Teenage aviator Zara Rutherford has become the youngest woman to fly around the world solo.
The 19-year-old, who has dual British-Belgian nationality, landed at Kortrijk-Wevelgem Airport in western Belgium on Thursday, completing an epic 41-country journey spanning over 52,000 kilometers (32,300 miles), and broke two Guinness World Records in the process, according to CNN.
Rutherford is currently on a gap year and plans to go to university in September to study computer engineering. Although both of her parents are pilots and she has been learning to fly since she was 14, Rutherford didn’t get her first license until 2020.
One of her main aims for this challenge, aside from breaking Waiz’s record, was to ensure greater visibility for women in aviation.
Last year, Rutherford spoke of her disappointment at the fact that just 5.1% of airline pilots around the globe are women, according to figures from the International Society of Women Airline Pilots (ISA).
“[5%] is such a small number, considering it’s a career where you basically get paid to travel around the world — obviously it’s work, but it’s an amazing career with amazing opportunities,” she told CNN.
“I made it,” Rutherford, who received a rapturous welcome on her arrival, told reporters.
Not only has she beaten the record held by American Shaesta Waiz, who was 30 when she circumnavigated the globe unaccompanied in 2017, Rutherford also now holds the title for the first woman to circumnavigate the world in a microlight aircraft.
She is also the first Belgian to fly around the world alone.
However, the teenager’s route to glory hasn’t been without its challenges.
When Rutherford departed on August 18, 2021 in a bespoke Shark ultralight aircraft, she believed her aerial escapade would take about three months.
But she was plagued by setbacks, including month-long delays in both Alaska and Russia due to “visa and weather issues,” pushing her schedule back eight weeks.
“I would say the hardest part was definitely flying over Siberia — it was extremely cold. It was minus 35 degrees Celsius on the ground,” Rutherford said during a press conference on Thursday.
“If the engine were to stall, I’d be hours away from rescue and I don’t know how long I could have survived for.”
She was also forced to make an unscheduled landing in Redding, California due to poor visibility as a result of the wildfires in the Seattle area and was later denied permission to fly over China.