When it comes to smashing aviation records, most people think of the Wright Brothers, Charles Lindbergh, and Chuck Yaeger. We also assume there are no records left to be broken, but that’s where 19-year-old Zara Rutherford challenges the status quo.

The British-Belgian pilot recently circumnavigated the globe, completing a 32,320-mile trip and winning a place in the record books for being 1) the youngest woman to achieve such a journey and 2) the first female to fly around the world in a microlight aircraft.

Here’s what you need to know about her incredible journey and how it contributes to the history of aviation.

Making Aviation History

Ever since Charles Lindbergh made his famed Transatlantic crossing, daredevil pilots have fascinated the public. Although Robert Ripley rightly pointed out that Lindbergh, rather than being the first to cross the Atlantic, was the 67th person to do so, no one can deny the pilot’s ability to capture national attention. He sparked a keen interest in airplane adventure and discovery that remains today.

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Robert Ripley incited the masses with this “technically true” toon.

Following in Lindbergh’s footsteps would come many equally ambitious pilots, including female contributors to flight. One of our favorites remains Kathy Sullivan. A former NASA Space Shuttle astronaut, her spacewalk in 1984 was the first by an American woman. She also holds a world record for the deepest dive in maritime history, to the bottom of the Mariana Trench on a visit to Challenger Deep.

Taking her place among these incredible heroes is now Rutherford, who isn’t even old enough to rent a car. How did her ambitious air conquest unfold? She says she initially estimated it would take three months to circle the globe in her customized Shark ultralight aircraft. But after departure on August 18, she encountered many unforeseen circumstances leading to delays. These included everything from dangerous weather to visa issues and complications related to ever-changing COVID-19 pandemic protocols worldwide.

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Breaking Two World Records Is a Hard Business

One of the most challenging parts of Rutherford’s journey would be going solo. After all, she had only herself to rely on, including if anything went wrong. What’s more, those problems we mentioned earlier set her schedule back by eight weeks. Yet, she doesn’t hesitate when asked about the most treacherous part of her trip: flying alone over Siberia.

Navigating the skies over Northern Russia meant temperatures of -35 degrees Fahrenheit on the ground. In other words, had her plane engine stalled forcing a landing, things would’ve gotten very cold, very quickly, and she would not have been able to start her plane up again. As she told CNN, “I don’t know how long I could have survived.” Fortunately, things went smoothly, and she never found out firsthand.

All told, the teen passed through a total of 41 countries on her aerial adventure, becoming the first Belgian national to fly the planet’s circumference alone. With so many accolades to her name, what plans does Rutherford have for the future? In the fall, she’ll head to college in pursuit of a degree in computer engineering. She also hopes to continue bringing visibility to female aviators, and we say she couldn’t have a better start when it comes to that!

By Engrid Barnett, contributor for Ripleys.com


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