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What led 19-year-old Zara Rutherford to fly across the world solo

Belgian-British teen aviator, who became the youngest female pilot to fly solo across the world, talks about how flying is a mental challenge rather than a physical one



Zara Rutherford flying solo across the world. Photo by Alber Marin.
Zara Rutherford flying solo across the world. Photo by Alber Marin.
by

Somya Mehta

Published: Fri 18 Feb 2022, 1:30 PM

Last updated: Mon 21 Feb 2022, 6:14 PM

Flying runs in her family, with both her parents being pilots and her younger brother being an avid flyer. Zara Rutherford’s dream to fly solo across the world, though, stems from an unquenchable thirst for adventure — and “to do something crazy”. The 19-year-old aviator thought becoming the youngest female to fly solo across the world would be the craziest thing she could do.

L to R: Sam Rutherford (father), Beatrice de Smet (Mother), Zara and Mack Rutherford (brother). Kortrijk-Wevelgem airport, Belgium on January 20, 2022.
L to R: Sam Rutherford (father), Beatrice de Smet (Mother), Zara and Mack Rutherford (brother). Kortrijk-Wevelgem airport, Belgium on January 20, 2022.

Ending her 41-country travel journey landing at Kortrijk-Wevelgem Airport in Belgium, the teen pilot not only accomplished her crazy dream but also broke another Guinness World Record in the process, being the first woman to circumnavigate the world in a microlight aircraft. While her journey has been filled with several accolades and triumphs, making Rutherford reach great new heights, the young pilot also faced tribulations — on the emotional front — which demand immense resilience at a young age.

In a conversation with Khaleej Times, the world record holder talks about her solo expedition and how flying is a mental challenge, more than a physical one.

Zara Rutherford becomes youngest woman to fly solo around the world at Kortrijk-Wevelgem airport, Belgium. Video by Didier Debrux, Flyzolo.

How and when did your interest in flying take root?

I grew up on airplanes. Both my parents are pilots, so I’ve always loved everything about aviation. I wanted to learn how to fly a plane myself and I started training for that when I was 15. Even before that, I’ve always been quite an adventurer, looking to do something crazy. And flying around the world was one of the craziest things I could do. I never thought it was actually possible. It’s one of those dreams that we think ‘maybe, one day’, but it would never really materialise.

Rutherford with her accolades.
Rutherford with her accolades.

When I was finishing high school, I realised that with this attitude, it definitely wouldn’t happen. That’s when I started preparing for it, getting sponsorship, planning my routes, and finally flying around the world! There was a moment where I said to myself if I want this to happen, I need to apply myself one hundred per cent.

Were your parents supportive?

Rutherford with her parents.
Rutherford with her parents.

My mother was a bit nervous in the beginning but my father was very supportive. Once I explained the routes and the workings of the aircraft to my mother, she was very supportive as well.

At age 19, you’ve become the youngest female pilot to fly solo around the world. The previous woman who held the record was the American pilot Shaesta Waiz, who accomplished it at the age of 30. How did you find the courage at such a young age?

American aviator Shaesta Waiz
American aviator Shaesta Waiz

I think a lot of people could fly around the world in the same way that a lot of people could climb a mountain. You just have to really apply yourself. Flying is a huge mental challenge because you’re putting yourself at risk. Especially when you’re flying over the ocean for hours at a time, in a single engine aircraft. If the engine stops, you have a really big problem. So, in that sense I do consider myself brave. Even when the situations were challenging, I had to keep going. When you have a very scary flight and you’re way out of your comfort zone to when you finally land, you have to forget about what happened and keep going. You can’t let scary experiences affect you because that could impact your flying as well.

Were there any defining experiences in your life that shaped your relationship with fear?

View from Rutherford's aircraft.

I like adventure and I’m always looking out for a new challenge. I used to fly a lot with my father. He flies small planes across the Atlantic all the time for clients, and I’ve gone with him on those. So, you get a sense of how dangerous they can be. There’s no safety net. If the engine quits, there’s nobody there to help you. It’ll take a few hours for rescue to arrive. And now, doing this by myself, I had to realise that the safety net — of my father — is also gone, which was a little scary. But at the same time, I embraced it and I was ready for it. You just have to take that leap of faith and take off.

Rutherford and mascot Miffy which travelled 12,000km on Russian visa chase. Photo by Scott McMurren, FlyZolo.
Rutherford and mascot Miffy which travelled 12,000km on Russian visa chase. Photo by Scott McMurren, FlyZolo.

There are going to be factors outside of your control that determine whether you make it to the destination or not. In a strange way, that helps. Before every flight, you can only be hundred per cent sure of the fact that you’ve made all the safest decisions, checking if the plane is good and the conditions are right. In reality, the weather will probably not be as it was forecasted and everything else, including all the dangers, is usually outside of anyone’s control. But knowing that you made all the best decisions you could have is what’s most important.

What were some of the scariest moments you encountered in your journey?

Rutherford in Shark plane lands in Saudi Arabia.  January, 2022.
Rutherford in Shark plane lands in Saudi Arabia. January, 2022.

I’ve undergone extreme turbulence. My plane has this warning system, so when it would get extremely bumpy, there are warnings that go off on the aircraft. It’s really loud. I heard that quite a lot in Alaska, which was quite intimidating at the time because nobody lives there. I would go for hundreds of kilometres without seeing anything at all. It was the same in Siberia, where I could go for miles and miles without seeing a road, a house, a tree, anything at all. In times of turbulence, you are aware of the fact that if anything happens, if the engine quits, you are just in the middle of absolutely nowhere, in extremely cold temperatures and hours away from rescue.

How do you emotionally navigate a time like that?

