gap by 11 years – the current youngest male record holder, Travis Ludlow, was 18 when he completed his solo flight in July last year.

Updated: January 04, 2022, 1:55 PM
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