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‘Fly solo around world still a dream’: Zara
Published on: Sunday, December 19, 2021
By: Kan Yaw Chong
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A broad smile from Zara immediately after touch down at KK International Airport in perfect weather at 4.20pm on December 16.
FLYING 50,000km solo around the world in a single engine micro plane is a high-risk undertaking, even veteran pilots admit and respect her courage. 

But 19-year old British-Belgian Zara Rutterford who is out to set a world record as the youngest woman to do that, says ‘doing something a bit crazy’ like this is part of her ultimate dream. “I think it is one of those ultimate things one can dream of!” 

The day she decided to make Kota Kinabalu as a stopover for this epic marathon aviation journey, it was precisely this somewhat ‘crazy big stuff that fired up the imagination of both layman and pilots.

And stopped over she did on December 16 when she landed in KK at 4.20pm in perfect weather from Clark Airbase Philippines.

Actually, Zara was first scheduled to reach Kota Kinabalu way back on October 23 but brutal Siberian and Alaskan Russian winter literally froze her plane for weeks.

Talk to any pilot, they’ll tell you this: Respect the weather, never play-play with it.

Here, we grabbed Zara for a quick interview and she poured out her epic experience.

Daily Express (DE): The big deal for Sabah is that you picked Kota Kinabalu as a stopover as the youngest woman ever (19) to fly solo around the world in an ultra-light single engine plane called Shark. How did you find your reception in KK for your historic feat?

Zara Rutherford:
The people in Malaysia have been so kind. It was an amazing welcome from the Sabah Flying Club and Layang Layang Aerospace. The reason I picked Malaysia was I think it is a beautiful country. So I also wanted Kota Kinabalu as part of the way to get to Jakarta because Jakarta is an important stop on my route for technical reasons. So Kota Kinabalu is one of the best places where I could stop.  I would like to say a huge thank you for the warm welcome I have received. Your country is beautiful, your city is beautiful. I just want to say thank you. 

(Writer’s note: Zara rightly credited people “so kind” and gave her unreserved “warm welcome”. But only this writer know who they are to make things happen. The Sabah Flying Club which is dedicated to promote social flying and aviation, gladly sponsored 140 litres of fuel for her next six-hour leg journey to Jakarta. Club President, Datuk Captain Mahmud Amat Shah, Vice President Philip Tze, Safety Manager, Captain Thomas Estolas an Hon Treasurer, Moktar Nawawi, personally did the refuelling after touch down last Thursday afternoon and early Friday morning, while Layang Layang Aerospace Flying Instructor and former Malaysian Air Force jet fighter pilot, Captain John Sham, Captain Dorai Raja, Commercial Air Transport (pilot), Operations and Quality Assurance Executive, poured all their heart a mind into the ground handling especially real time weather briefing and forecast. Lending a big help in the background include Captain Richard Ong, Paul Chin, former Sabah Air Corporate Group Manager – the liaison kingpin between SFC, Layang-Layang and Belgian resident in KK, Bernard Bauwens and wife Mary, were all keys to make this stopover a very eventful excitement.  But credit must go to Honorary Consul of Belgium, Mau Kam Peng who first asked this writer to do a special report which was published on 24 Oct 2021, entitled ‘Youngest girl on epic solo world flight expected in KK’, and delegated me to liase with Bernard on the arrangements). 

DE: In one ABC Sunday Extra report, you were quoted as saying “flying 50,000km solo around the world is one of those ultimate things one can dream of”. Do you still feel that way after half way accomplished?  

Zara:
Yes, it is still a dream. I am seeing some amazing things from the sky but it is difficult though. Sometimes you get into some dangerous situations but you have to able to stay focussed and decide what is the best and safest thing to do.    

DE: Of course, you were in the Philippines yesterday (Dec 15). We knew you did your best to escape Typhoon Rai from the Land of Typhoons to The Land Below the Wind. So you managed to get ahead of the typhoon?

Zara:
Yes, I just missed the typhoon, I had on my way here a tail wind that was caused by the typhoon so I am glad I decided to leave the Philippines early to make sure I was not stuck there for two days.

DE: What if you delayed your flight, the typhoon could have hit your plane even on the ground?

Zara:
Ah, I was in Clark (Airbase) at the time in the Philippines, I thought it could delay my trip by a few days so I decided to head straight to Malaysia and get out. 

 

Zara taxiing her single engine Shark micro plane towards the Sabah Flying Club / Layang Layang Aerospace tarmac. 

Cadet pilots from the Layang Layang Flying Academy swarmed around Zara for a group photo after her arrival.

 

 

DE: It was very good weather yesterday (Dec 15) when you arrived in KK.

Zara:
 Yes, it was very nice weather so I went way ahead of the typhoon and it showed…

DE: We know you originally planned to return early December to Belgium where you departed on August 18 but Russia cost you the biggest delay where you were stuck for weeks. What happened there?   

Zara:
I was stuck in a very small town called Ayan with a population of 800 people, I mean in the middle of nowhere and everyone doesn’t speak much English and I was there because of bad weather. I was stuck there for three weeks, mostly because of bad weather and it’s hard to get out and keep going, it’s very cold as well, the coldest day was about minus 15 and then further north it was so very cold. 


DE: So, what’s the best experience so far and what’s the worst experience?

