Teenage pilot takes off for record trip around the world

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An Anglo-Belgian teenage pilot took off from a small airfield in Belgium on Wednesday, setting off on a flight around the globe that promises to close the age gap between male and female pilots who have challenged the Guinness World Record.

Delayed by a week after making some more technical adjustments to her ultralight plane, the departure is the culmination of years of preparations.

“It’s been a dream for a really long time to fly around the world,” Zara Rutherford, 19, told the Financial Times.

The current Guinness World Record holder for the youngest female pilot to have flown around the world is Afghan refugee Shaesta Waiz, who was 32 at the time of her trip. The youngest male pilot to have completed the challenge was 18.

Unlike Waiz, who grew up in California and was a latecomer to aviation, Rutherford was just four months old when her parents — both pilots — first put her in a cockpit. She started training at 14 and got her pilot permit three years later. Now with high school successfully completed and pandemic restrictions easing around the world, she said she has finally found the time to fulfil her dream.

“I would like to go to university after this, either in computer science or electrical engineering. And after that, hopefully to space. Being an astronaut would be really amazing,” Rutherford said.

As for the carbon footprint of her travel, she stresses that she chose a Slovakian-made Shark plane for its fuel efficiency: “It will use less fuel for the entire circumnavigation than a passenger jet uses in 10 minutes.” She calculated that to offset the carbon of her trip it would cost about €300, so she spent double that sum planting trees: “A more direct way of doing it.”

“I am wondering about possibly doing it again in a couple of years’ time with either an electric- or hydrogen-powered plane, but right now the technology is not quite ready.”

Her trip is expected to last two to three months, depending on weather conditions and absent any major technical difficulties.

“What if something were to go wrong in northern Russia, where there aren’t many people there? That would be a pretty bad situation,” Rutherford said. 

“But then the plane actually has a parachute, if something were to go wrong and the engine failed, I’d pull the parachute and the whole plane would come down.”

She will fly west, first over the UK, Iceland and Greenland to Canada and the US, then down to Central America, back to the US and over the Bering Sea to Russia.

Stopping in almost every country she flies over will also afford Rutherford the opportunity to promote the cause of female education. She hopes in particular to encourage young women to pursue careers in science and technology and represents two groups that advocate that cause — Girls Who Code and Dreams Soar.

“I’ll stop in Saudi Arabia; it will definitely be a very unique experience. I’m hoping that by landing in some of these countries where there is very big difference between [the rights of] men and women, I can show that I’m a woman that’s flying this plane — look at what women are capable of.”

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