KORTRIJK – Home! And no longer alone.
The 19-year-old Belgian-British pilot Zara Rutherford set a world record as the youngest woman to fly solo around the world, touching her small airplane down in western Belgium on Thursday — 155 days after she departed.
She made it count for herself, her family and dedicated it to all young women trying to succeed in male-dominated sectors like aviation, and the exact sciences that drive the industry.
“Go for it. It takes a lot of time, patience, a lot of work, but it is incredible,” she said after an adventure that gave her as many thrills as scares — from the frozen tundra in Siberia to typhoons in the Philippines and the stark beauty of the Arabian desert.
One time, her one-seater Shark microlight plane filled up with the stench of California wildfires. Often she was flying in absolute solitude over seas or desolate land, any potential rescue hours away. She had to spend weeks isolated in the tiny Siberian village of Ayan with barely any contact with her family or the world she knows.
So little felt as sweet as Thursday's embrace with her pilot parents and brother.
“We will celebrate this by being as a family together, at first,” her mother Beatrice said. “I think Zara wants to celebrate by sleeping about two weeks.”
When she wakes up, she will find herself in the Guinness World Records book after setting the mark that had been held by 30-year-old American aviator Shaesta Waiz since 2017.
The overall record will remain out of Rutherford’s grasp, since Briton Travis Ludlow set that benchmark last year as an 18-year-old.
Her global flight was supposed to take three months, but relentless bad weather and visa issues kept her grounded sometimes for weeks on end, extending her adventure by about two months.
On Thursday, rain, drizzle, sunshine and even a rainbow over Kortrijk airport exemplified the changing, often bad weather she had been facing all too often.
After she was escorted by a four-plane formation in a huge V across much of Belgium, she did a flyby of the airport before finally landing. After waving to the jubilant crowds, she draped herself both in the Union Jack and Belgian tricolor flag.
In her trek of more than 52,000 kilometers (28,000 nautical miles), she stopped over in five continents and visited 41 nations.
Rutherford’s flight saw her steer clear of wildfires in California, deal with biting cold over Russia and narrowly avoid North Korean airspace. She flew by Visual Flight Rules, basically going on sight only, often slowing down progress when more sophisticated systems could have led her through clouds and fog.
Sometimes she feared for her life, and at other times she simply yearned for the simple comforts of home. Flying runs in her blood since both her parents are pilots and she has been traveling in small planes since she was 6. At 14, she started flying herself.
Pretty soon, the dream of flying round the world grew in her head.
“But I never thought it would be possible. I thought that it is too difficult, too dangerous, too expensive,” she said.
For the money part, sponsorship and people's contributions took care of it. For the danger and difficulty factor, she did it herself.
Timing-wise it fit in perfectly between high school and university.
“I thought, actually, this is the perfect opportunity to do something crazy and fly around the world," she said.
With the final touchdown, the teenager wants to infuse young women and girls worldwide with the spirit of aviation — and an enthusiasm for studies in the exact sciences, mathematics, engineering and technology.
In September she hopes to be off to a university in Britain or the United States to study electrical engineering.