Zara:
The best experience I think in terms of flying, I flew over an active volcano in Iceland, that was beautiful, very, very exhilarating. Flying over New York was very cool, flying in Alaska was beautiful, I think the most challenging part so far was Alaskan Russia, the weather was quite bad, very cold, you have to be very, very careful because if something went wrong, there was nobody living there. It was so cold and no one lived there, it’s just wilderness.  So you have to be very, very careful, because if something goes wrong and you have to land in the wilderness, then you have a big problem. 

DE: You say it’s very, very cold because of snow everywhere and snow all the time? 

Zara:
Yes, snowing all the time, it’s covered in snow and ice and very, very cold and further north in Siberla, there was just snow and nothing else, no humans, no electricity, no cables, nothing.  

DE: Can you tell us some important characteristics about your ultra-light plane called Shark?

Zara:
I am flying Shark, micro light aircraft, it’s a great plane, it goes at around 150 knots which is 300km per hour. It’s a two-seater but her rear seat is replaced by a storage tank which is basically an extra fuel tank that lets me fly longer. It has a great fuel consumption (fuel efficiency).               

DE: Captain Richard Ong noted it takes a “good pilot with good airmanship” who dared to take up this huge solo challenge. What do you think?

Zara:
I think that’s very kind thing to say. I don’t know if I am a good pilot, I am just a normal pilot. It’s just important to make safe decisions. I make sure that I am not going to take off if I am not sure about the weather because in that way I am not putting myself in any risk and that’s the most important part.

DE: Actually you have said your whole life is about flying, because your parents are both pilots who gave you hundreds of unlogged hours flying across Europe and Africa as a kid, not to mention your logged 80 hours for your French microlight license? 

Zara:
Yes, my parents have strongly supported me throughout, they helped me learn how to fly. Luckily for this trip I am being sponsored so everything has been financed by a few companies and so I like to thank ICD Soft.com – a website hosting company and along with my sponsors and my family, I am extremely grateful for their support. 

 

Zara welcomed by her KK resident Belgian caretaker, Bernard Bauwens. At background are Capt Mahmud, Capt Thomas Estolas and Capt John Sham. 

 

DE: Even your mother is a pilot, what kind of pilot, what kind of planes, must be very big planes they are flying?

Zara:
No, my mother flies just small planes as a hobby and my father too, he is a ferry pilot and he would fly small planes from America to Europe for clients .

DE: So in terms of ‘lady and Machine’ – how did you operate the aircraft safety in flying this long journey around the world?

Zara:
I mean I got pilot’s licence so I usually know how to fly the plane. It’s just being careful the when and the where you take off, just do some checks before flying, weather for example, also checking the aircraft, making sure the plane is okay, things like that to make sure that when you are in the air, you are as safe as you can be and once you are there, you just have to stay focussed and stay focussed.  If I see any weather is getting worse and worse, you have to say okay, this is not good, I am going to find somewhere else to land.            

DE: There are obviously a lot of challenges like flight planning, routing and getting all the clearances, have they been smooth or have there been a lot of obstacles?

Zara:
Ya, in Columbia for example, the weather was getting worse and worse, and so I decided to land somewhere so I just found the nearest airfield and I just landed and I landed and it turned out that I landed in Quidbo – the rainiest city on earth and by coincidence I landed in the rainiest city of earth, and it took me a few days to get back out.  And yes in California there were many wild fires so that was hard to deal with – quite turbulent, things like that and further north I had to deal with very low clouds and because of that I had to stay below it which brings you to very close for example to the ocean, very close to the water. 

DE: Is this an autopilot?


Zara:
I do have an autopilot, yes.

DE: So the main challenges are the weather?

Zara:
Yes, definitely the weather because the auto pilot gets you fly straight and level but you don’t want to fly straight and level into a thunderstorm. That will be very bad.

DE: So what are your goals now? When you arrived last Thursday, you saw cadet pilots from the Layang Layang Flying Academy were swarming around you. Obviously you were an inspiration to them. So do you think you have fulfilled your role as somebody who inspire young pilots?

Zara:
Yes, I definitely hope this will encourage people to pursue their dreams and for all the pilots out there to keep flying and start flying but I love to start to speak more about my experiences on my trip flying around the world to have people to be interested in that and then find that they want to do something a bit crazy too.

DE: You have said you want to see more women to become pilots. After your touch down you saw half dozen of them training to become pilots.

Zara:
Yes, that was very nice of me now seeing female pilots. Growing up, I didn’t see many.

Engineering affects everyone – study Science & Maths

DE: You have also said it’s very important to see young people to study science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Why is that so?

Zara: Ya, obviously science, technology as well as mathematics are very important especially in today’s world and as the majority of people who work in this field are men. I am hoping to slightly change that because engineering affects every single one of us so it’s important to have people working in that industry represents every single one of us too. 

DE: what is your future goal now, to become a pilot?

Zara:
Oh ya, I am not sure. Before I was sure but now I don’t know, I think I’ll go to university in September and then after that we will see. 

DE: So you are glad to have come to Kota Kinabalu?

Zara:
Very happy. If I stay longer I would really want to see Mt Kinabalu but flying near to the clouds, I haven’t been able to. 

 

Zara met by her all-out stopover ground helpers. Capt Mahmud and Philip Tze President and Vice President of Sabah Flying Club and Capt John Sham, an instructor at Layang-Layang Flying Academy.

Zara and her plane in the Sabah Flying Club and Layang Layang Aerospace hangar. 





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