An ultralight plane piloted by a young woman from Belgium will be taking off from Albuquerque (ABQ) in the United States on September 10, 2021, headed northwards. But it’s no ordinary flight. It’s one of many stops on 19-year-old Zara Rutherford’s record-breaking attempt to fly solo around the world.  

If she succeeds, she will hold the title of the youngest woman to achieve this feat in a single-engine aircraft, taking over from Shaesta Waiz, who circumnavigated the globe solo at age 30 in 2017. 

Rutherford, who also holds British nationality, will dramatically cut the gap to the youngest male holder, Travis Ludlow, who was 18 years and 150 days when he accomplished the same thing in July 2021. 

The first woman to fly solo around the world was Geraldine ‘Jerrie’ Mock, a housewife from Columbus, Ohio. Mock completed the 23,103-mile flight in 29 days 11 hours 59 minutes, landing at Port Columbus Airport on April 17, 1964.

Rutherford’s aim with her solo circumnavigation flight in the two-seater Shark aircraft is to reduce the gender gap in aviation, as well as in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) subjects.

With this flight I want to encourage girls and young women to pursue their dreams,” the aviatrix writes on her website, Flyzolo.com. 

The 19-year-old pilot cites her inspirations as Lillian Bland, Bessie Coleman, Valentina Tereshkova and Amelia Earhart. Not content with flying solo around the world, another one of Rutherford’s dreams is to become an astronaut. 

Becky Lutte, Associate Professor in the Aviation Institute at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, notes that women represent less than 20% of the aviation workforce in most occupations, including only 5% of airline pilots and 2.5% of maintenance technicians. 

“Outreach to young women is essential to closing the gender gap in aviation,” Lutte tells AeroTime.  
 

FLYING LOW

Rutherford, whose parents are both qualified pilots, commenced her journey on August 18, 2021, from her home airport of Kortrijk (KJK) in Belgium in the specifically modified Shark ultralight aircraft, which can fly at up to 300 kilometers per hour.

The route has seen the teenager cross the United Kingdom, travel to Iceland and make a solo 8.5 hour transatlantic crossing from Greenland to Canada. 

Rutherford recounts on her Instagram account, @fly.zolo, how she had to fly very low over the water from Iceland to Greenland.

“I’m really happy to be on the ground, to be honest,” she says in a video posted after her arrival in Kulusuk, Greenland (KUS). “The first little bit was fine, but then suddenly the clouds were getting lower and lower. At one point I was 600 feet above the ocean, which was pretty scary.” She lost radio contact 30 minutes into that trip and had two hours without communications. 

From Canada, she flew down the eastern side of the United States, meeting current record holder Waiz in New York. In the Caribbean, she met Virgin (VAH) founder and adventurer Richard Branson on Necker Island. Virgin (VAH) is one of the companies sponsoring Rutherford’s flight.

Branson wrote on his blog on September 3, 2021 that he was “blown away” by how brave and inspiring Zara is, highlighting the fact she is flying on her own in a tiny aircraft that can’t fly above bad weather. 

I can’t emphasize enough how heroic her journey is, and how important it is to encourage all young people to follow their dreams and see how exciting a career in STEM can be.”

Rutherford reached her first antipodal point, (draw a straight line through the center of the earth and where you come out the other side is the antipodal point), in Quibdo, Colombia (UIB) on September 3.  

Guinness World Record guidelines state that people circumnavigating the globe must pass through two approximate antipodal points. Rutherford had originally been aiming for Tumaco airport (TCO) in Colombia as her first one, but diverted due to bad weather, and will now have to adjust her second planned antipodal in Indonesia, which she is due to reach in mid-October. 

From Colombia, Rutherford and her aircraft are returning north, continuing via Alaska, to Russia, China, Indonesia, India, Middle East and back to Belgium, where she intends to arrive in early November. In total, her route will comprise around 52 countries on five continents.

AeroTime contacted Zara for this article and received possibly the greatest out-of-office reply in return.

“Thank you very much for your message. I am currently busy flying around the world on my world record attempt so am unable to respond immediately/to all messages.”