DUBAI, 4 January 2022 – Flying solo in Sharkey, her microlight aircraft, 19-year-old Zara Rutherford touched down in the UAE after a gruelling nine-hour flight from India. The Belgian-British pilot is on a solo journey to circumnavigate the world, and plans to set three Guinness World Records: youngest woman to fly solo around the world; first woman to circle the globe in a microlight (a type of lightweight aircraft); and the first Belgian to circumnavigate the world in a single-engine aircraft.
The young pilot was at the Women’s Pavilion at Expo 2020 Dubai today (4 January) to speak about her journey, which she decided to undertake during her gap year after finishing school. It took her one year to plan the trip and find sponsorship, but Zara is now flying a bespoke Shark Aero, a high-performance, two-seater, single-engine ultralight aircraft, manufactured in Slovakia.
Rutherford said: “I had always dreamt of going on a big adventure, and flying around the world is the biggest one that anyone can do. I love flying, and I decided to single-mindedly pursue my dream. My parents were very supportive. They introduced me to aviation, taught me how to fly, and encouraged me wholeheartedly to pursue my dream.”
Her parents are pilots, and she has been accompanying her father since the age of five in his small aircraft on flights to Africa. She holds FAA and UK private pilot licences, including those for Slovakian and French microlights, and she is a member of Honourable Company of Air Pilots since 2019.
Rutherford’s journey is unprecedented and especially challenging, because she does not have any support staff travelling with her. Her team, of which her father is an integral part, is based in Belgium, and plan her route, and organise logistics and landing permits. No two legs of her journey are the same. She faced extreme weather conditions in Northern Russia; thunderstorms and lightning in Singapore; excessive turbulence and G-force warnings while flying over Alaska; delays in take-off due to smog in India; and communication challenges in Mexico.
Her longest journey was the eight-hour flight from Mumbai to the UAE. She says music keeps her calm during long stretches, and that Dubai’s landscape looked incredible from her vantage point.
She added: “There’s nothing like Dubai in the world. Its skyscrapers are impressive, and its people are very kind. I’m not used to flying in this sort of climate, and that is unique for me.”
Speaking on Expo, she said: “Expo is great. I visited the Women’s Pavilion yesterday, and I’m visiting the Slovakia and UAE Pavilions today.”
Aside from entering the record books, Rutherford hopes that her voyage will inspire girls and women to study and work in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), and spark their interest in aviation.
She said: “I hope social attitudes towards women in aviation change. It is unusual for women to be in the field of aviation and engineering, and it may put girls off, even if it is their passion. I have received many messages on social media of girls saying that they are learning to fly themselves, and I have met four girls who have told me they want to beat my record, which is great.”
Rutherford shared the stage with the first Emirati female pilot, Captain Aysha AlHameli, who achieved her aviation licence at the age of 16.
Captain AlHameli said: “Follow your heart, and do things with passion and conviction, and see the long-term effects of your journey. I think stories of Zara will not only inspire Emirati women but women all around the world to achieve things which are out of their comfort zone.
“The UAE is taking great strides in educating and developing its future generations, and removing gender boundaries in all fields, including aviation.”
Rutherford is planning to complete her 32,000-mile journey (51,000 km) and return to her home country, Belgium, on 13 January. By the end of her trip, she will have travelled to 52 countries and five continents.
She said: “I plan to sleep when I reach home after nine days. I want to start university in September, and share my experiences with people. This journey has made me realise the fragility of life, and not take anything for granted.”
The boarding-school-educated teenager plans to study computer engineering at university, and eventually become an astronaut. On her return, she wants to go back to her ordinary life after an extraordinary journey around the world.