MOJAVE — Zara Rutherford might be the personification of the catchphrase made famous by Nike: “Just do it.”
It is the advice the 19-year-old Belgian pilot has for any others seeking to tackle a challenge like the one she is pursuing, to be the youngest woman to fly solo around the world.
Rutherford flew into the Mojave Air and Space Port, Monday morning, a stop that is not quite halfway through her trek, which began, on Aug. 18, in Belgium.
After a flight that was “a little bumpy” from Hawthorne, Rutherford touched down at the airport that has seen its share of historic flights and was heralded with a traditional salute, the arced spray from the airport fire truck.
She was greeted by a small crowd of well-wishers lining the tarmac, many of whom stepped up for pictures with her and her airplane, a Slovakian-made Shark Ultralight.
“I thought it was awesome!” seven-year-old Kaila Curran said with a double thumbs-up, after taking a turn in the cockpit. It was her first time sitting in an airplane.
Rutherford’s goal for the flight, in addition to the record, is to inspire in other young girls and women an interest in aviation and other STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields. Rutherford’s own interest comes naturally, as both her parents are pilots, and she had her first airplane flight at age three months.
“When I was growing up, I didn’t see many other girls in aviation,” she said. “I always thought that was sort of discouraging, when you can’t talk to any of your friends about flying, things like that.”
The crowd at Mojave included a number of high school students from Tehachapi who have been involved in building an airplane themselves.
“It think it’s really inspiring. It’s kind of nice seeing the next Amelia Earhart,” said Joy Robb, 18. Robb noted there are not as many female role models for girls and women interested in aviation or related fields, and that meeting Rutherford is a tangible example for people like herself, who aspires to be an airline pilot.
Robb was among those who took the opportunity to sit in the cockpit of the single-seat airplane.
“It’s small,” she said afterward. “It was actually pretty cozy.”
It was only four months before she launched her journey that Rutherford told her parents she wanted to make the attempt. Four months in which to get her airplane, plan the trip — and take her final exams. Yes, she just finished school two months ago, “and then I’m worried about flying around the world. It’s slightly different,” she said with a laugh.
She followed the advice she would give anyone with a goal like her own, to “just go for it” and not wait for the perfect time.
“You can’t sit around and say ‘Now’s not the right time. I’m sure in the future I’ll have an opportunity to do something crazy,’ ” she said. “And actually, you never have the opportunity. You just have to go for it.”
Her father’s experience ferrying airplanes from one place to another around the world provided helpful expertise and contacts in preparing for the flight, she said.
As might be imagined, the trip has had its challenges. Rutherford can fly only during daylight hours, so making it from one stop to the next before sunset is crucial. Weather detours or delays and strong headwinds have forced her to chose airfields other than the ones she has planned from time to time.
One such stop was in Quibdo, Colombia, where “I had accidentally landed in the rainiest city on Earth,” she said, and was stuck there for two days before the weather cleared enough for her to takeoff again.
Flying across the North Atlantic, flying at a “much, much” lower altitude than she had done before, she lost radio contact, “which was fun,” she said. She had no radio contact from shortly after taking off from Iceland until she neared Greenland.
She said flying into the Hawthorne Municipal Airport, which is very near Los Angeles International Airport, on Sunday, was a bit daunting.
“I was terrified of accidentally intercepting a Boeing 747,” she said.
Rutherford received a tour of several Mojave airport tenants, including Virgin Orbit and Virgin Galactic. Their parent company, Virgin, is one of her sponsors. (Her trek included an earlier stop at Spaceport America in New Mexico, home to Virgin Galactic’s flight operations.)
She was spending the night in the Mojave area, while her airplane received some maintenance work.
Next up for Rutherford’s trip is a stop in Palo Alto, then up the western coast of the United States toward Alaska, which marks the halfway point in her journey.
She said it won’t be much of a celebration, however, as after that, she heads toward Russia.
“It’s going to be a tough leg into Russia and China,” she said.
With several daunting steps left ahead, “I’m enjoying my time in the US,” she said. “Good radio communications, great support and great people.”
When complete, she expects the entire trip to take about 200 hours of flying time. Prior to starting, her total flight hours numbered about 130, most of that spent flying with her father ferrying aircraft, she said.