This Teenager is Aiming to Be The Youngest Woman to Circle the Globe Solo

  • Travel

Zara Rutherford, 19, was about 20 minutes into a flight from Iceland to Greenland when her tiny plane lost radio contact with the outside world.

As she flew about 1,500 feet above the Denmark Strait, staying low to dodge clouds, she listened to a podcast in which a YouTube celebrity argued that the only certainty in life is death.

“I was like, well, that’s kind of what I’m anxious about,” Ms. Rutherford said. “That was quite funny and it made me laugh. If only she knew!”

Ms. Rutherford, who is Belgian and British, began her journey in Europe last week and entered United States airspace on Thursday morning. She plans to return to Belgium on Nov. 3 after soaring over 52 countries on five continents.

If she does, she would overtake Shaesta Waiz to become the youngest woman to circumnavigate the globe solo in a single-engine aircraft. (Travis Ludlow, an aviator from Britain, did so in July at the age of 18.)

Two months ago, Ms. Rutherford emailed Ms. Waiz, 34, who completed the journey in 2017, to ask if it was OK to challenge her record. The answer was an enthusiastic yes.

“I told her that I’m so proud of her for being so brave — and so young — to do this,” Ms. Waiz said. “That’s the thing with records: They’re meant to be broken.”

Ms. Rutherford said that she saw her own journey not only as a personal challenge, but also as a means of raising awareness about the gender gap in fields like aviation, science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

During the trip, she has been using social media to highlight the stories of notable women in aviation and other fields. Her list includes Bessie Coleman, the first African American woman in the United States to earn a pilot’s license, and Lilian Bland, a British aviation pioneer who is thought to be the first woman to design, build and fly her own plane.

After Ms. Rutherford arrived in Iceland last week, she met the country’s 30-year-old justice minister, Aslaug Arna Sigurbjornsdottir, in an airport hangar. “Such a great example for women, to see that we are capable of so much more than we sometimes think, believe or dream!” Ms. Rutherford wrote on Facebook.

As a child, Ms. Rutherford said, she did not have many female role models. People would tell her about Amelia Earhart, the American aviator who vanished in 1937 during a voyage around the world. “But as an 8- or 9-year-old,” Ms. Rutherford added, “it’s not someone you really know or look up to.”

She found other role models closer to home. Her mother, Beatrice De Smet, is a recreational pilot, and her father, Sam Rutherford, is a professional one who transports aircraft around the world for clients. She has been accompanying him for years, sometimes flying part of the way herself.

Her longest journey until now was from Texas to Jordan. “Well, it was meant to be from Texas to India, but I had to go back to school,” she said with a laugh in a telephone interview from Greenland.

This time crossing the Atlantic is only the start. She landed in New York City on Thursday afternoon. After she takes off again on Sunday, she will hug the east coast of the United States before dipping down to Colombia via the British Virgin Islands. Then she will head across Mexico, up the west coast of California and north to Alaska, after a detour to Montana.

After crossing into Russia over the Bering Strait, she will fly over China, Southeast Asia, the Indian subcontinent and the Middle East, including Saudi Arabia, before looping back to Europe. She said the only country that she intentionally avoided was North Korea.

The route is almost comically squiggly, in part, she said, because her two-seater plane is unable to fly long distances over oceans, but also because she likes the idea of a grand adventure.

“I could have shortened it, but I feel like that would have been quite boring,” she said.

Sponsors and airports are picking up the cost of the trip, and a company in Slovakia, Shark Aero, is providing her with the aircraft. She also has a support staff to arrange landing rights and other logistics, and her father has been advising her from the ground on technical specifics.

After her radio cut out during the journey to Greenland, for example, he asked in a text message if she was able to climb through holes in the clouds to an altitude where the visibility would be better.

Michael Fabry, a ferry pilot who lives in Belgium and happened to fly about 10,500 feet above Ms. Rutherford during part of her Iceland-to-Greenland leg, said that she would benefit enormously from having a support crew to help with logistics, particularly in Asia and the Middle East.

But she will inevitably encounter stiff winds, he added, as well as clouds that she cannot fly through because her plane is not certified to fly on instruments alone.

“That means she has to fly very low, and very low is not a safe condition to be in if you’re over water,” Mr. Fabry, a former commercial pilot, said by telephone.

“She does have a bit of experience, but what she’s doing is really, really, really brave, I have to say,” he added. “I am a little bit worried. I’m sure the rest of the world is also worried.”

Ms. Rutherford said that she was under pressure to reach Russia by late September to avoid the onset of bad weather, and that safety was her priority. Before she left, she practiced escaping from a plane in an underwater simulator.

She finds flying over water stressful, she said, and listens to podcasts to calm her nerves. When she made a windy landing in Greenland last week after going without radio contact for most of the three-hour flight from Iceland, she sent her parents a two-word text message: “I’m alive.”

“It was a really long flight. I’m really happy to be on the ground, to be honest,” she said in an Instagram video, adding that at one point the low cloud cover had forced her to fly at just 600 feet above the ocean.

She was delayed for two days in Greenland — where she hung out with some NASA scientists — because of bad weather. But on Monday she completed her trans-Atlantic crossing by landing in Goose Bay, Canada. Fire trucks on the tarmac welcomed her with a water cannon salute.

On Thursday, Ms. Rutherford took off in Montreal and landed at New York’s Kennedy International Airport, a rare destination for a plane that is only about 22 feet long. (That was her dad’s idea; he thought it would be cool.)

“It’s definitely going to be the biggest airfield I will ever land at in my life,” she said ahead of the flight. “So I’m pretty excited.”