On August 18, 2021, 19-year-old, Zara Rutherford, embarked upon her journey of aiming to be the youngest woman to circumnavigate the globe on her own. This Belgian teenager is not only reminiscent of another ambitious female pilot, Amelia Earhart, American aviator who vanished in 1937 during her second attempt at her own voyage above the clouds, but she also seeks to inspire other young girls hoping to pursue careers in the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) fields.
“I hope social attitudes towards women in aviation change. It is unusual for women to be in the filed of aviation and engineering, and it may put girls off, even if it is their passion. I have received many messages on social media of girls saying that they are learning to fly themselves, and I have met four girls who have told me they want to beat my record, which is great,” Zara said.
Other women who have broken boundaries and dismantled the status quo include, more recently, Shaesta Waiz, the first female pilot of Afghan descent, who successfully took her trip around the seven continents back in 2017 when she was only 30. Similar to Zara, not only does she admire the idea of other girls seeking to take their places in history, but she also applauds Miss Rutherford for doing so at such an early age.
“I’m so proud of her for being so brave and young to do this. That’s the thing with records: They’re meant to be broken,” Shaesta said.
Zara’s target date to finish her journey was initially Nov. 3, giving her just a few months to venture over five different continents, visiting 41 nations, with just 17 planned stops and a total of 19 rest days throughout her journey.
However, due to various weather delays and COVID-19 restrictions, Rutherford landed back in Kortrijk, Belgium on Thursday, Jan. 20, completing her 32,000-mile journey in her two-seat ultralight aircraft, the Shar Aero.
Some of the obstacles that postponed her travel included trepidation when flying over the harsh, northern Russia terrain, since help in a sub-zero climate would prove to be nearly impossible as aide would be scarce and hours away.
Additionally, only 20 minutes into her flight from Iceland to Greenland, the Belgian teenager lost all radio communication.
“I was like, that’s kind of what I’m anxious about. That was quite funny and it surprisingly made me laugh as I had just taken off,” Zara said.
More recently, to add to her troubles, Zara experienced a flat tire prompting her two-week quarantine during Christmas in a Singapore hotel, as well as a delay in Mumbai due to high wind speeds, forcing her to ring in the New Year from the ground but did not discourage her finishing what she set out to do all of those months ago.
Given that Zara knows that she has to be prepared for any obstacles that she may encounter, prior to her adventure, the Belgian teen spent a total of 130 hours of solo flight training in various mock simulations.
“If for any reason the engine stops, I think I could survive. I could either land or use my parachute to aim for a ditch or water. I’ll be ok. The problem is if I’m in minus 35 degrees Celsius, once I’m on the ground and I’m three hours away from the closest human, I actually don’t know how to survive,” Zara said.
This 19-year-old earned her pilot’s license in 2020, made her younger self proud, as she began flying at the age of 14 and only dreamed of traveling the world.
This is not surprising, however, given that she has grown up enveloped in all aspects of aircraft, following in the footsteps of her parents, Sam and Beatrice Rutherford.
From the time she could walk, Zara would see her mother working as a recreational pilot, and her father transporting aircrafts, causing Zara to always feel comforted by the sights and sounds of plane engines.
“Every time I land, I text my parents one message with two words. ‘I’m alive.’ They have helped me become who I am, and I owe all of my success to them,” Zara said.
Even though this daring adventure seems unfathomable for such a young pilot to tackle on their own, Zara is not the only teenager making their mark in the headlines of aviation, as 18-year-old British male, Travis Ludlow, finished his circumnavigation in July of 2021.
Miss Rutherford even had the opportunity to meet a fellow Belgian teenage girl, 16-year-old, Captain Aysha Alhameli, who had nothing but words of encouragement for all women around the world who may find themselves questioning their own abilities to attain their dreams.
“Follow your heart, and do things with passion and conviction, and see the long-term effects of your journey. I think stories of Zara will not only inspire Emirati women but women all around the world to achieve things which are out of their comfort zone, even if they are airborne.”