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This teenage aviator hopes to be the youngest woman to fly solo around the world

When most students take a gap year between high school and university, it's usually a backpacking adventure or to build up work experience and savings before college.
But Zara Rutherford isn't most people.

On August 18, the 19-year-old is setting off on the trip of a lifetime: a 32,000-mile journey around the world. More than that, she'll be flying herself.
"It's a dream I've had for a really long time, but it always seemed unrealistic," says Rutherford, who holds dual British-Belgian nationality. "When I decided to take a year out before I go to university, I realized, I've got all this time -- I might as well do something crazy with it."
Flying in a bespoke Shark ultralight, which she says is the world's fastest microlight aircraft, Rutherford hopes to set the record for the youngest woman to solo circumnavigate the globe -- and inspire more girls and women to pursue careers in science and aviation.

Two months, 52 countries

Rutherford isn't new to flying. Both her parents are pilots and Rutherford has been learning to fly since she was 14 -- although she only started formal flying lessons and got her first license in 2020.
With over 80 flight hours officially logged, and hundreds more uncounted, Rutherford describes her flight experience as "quality over quantity." She's gained extra experience helping her parents with their plane "ferrying" service which involves moving aircraft between locations: one trip involved helping her father move a plane from the US to Jordan.
I've already seen a bit of the route, so I know what to expect," she adds.
Starting in Belgium, Rutherford's route takes her west through 52 countries, five continents, and crosses the equator twice -- first in Tumaco, Colombia, and again in Jambi, Indonesia -- which is part of the Guinness World Records' requirements for an around-the-world flight.
The two-month trip is self-funded, and the teenager has sold her car to help pay for it, as well as seeking out sponsors.
Another cost of the trip is the environmental impact. While Rutherford says the total fuel for her trip is the equivalent to the amount used in 10 minutes by a Boeing 747, she's spending €600 ($710) on tree-planting projects to offset her carbon footprint.
Rutherford will fly using "visual flight rules" -- meaning she has to be able to see clearly where she is going to avoid obstacles and stay on route, so she won't be flying at night or in poor weather conditions. Stopping for just one or two nights in each location, she plans to meet with schools and youth groups in different countries -- which she hopes will bring more visibility to aviation for young girls, to show them "they can really reach for anything they want."

Women in aviation

Creating awareness of women in aviation is a key part of Rutherford's mission. According to the International Society of Women Airline Pilots (ISA), just 5.1% of airline pilots around the globe are women — far below many other science, tech, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) professions.
"[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," says Rutherford.
Currently, the youngest female pilot to solo circumnavigate the globe in a single-engine plane is Shaesta Waiz, who was 30 years old at the time. Rutherford points to the gap between the male and female records — Travis Ludlow was just 18 years old when he became the youngest person to circumnavigate the globe solo in July 2021 — as one of the many indicators of the disparity between men and women in aviation.
Visibility is key to showing young women the possibilities, says Rutherford. To help get more women and girls involved in science fields early, Rutherford is supporting two charities on her trip: Girls Who Code, which supports young women entering computer science, and Dreams Soar, a non-profit founded by current record-holder Waiz, that supports women and girls entering STEM fields.


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