(LONDON) — From flying over an active volcano to surviving in minus 31 degrees Fahrenheit, British-Belgium teen Zara Rutherford has experienced a lot in her five-month journey flying over 40 countries and five continents.
When the 19-year-old landed in Belgium on Thursday, she made history by breaking the record of the youngest woman to ever fly solo around the world. The pilot who previously held the record, Shaesta Waiz, was 30 years old when she completed the journey.
“It’s been … challenging, but so amazing at the same time,” Rutherford told ABC News. “I think there’re some experiences that I’ll just never forget and others that I would wish to forget.”
Rutherford embarked on her epic journey with her Shark Aero, a high-performance, two-seat ultralight aircraft manufactured in Europe. The small plane is especially made to withstand long journeys at the cruising speed of 186.4 mph.
Since both of her parents are certified pilots, Rutherford learned her way behind the airplane controls when she was very young.
“Zara’s first flight in a very small airplane, was when she was three or four months old. … And frequently, she’d be given the opportunity to sit in the front, to start with, of course, on about six cushions to be able to manipulate the controls and move the aircraft around,” Sam Rutherford, Zara’s father and a former army helicopter pilot, told ABC News.
But it was not until about five years ago that Rutherford truly realized her passion for flying.
“It only really crystallized into something she actually wanted to do more formally when she was 14, and at 14, she started actually taking flying lessons,” Rutherford’s father said.
Then teen ran into maintenance problems, COVID-19 complications and visa issues along her journey. She said once she reached Russia, she fully realized the risks of her mission.
“There was no humans. It’s too cold. It’s like nothing. There’s no roads, there’s no power like electricity cables. There’s nothing, there’s no animals, there’s no trees. I didn’t see a tree for over a month,” Rutherford said.
“When you’re flying alone and suddenly this challenge comes up, I can’t say, ‘I’m done. I’m out. I give up.’ You have to still land the plane. You have to make sure that you get down on the ground safely,” she said.
Still, she was often amazed by the things she saw along the way.
“That is still like the hands down the most amazing thing flying straight over Central Park … because of air space [regulations] you have to fly quite low. And it’s quite strange when… some of the buildings still are higher than you like. Wow, this is incredible,” the young solo pilot said.
Someone to look up to
Before starting her journey, Rutherford messaged Waiz — the American-Afghan pilot who previously held the flying record — on LinkedIn and asked if she would mind if she attempted to break her record.
“‘Of course, that’s OK. Records are meant to be broken,’ I told her,” Waiz, who finished her journey in 2017, told ABC News.
“‘Not only are you going to fly around the world, but I’m going to do everything I can to help you, because it is an incredible experience and I want [you] to have that,'” she said to Rutherford.
Waiz got on her first plane as an infant, when her family left Afghanistan as refugees during the Soviet–Afghan War and settled in California. She didn’t fly again until she was 17.
“I was terrified. But as soon as that plane lifted off, something ignited in me and I just thought to myself, ‘This is what I want to do for the rest of my life,'” she recalled.
Flying solo around the world, for Rutherford and Waiz, was not just about crossing geographical borders and breaking records, but also about getting to see life from a different perspective.
To Waiz, the unique thing about aviation is the way it takes away all discriminations and differences among people.
“When you’re in the airplane and you’re flying, it’s such an unbiased environment that that aircraft doesn’t care where you come from or what you look like,” she said.
Rutherford said flying has taught her that life is “fragile,” and there is “so much more to life than just getting a good career and making and having a good salary.”
She hopes her history-making journey inspires other girls and women to chase their dreams.
“Her aim is actually not to fly around the world. Her aim is to encourage young women and girls to consider and hopefully take up careers in aviation, science, technology, engineering and mathematics,” Rutherford’s father said. “There’s very little point to her flying around the world if nobody gets to hear about it. We all have our own worlds to fly around.”
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