WEVELGEM, BELGIUM (REUTERS) - A British-Belgian teenager became the youngest woman to fly solo around the globe on Thursday (Jan 20) and the first person to do so in a microlight plane after a five-month, five-continent odyssey in her Shark ultralight.
Nineteen-year-old Zara Rutherford landed back at Kortrijk-Wevelgem Airport in Belgium after flying 51,000km over 52 nations since her Aug 18 departure in the world's fastest microlight aircraft.
There were cheers and applause as her plane came to a halt on the tarmac.
"It's just really crazy, I haven't quite processed it," Ms Rutherford, smiling broadly and cloaked in British and Belgian flags, told reporters.
After the penultimate leg to a German village on Wednesday, she said it was an exploit she would never repeat.
"There's been amazing moments, but then there's been moments where I had fear for my life," she added, picking New York and an active volcano in Iceland as her favourite flyovers.
After North and South America, Ms Rutherford was stuck for a month in Alaska because of weather and visa delays. A winter storm forced another long stop in far eastern Russia, before she travelled to South Asia, the Middle East and back to Europe.
To meet criteria for a round-the-world flight, Ms Rutherford touched two points opposite each other on the globe: Jambi in Indonesia and Tumaco in Colombia.
'Young women can be ambitious'
She took the record from Afghan-born American Shaesta Wais, who in 2017 became the youngest woman to fly solo round the world at 30. The youngest male record holder, American Mason Andrews, was 18 when he did it in 2018.
Ms Rutherford also became the first Belgian to circumnavigate the world solo in a single-engine aircraft.
The teenager said the last leg of her journey, from Germany, had been tricky because rain and snow meant she had to "wiggle in some valleys" coming out of Frankfurt, but was delighted to be accompanied by light aircraft of the Belgian Air Force's Red Devils aerobatic display team for the final stretch.
Switching between French, Dutch and English as reporters fired questions, Ms Rutherford said she is now looking forward to spending time with her family and getting to see her cats.
Having gained her pilot's licence in 2020 after training with her father since 14, she now wants to study engineering at a United States or British university from September.
Ms Rutherford dreams of being an astronaut and hopes her voyage will encourage women in science, technology and aviation.
"Boys learn through toys, street names, history classes and movies that they can be scientists, astronauts, CEOs or presidents," she said on her website.
"Girls are often encouraged to be beautiful, kind, helpful and sweet. With my flight, I want to show young women that they can be bold, ambitious and make their dreams come true."