Ben Hohenstatt / Juneau Empire
Zara Rutherford signs a phone case for a member of a small crowd that gathered Saturday to greet the young pilot who is attempting to fly around the world.

Ben Hohenstatt / Juneau Empire Zara Rutherford signs a phone case for a member of a small crowd that gathered Saturday to greet the young pilot who is attempting to fly around the world.

Plane determination: Teen contends with weather, forest fires while flying around the world

Young pilot passes through Juneau on global journey.

At 19, many people dream of seeing the world and traveling far from home.

Not many of them fly themselves there while they do it, though.

Zara Rutherford, hailing originally from Belgium, is aiming to break the Guinness world record for the youngest woman to fly around the planet solo with this trip, she said in an interview last Thursday as she flies through Alaska.

“For an around the world record, I had to cross two antipodal points,” Rutherford said. “My two antipodal points are in South America and Indonesia.”

Antipodal points are two points on the globe that are diametrically opposed, or on the absolute opposite side of the planet. That requirement ensures aspirants to the record will complete a full circumnavigation.

Rutherford’s stay in the Southeast has been extended somewhat by a need for routine aircraft inspections and the inclement weather preventing her from taking off. As of Monday, she was still in Juneau, where she’d been since Saturday, as she prepared to take the next leap to Anchorage, before flying through Nome and across the Bering Strait to Russia. Rutherford’s route is available on the trip website at Flyzolo.com.

Oceans to cross, continents to span

Beginning in Belgium, Rutherford crossed the Atlantic via Iceland and Greenland before entering Canada, making her way down the Eastern Seaboard, through the Caribbean and South America, before working her way up through Central America and up the West Coast. The Greenland leg was particularly challenging, but one of her favorite destinations so far, Rutherford said.

“The flying was challenging. It was a long over-water flight with no radio contact,” Rutherford said. “The people are amazing. It’s beautiful. It’s stunning. The terrain is so extreme on the east coast.”

The trip might involve less transoceanic flight in North America but that hasn’t stopped other difficulties from cropping up, Rutherford said, from wildfires and heat to the notorious autumn weather of Southeast Alaska.

“I got to the U.S. and it’s been one thing after another,” Rutherford said on Thursday. “It was really pretty coming in [to Ketchikan] yesterday. I was quite lucky, the weather today is quite bad.”

And while the U.S. might have bad weather, Rutherford said, it at least has a good number of airfields to abort to for contingencies. Her options for airfields during the next leg after Alaska, through eastern Russia, are few and far between.

“I think Russia will be a challenge. There aren’t really people there. And it’s pretty cold,” Rutherford said. “I’m trying to get through Russia before winter kicks in.”

After Russia, Rutherford said she’s excited to hit Japan before working her way through the Indo-Pacific, India, the Middle East, and North Africa before finally returning to Europe in early November, according to her scheduled route. Coronavirus regulations have caused her to have to shift her route somewhat, Rutherford said, dodging around the People’s Republic of China entirely.

Getting it right

“It’s been harder than I thought it would be. I’ve had 39 flights and maybe 3 of them have gone with no hiccups. Either the plane’s acting up a bit, or the weather’s really tricky, or it’s gotten bumpy out of nowhere,” Rutherford said. “When I get in the plane, chances are something is going to go wrong.”

Rutherford is flying a Shark UL, an ultralight aircraft built very compactly for extended cruising, with a 300 kmh cruising speed (about 180 mph) and a 1,600 km (about 1,000 miles) range, according to Rutherford’s trip website.

“It’s been a great machine,” Rutherford said. “It’s pretty quick and I’m very happy.”

When she’s up in the air, Rutherford said there’s a couple things she does to stay engaged.

“Yesterday was a five hour flight, maybe a little less. When I’ve got radio contact, I listen to the other pilots,” Rutherford said.” I listen to music, check the engine, look around. I was listening to Kanye West’s new album, trying to decide if I like it or not.”

Coming from a family of aviators, Rutherford said she decided to attempt the circumnavigation on her gap year after high school. She got sponsors and partners to help fund the flight, as she works to raise awareness about women and the possibilities in flying and science technology engineering and mathematics careers.

“I knew coming up I’d be finishing high school. I was quite lucky — both my parents are pilots, and I grew up flying their plane. I thought how amazing would it be to see the world from a plane,” Rutherford said. “It took me a really long time to get sponsors to pay for this.”

While she says the trip has been exciting and well worth it, Rutherford said there’s a few things she looks forward to back home.

“Honestly, just like, sleep,” Rutherford said. “It’s been really fun. There’s been some hard moments but they make it so rewarding.”

Contact reporter Michael S. Lockett at 757-621-1197 or mlockett@juneauempire.com.

Ben Hohenstatt / Juneau Empire
Adelynn, Heather and Aubrie Engen talk with Zara Rutherford at Ward Air on Saturday. Rutherford, who is pursuing a Guinness world record for youngest woman to fly solo around the world, took time to talk to people, take photos and sign autographs after landing in Juneau.

Ben Hohenstatt / Juneau Empire Adelynn, Heather and Aubrie Engen talk with Zara Rutherford at Ward Air on Saturday. Rutherford, who is pursuing a Guinness world record for youngest woman to fly solo around the world, took time to talk to people, take photos and sign autographs after landing in Juneau.

Amelia Conrad, 4, presents Zara Rutherford with a stuffed moose donning aviator goggles while Mclain Patterson, 7, holds a sign reading “Fly Zara Fly!” at Ward Air. Rutherford is flying her way around the world in pursuit of the Guinness world record for youngest woman solo pilot to circumnavigate the world. (Ben Hohenstatt / Juneau Empire)

Ben Hohenstatt / Juneau Empire Adelynn, Heather and Aubrie Engen talk with Zara Rutherford at Ward Air on Saturday. Rutherford, who is pursuing a Guinness world record for youngest woman to fly solo around the world, took time to talk to people, take photos and sign autographs after landing in Juneau.

Ben Hohenstatt / Juneau Empire
Zara Rutherford stands outside her aircraft, a Shark UL, shortly after landing in Juneau. Uncertain weather and mechanical maintenance contributed to Rutherford spending additional time in Alaska’s capital city.

Ben Hohenstatt / Juneau Empire Zara Rutherford stands outside her aircraft, a Shark UL, shortly after landing in Juneau. Uncertain weather and mechanical maintenance contributed to Rutherford spending additional time in Alaska’s capital city.

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