Teenage pilot Zara Rutherford became the youngest woman to complete a solo flight around the world on Thursday when she landed in western Belgium five months after taking off.
“I made it,” the 19-year-old British-Belgian national told a cheering crowd of family, fans and journalists after completing the whirlwind trip that took her more than 60 stops across five continents. “It’s just really crazy. I haven’t quite processed it.”
Rutherford, who also became the first woman to circle the globe in a microlight aircraft, beats the previous record set in 2017 by American aviator Shaesta Waiz, who was 30 at the time.
Rutherford’s 32,000-mile journey had a myriad of setbacks, mainly weather delays and expired travel documents, that prolonged what was supposed to be a three-month flight into nearly a half-year. She faced everything from storms, wildfires and typhoons to flat tires and broken plane parts during her journey, and at one point was stuck in Russia for a month.
“At this rate, by the time I get home I’ll be fluent in Russian,” Rutherford wrote in November on Instagram, where she documented the entire journey.
During those long stretches of waiting, she told her Instagram followers, she worked on applying to universities.
The most difficult part of her flight, she told reporters Thursday, was flying over Siberia, where it was minus 35 degrees Celsius, or minus 31 Fahrenheit, on the ground.
“If the engine were to stall, I’d be hours away from rescue and I don’t know how long I could have survived for.”
Rutherford also had to be careful to avoid flying over North Korea, which has strict limits on any foreign entries, forcing her to take a “huge detour” in December and flying about six hours over water, she wrote on Instagram at the time.
Rutherford has spoken in the past about the lack of women in aviation, citing a statistic that just 5% of the world’s airline pilots of female. That’s disappointing, she told CNN last year, because it’s “a career where you basically get paid to travel around the world.”
She hopes her record-setting flight is the push some people need.
“I’m looking forward to telling people about my experiences and encouraging people to do something crazy with your life,” she said Thursday.