Belgian-Briton Zara Rutherford is youngest woman to fly solo around world

Nineteen-year-old completes 52,000km journey that took in 31 countries and five continents

A Belgian-British teenager has flown into the record books by becoming the youngest woman to fly solo around the world.

Zara Rutherford, 19, touched down at Kortrijk-Wevelgem airport in Flanders just after 1pm local time on Thursday, completing a 52,000km (28,100 nautical mile) journey that took in 31 countries across five continents.

“It’s just really crazy. I haven’t quite processed it,” Rutherford, draped in British and Belgian flags, told reporters.

She said there had been “amazing moments”, but also times when she had feared for her life. “I’d say the hardest part was flying over Siberia, because it was just extremely cold. It was minus 35 degrees on the ground … If the engine were then to stop, I’m hours away from rescue and I don’t know how long I could survive.”

Making a smooth landing on the runway, she became the first woman to fly alone around the world in a microlight plane and the first Belgian to circumnavigate the globe solo by air. Rutherford’s parents are pilots and started taking her up in small planes when she was a toddler. By the age of 14 she was learning to fly and dreaming of a round-the-world trip.

“The dream was really to fly around the world. But I always thought it was impossible: it’s expensive, dangerous, complicated, a logistical nightmare,” she said in a TV interview earlier this month. “So I never really thought about it twice. And then I was finishing school and I thought: if I am going to do something crazy with my life this is the perfect time to do it.”

On 18 August last year she took off in her two-seater Shark Aero, one of the fastest lightweight aircraft in the world, which can reach speeds of up to 300km/h. Flying west, she stopped in the UK, Greenland, the Americas and Russia, then looped down to south-east Asia, north to India, the Middle East and Egypt, and back to Europe.

Unable to fly at night or in clouds, Rutherford could only fly during clear daylight. She encountered all weathers, including conditions she had never been trained to deal with in temperate Belgium. There were freezing temperatures in Greenland, Alaska and Russia, desert haze in Saudi Arabia, thunderstorms at the equator, wildfires over California and smog over India that reduced visibility.

Russia was her toughest challenge but also one of the highlights. “One of the most impressive moments was flying over Siberia, because it is just so remote and I don’t know if I’ll ever get to see it again,” she said. Saudi Arabia also stood out as “really beautiful, very diverse and the weather was great”.

A snowstorm grounded her in the north-eastern Russian city of Magadan for a week. Extreme weather also forced a three-week stay in Ayan, a small town of 800 people in the country’s far east, with few English speakers and no wifi. Locals were “very kind and willing to help”, she said.

Rutherford also had to navigate fast-changing Covid restrictions and bureaucracy. She cancelled a stop in China after a government change of rules meant she would have had to quarantine.

This became one of the scariest moments of the trip, when she had to navigate one of the busiest aviation routes in the world to reach South Korea while avoiding Chinese and North Korean airspace.

Her journey from Mumbai to Dubai was a gruelling eight-hour flight mostly over water, ending with a diversion to another airport 60 miles south of the Emirati city because of a rare storm.

Then there were routine chores. Christmas Day in Singapore was spent dealing with a flat tyre. When she was stuck in Alaska waiting for her Russian visa, she worked on plane maintenance and applying to universities.

Now back in Belgium, she plans to study electrical engineering and hopes to become an astronaut. The teenager, who cites her inspirations as the American aviation pioneer Amelia Earhart and the Russian cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova, said she hoped her journey would encourage more girls to take up science and engineering.

“Growing up I didn’t really see many female pilots or female computer scientists,” she has said. “Those are two of my passions and it’s quite discouraging when there is no one that you can relate to that does any of those things.”

She said she hoped “other girls see me and think: ‘I’d love to fly one day, too.’”