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Before landing at Stanford, a record-breaking flight around the world

Before coming to Stanford, pilot and first-year student Zara Rutherford spent five months flying around the world, becoming the youngest woman aviator to ever circumnavigate the globe solo.

Aviator and Stanford frosh Zara Rutherford’s solo flight around the world in 2021 made history, but not before some very close calls in the air.

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Harry Gregory

In 2021, Zara Rutherford, ’26, set a record as the youngest woman to fly solo around the world, taking advantage of weather and visa delays to complete her application to Stanford en route.

“There were a few scary moments. I got pretty close to a few lightning strikes,” she said. “Luckily, I never had a moment when I thought, ‘I’m going to die today.’”

Rutherford credits her years of flight experience for getting her through those harrowing moments. She was born and raised in Belgium where she often flew with her parents, both of whom are pilots. At 15, she began taking flight lessons and two years later flew a plane by herself for the first time. After completing high school in the United Kingdom, Rutherford decided to take a gap year.

“I’d always wanted to combine flying with my love for adventure,” she said. “And I thought that if I were going to have a year to do whatever I want, why not try flying around the world?”

At 19, Rutherford’s successful flight would make her the youngest woman aviator ever to accomplish the feat. She’d also significantly reduce the age gap between the female record holder at that time, who was 30, and the male record holder, who was 18 – a fact she hoped would inspire other young female pilots.

“I struggled with a lack of female role models in aviation, so here was my chance to be a friendly face for other girls interested in flying,” she said.

Preparing for takeoff

Prior to her trip, Rutherford secured sponsors, a high-performance two-seat tandem ultralight Shark Aero plane, and created a detailed flight plan. She followed Guinness World Record’s definition of global circumnavigation, which is to cross two antipodal, or opposite, points on the globe; she selected Quidbo, Colombia, and Jakarta, Indonesia. On Aug. 18, 2021, she boarded her plane at Kortrijk-Wevelgem International Airport in Belgium, and waved goodbye to a crowd of supporters and media.

Zara Rutherford’s trip took her to 52 countries and five continents. (Image credit: Zara Rutherford)

Headed west, her first stop was in the United Kingdom to say hello to friends at the high school she’d attended, before ending the day in Scotland. Crossing the Atlantic Ocean was dangerous due to harsh northern weather conditions and long flights over water. Any serious engine malfunctions would have forced her to ditch her plane for the blistering cold water.

“Without an emergency flight suit, hypothermia would kick in within 30 seconds,” she said. “But with the suit, you’ve got five minutes to put on a life jacket, get into a life raft, and call for help. But then, of course, you’ve got the problem of being stuck in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean!”

After four days crossing the Atlantic – with stops in Iceland (where she flew past an active volcano) and Greenland – Rutherford landed safely in Newfoundland, Canada, on Aug. 23. She made her way down the East Coast of the United States, with an exhilarating visit to New York City. While preparing to land at John F. Kennedy International Airport, she flew through Manhattan at an altitude lower than many of the city’s skyscrapers.

“I was able to fly directly over Central Park,” she said. “[The air traffic controller] told me I had to stay at or below 1,000 feet because above me were the big planes preparing to land at JFK!”

Smoke and wildfires

After stops in New Jersey, the Carolinas, Florida, the Bahamas, and the Turks and Caicos Islands, she landed in the British Virgin Islands where she met one of her sponsors, entrepreneur Richard Branson. On Sept. 3 she made it to Quidbo, Colombia, then continued north through Central America, Mexico, and up the West Coast of the United States, including stops in Los Angeles, Palo Alto, and a brief visit to Stanford. While flying through Northern California, she experienced turbulent conditions due to raging wildfires and heavy smoke.

“At one point, I couldn’t see a thing, and I could smell the smoke inside the cockpit,” she recalled. “I tried to outclimb the smoke, but my plane couldn’t fly above 11,000 feet. And with no supplemental oxygen, flying was risky.”

She made an emergency landing in Redding, California, and when conditions improved, she flew to Seattle.

Throughout her trip, Rutherford flew an average of five hours a day and would often listen to music or podcasts. Back home, her family and friends helped with the logistics of her travels, like coordinating landing permits at airports and arranging for her to stay at hotels or with local families in each city she visited. She also befriended locals who often assisted her with rides or plane maintenance.

“I couldn’t have done the trip without the generosity of strangers,” she said.

Stranded in Alaska

On Sept. 22, Rutherford landed in Alaska with plans to cross the Bering Strait into Russia. But her expired Russian visa and poor weather conditions forced her to spend a month with a local family in the city of Nome. It was during this time that she applied to Stanford.

Zara Rutherford, ’26, made history as the youngest woman ever to fly solo around the world. (Image credit: Zara Rutherford)

When the weather improved and her visa was renewed, Rutherford flew to Anadyr, Russia, on Nov. 1. The next day she embarked for Magadan, Russia, which took her over dense, desolate Russian wilderness in frigid cold temperatures. After a three-week diversion in the small, rural town of Ayan, she began navigating the complicated air spaces of East Asia.

“I had to go around North Korea because they’re so unpredictable. China wouldn’t let me over their country due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the possibility that I’d have to [land],” she said. “And Japan would only let me fly through a narrow part of their airspace.”

She eventually made it to Seoul, South Korea, followed by stops in Taiwan, the Philippines, Indonesia, Singapore, where she spent Christmas Day fixing a flat tire, and Malaysia, where she experienced a massive typhoon.

On Jan. 1, 2022, she embarked on her longest flight of eight hours from Mumbai to Dubai, where she had a speaking engagement at the 2020 World Expo, which had been delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. She then flew to Egypt and Greece, then north through eastern Europe, Germany, and landed home in Belgium on Jan. 20, 2022.

Over five months, Rutherford flew 32,300 miles and stopped in dozens of cities, 52 countries, and five continents. She currently holds the Guinness World Record for youngest woman to fly solo around the world and first woman to circumnavigate the world in a microlight aircraft.

Landing at Stanford

While in the Philippines, Rutherford received her acceptance letter to Stanford. Since enrolling in September, she’s enjoyed her classes, particularly America at a Crossroads and the Introductory Seminar Things about Stuff. She hasn’t declared a major yet, but is interested in computer science, engineering, and aeronautics and astronautics.

Rutherford said that in the near term, she plans to keep flying recreationally and become a flight instructor. Although she doesn’t know what career path she’ll ultimately take, she’s confident that she’s landed at the right school.

“I’m hopeful Stanford will help me realize what I want to do,” she said. “A big dream is to work in the space industry. I think that would be really cool.”