“I made it,” cried 19-year-old Zara Rutherford after her plane touched down at Kortrijk-Wevelgem International Airport in Belgium on Jan. 20, 2022. She had ample reason for her excitement. Rutherford had just flown 32,300 miles (52,000 kilometers) over 41 countries and five continents to break two Guinness World Records: the youngest women to circumnavigate the globe by air solo and the first woman to do so in a microlight aircraft.
But as Phileas Fogg learned in Jules Verne’s 1872 novel “Around the World in 80 Days,” traveling around the planet is not so easy.
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The dual Belgian-British citizen took off on Aug. 18, 2021, in a Shark Aero with an extra fuel tank in the passenger space. She expected her journey to take three months. That, however, was before bad weather forced her to make an unscheduled landing at Washington-Warren Airport in Washington, North Carolina, delaying her intended visit to Jacksonville, Florida — where she was also to meet Shaesta Waiz, the Afghan American pilot who had set the previous record as the youngest woman to girdle the globe in 2017 at age 30.
It was just a prelude of things to come. Rutherford braved heavy cloud cover over Colombia and lightning flashes over Mexico and made an unscheduled landing at Redding, California, because smoke from wildfires in the Seattle area hampered visibility. She also experienced delays in Alaska and Russia for “visa and weather issues” before finally reaching Vladivostok. She was also denied permission to fly over China and narrowly avoided straying into North Korean airspace.
The most challenging leg of her flight was over Siberia.
“It was minus 35 degrees Celsius on the ground,” she said. “If the engine were to stall, I’d be hours away from rescue and I don’t know how long I’d have survived for.”
Bad weather delayed even the final leg of her flight by a week, but despite the obstacles, Rutherford never quit until she reached her goal — around the world in 155 days.