Aviator and Stanford frosh Zara Rutherford’s solo flight world wide in 2021 made historical past, however not earlier than some very shut calls within the air.
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“There have been just a few scary moments. I acquired fairly shut to a couple lightning strikes,” she mentioned. “Fortunately, I by no means had a second after I thought, ‘I’m going to die right this moment.’”
Rutherford credit her years of flight expertise for getting her by way of these harrowing moments. She was born and raised in Belgium the place she typically flew together with her mother and father, each of whom are pilots. At 15, she started withdrawing classes and two years later flew a airplane by herself for the primary time. After finishing highschool in the UK, Rutherford determined to take a niche 12 months.
“I’d all the time wished to mix flying with my love for journey,” she mentioned. “And I assumed that if I have been going to have a 12 months to do no matter I need, why not strive flying world wide?”
At 19, Rutherford’s profitable flight would make her the youngest girl aviator ever to perform the feat. She’d additionally considerably cut back the age hole between the feminine document holder at the moment, who was 30, and the male document holder, who was 18 – a reality she hoped would encourage different younger feminine pilots.
“I struggled with a scarcity of feminine position fashions in aviation, so right here was my likelihood to be a pleasant face for different women interested by flying,” she mentioned.
Getting ready for takeoff
Previous to her journey, Rutherford secured sponsors, a high-performance two-seat tandem ultralight Shark Aero airplane, and created an in depth flight plan. She adopted Guinness World Document’s definition of world circumnavigation, which is to cross two antipodal, or reverse, factors on the globe; she chosen Quidbo, Colombia, and Jakarta, Indonesia. On Aug. 18, 2021, she boarded her airplane at Kortrijk-Wevelgem Worldwide Airport in Belgium, and waved goodbye to a crowd of supporters and media.
Headed west, her first cease was in the UK to say good day to pals at the highschool she’d attended, earlier than ending the day in Scotland. Crossing the Atlantic Ocean was harmful as a result of harsh northern climate circumstances and lengthy flights over water. Any critical engine malfunctions would have pressured her to ditch her airplane for the blistering chilly water.
“With out an emergency flight swimsuit, hypothermia would kick in inside 30 seconds,” she mentioned. “However with the swimsuit, you’ve acquired 5 minutes to placed on a life jacket, get right into a life raft, and name for assist. However then, after all, you’ve acquired the issue of being caught in the course of the Atlantic Ocean!”
After 4 days crossing the Atlantic – with stops in Iceland (the place she flew previous an lively volcano) and Greenland – Rutherford landed safely in Newfoundland, Canada, on Aug. 23. She made her means down the East Coast of the USA, with an exhilarating go to to New York Metropolis. Whereas making ready to land at John F. Kennedy Worldwide Airport, she flew by way of Manhattan at an altitude decrease than most of the metropolis’s skyscrapers.
“I used to be in a position to fly immediately over Central Park,” she mentioned. “[The air traffic controller] informed me I needed to keep at or under 1,000 ft as a result of above me have been the large planes making ready to land at JFK!”
Smoke and wildfires
After stops in New Jersey, the Carolinas, Florida, the Bahamas, and the Turks and Caicos Islands, she landed within the British Virgin Islands the place she met considered one of her sponsors, entrepreneur Richard Branson. On Sept. 3 she made it to Quidbo, Colombia, then continued north by way of Central America, Mexico, and up the West Coast of the USA, together with stops in Los Angeles, Palo Alto, and a short go to to Stanford. Whereas flying by way of Northern California, she skilled turbulent circumstances as a result of raging wildfires and heavy smoke.
“At one level, I couldn’t see a factor, and I may scent the smoke contained in the cockpit,” she recalled. “I attempted to outclimb the smoke, however my airplane couldn’t fly above 11,000 ft. And with no supplemental oxygen, flying was dangerous.”
She made an emergency touchdown in Redding, California, and when circumstances improved, she flew to Seattle.
All through her journey, Rutherford flew a mean of 5 hours a day and would typically take heed to music or podcasts. Again house, her household and pals helped with the logistics of her travels, like coordinating touchdown permits at airports and arranging for her to remain at motels or with native households in every metropolis she visited. She additionally befriended locals who typically assisted her with rides or airplane upkeep.
“I couldn’t have completed the journey with out the generosity of strangers,” she mentioned.
Stranded in Alaska
On Sept. 22, Rutherford landed in Alaska with plans to cross the Bering Strait into Russia. However her expired Russian visa and poor climate circumstances pressured her to spend a month with a neighborhood household within the metropolis of Nome. It was throughout this time that she utilized to Stanford.
When the climate improved and her visa was renewed, Rutherford flew to Anadyr, Russia, on Nov. 1. The subsequent day she embarked for Magadan, Russia, which took her over dense, desolate Russian wilderness in frigid chilly temperatures. After a three-week diversion within the small, rural city of Ayan, she started navigating the difficult air areas of East Asia.
“I needed to go round North Korea as a result of they’re so unpredictable. China wouldn’t let me over their nation because of the COVID-19 pandemic and the likelihood that I’d should [land],” she mentioned. “And Japan would solely let me fly by way of a slender a part of their airspace.”
She finally made it to Seoul, South Korea, adopted by stops in Taiwan, the Philippines, Indonesia, Singapore, the place she spent Christmas Day fixing a flat tire, and Malaysia, the place she skilled a large hurricane.
On Jan. 1, 2022, she launched into her longest flight of eight hours from Mumbai to Dubai, the place she had a talking engagement on the 2020 World Expo, which had been delayed because of the COVID-19 pandemic. She then flew to Egypt and Greece, then north by way of japanese Europe, Germany, and landed house in Belgium on Jan. 20, 2022.
Over 5 months, Rutherford flew 32,300 miles and stopped in dozens of cities, 52 international locations, and 5 continents. She at present holds the Guinness World Document for youngest girl to fly solo world wide and first girl to circumnavigate the world in a microlight plane.
Touchdown at Stanford
Whereas within the Philippines, Rutherford obtained her acceptance letter to Stanford. Since enrolling in September, she’s loved her lessons, significantly America at a Crossroads and the Introductory Seminar Issues about Stuff. She hasn’t declared a serious but, however is interested by pc science, engineering, and aeronautics and astronautics.
Rutherford mentioned that within the close to time period, she plans to maintain flying recreationally and develop into a flight teacher. Though she doesn’t know what profession path she’ll finally take, she’s assured that she’s landed on the proper faculty.
“I’m hopeful Stanford will assist me notice what I wish to do,” she mentioned. “A giant dream is to work within the house trade. I believe that might be actually cool.”