I’m usually really focused on the flying. I make all the decisions to see if I can get to my destination safely or get to another airfield. Most places I was flying over were so remote, there was no radio communication, I used to be out of range most of the times, but I did have satellite communications that allowed me to text people back home, in Belgium.

Rutherford on her Shark plane.
Rutherford on her Shark plane.

There were moments when I did get nervous. When I was flying across Russia, it was either the airfield I departed from or the airfield that I’d land at, which were my only options. Nobody lives in between those two airfields, there was nothing in between. And it was a six-hour-long flight. So, when I took off, I was really hoping that the weather would stay good because after three or four hours, I wouldn’t have enough sunlight to get back to the airport I left from and the fuel could also become a problem. There comes a point of no return, when you have to commit to it and just take that leap of faith. You have to make it to the destination airfield no matter what happens because you don’t have enough time or fuel to get back.

Infographic mapping out Rutherford's journey.
Infographic mapping out Rutherford's journey.

You seem to have spent a lot of time by yourself during this journey. Do you enjoy your own company?

I just spend my time listening to music and podcasts and keeping busy. But I did get stuck in many places where I would have a lot of time to myself. In Alaska, I’d go out for walks and I also applied to universities. I made the most of my time. Otherwise, I spent a lot of time at the airports and binge watching Netflix, it’s great. Also, meeting the locals and getting a feel of what the culture is about is always exciting. I also got stuck in Russia, where it was a lot colder and was tough for me to go for walks. Nobody really spoke English and there was no Wi-Fi. So, I spent a lot of time with myself, doing things very slowly, cooking very slowly. I watched the Russian television a lot even though I don’t speak Russian. That was a challenge.

Rutherford landing at Costa Rica. October 2021.
Rutherford landing at Costa Rica. October 2021.

Our lives have now become so fastpaced that we’ve become so used to multitasking. I’m assuming it’s the same even in a place like Dubai. Whilst you’re cooking, you’re watching TV or whilst you’re cooking, you’re working or doing homework. But when I was in Russia and I had nothing else to do, the thought of multitasking seemed so silly. I thought to myself, ‘I might as well spend 30 minutes fully focusing on cooking these eggs’ or ‘I’ll fully focus on doing my laundry’. So, I was doing everything really slowly to try and fill my time.

It seems almost like a meditation practice, being present in the moment…

I definitely made me used to living in the present. I don’t think I’ve ever lived completely in the present moment. Even when I was flying, I was planning for the same day and the next day. I had no idea where I’d be in three days. I did not know where I’d be a week later because if I did a good job in Alaska, I could be in South Korea, or I could be in Russia. Or I could still be in Alaska. So, I was always living in the present because I had no idea what’s going to happen in a week. A week was too far away, I didn’t even know about the next moment.

Do you enjoy the unpredictability of your life?

Rutherford in flight simulator Virgin Galactic, Spaceport America in New Mexico, USA.
Rutherford in flight simulator Virgin Galactic, Spaceport America in New Mexico, USA.

It depends. It’s fun in the sense that I’m living this amazing adventure. But at the same time because it’s so unpredictable, it was really tough. When I got to Alaska, I was looking forward to slowly getting back home. But I got stuck so many times that the dates of me reaching home became really blurry. It was supposed to be mid-October, then it shifted to the beginning of November, then December. It got to a point where I had no idea when I’d get home, which became a little frustrating because you have to keep yourself motivated.

What’s the first thought that comes into your mind when you land safely?

Rutherford's arrival at Gimpo Airport, South Korea on solo flight around world.
Rutherford's arrival at Gimpo Airport, South Korea on solo flight around world.

It’s usually saying hello to the people, the press. But before that, as soon as I land, I feel really grateful. There’s always a quick thank you to the source, whatever it might be, for offering me that safety. And if it was a scary flight, I think about what I could’ve improved. And then I have to pretend like it didn’t happen and move on because there’s another scary flight the next day. I can’t dwell on what went wrong because I need to focus on the next flight.

The pandemic has restricted many of us from being able to travel freely. What was your take away from the experience of travelling, visiting so many different countries?

Rutherford with local children after landing at Narsarsuaq, Greenland. August 2021.
Rutherford with local children after landing at Narsarsuaq, Greenland. August 2021.

I had to take PCR tests all the time and even though I’m fully vaccinated, I was usually isolating myself to make sure that I and other people around me are staying as safe as possible. But I think traveling is so important. It just opens you up to a whole new world of people, cultures, countries. The biggest thing I realised was how similar we all are. Everywhere I went, people were so generous and kind. Everybody has the same jokes. Funnily enough, pop culture like the new Spider-Man movie, is so universal. You can always find a connect around that.

You were also in Dubai for a quick stop…

Rutherford visits Women's Pavilion at Expo 2020 Dubai
Rutherford visits Women's Pavilion at Expo 2020 Dubai

It was an eight-hour flight from Mumbai to Dubai. So, I was really tired and actually had to divert to Al Ain because of a thunderstorm over the city. Then I went to Expo 2020, which is where I was staying. I absolutely loved it. The diversity of cultures in one place. I went to the Slovakian Pavilion, Mobility Pavilion and Women’s Pavilion. I wanted to see more but I didn’t have much time.

Rutherford's Shark plane.
Rutherford's Shark plane.

You mentioned you’re trying to create more awareness around women in aviation. How do you aim to do that?

Growing up, I never saw many female pilots, which can be quite discouraging. So, I’m hoping to change that and be a friendly face. I want to keep talking to people about my experiences and motivate girls to go into aviation and ignore the social norms. Only five per cent of commercial pilots are women, which makes it harder for girls to get into the field as you stand out.

What’s next for you?

I’m hoping to go to university in September and study electrical engineering or computer science. I’m also getting my commercial license, so I’ll keep flying with my father, on single engine aircrafts, to deliver them to clients.

somya@khaleejtimes.com


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