WEVELGEM: Teenage pilot Zara Rutherford took her ultralight sports plane into the skies on Wednesday (Aug 18) on the first leg of a 52-country, five-continent flight around the world.
The intrepid 19-year-old British-Belgian dreams one day of becoming an astronaut, but for now her goal is to become the youngest woman to circumnavigate the planet flying solo.
The first leg was a short hop across the Channel from her Belgian home town of Kortrijk to England. Her three-month voyage will then take her over oceans, deserts and the vast Siberian wilderness.
She will try to avoid daunting main air hubs - apart from New York's busy JFK airport - in her tiny 325kg Shark UL prop plane, and touch down instead on smaller airports and airfields for overnight rests and refuelling.
She will be on her own for flights lasting five to six hours. She has secured permission to visit countries including Greenland, Honduras, Saudi Arabia and Myanmar.
While not the youngest pilot to fly around the world solo - an 18-year-old Briton, Travis Ludlow, completed the trip in July - Rutherford is the youngest woman to attempt the feat.
"I'm really hoping to encourage girls and young women to go into aviation and STEM - science, technology, engineering and mathematics," she said before takeoff.
"Growing up, I didn't see many women in those fields and it was quite discouraging. So I'm hoping to change that."
Her aerial odyssey can be followed on Rutherford's website, FlyZolo.com, and on the TikTok social media app.
Rutherford has a satellite telephone and a radio to communicate with air traffic control in all the countries on her route, but in the cockpit she will be alone with her music and her podcasts.
There is no following plane with backup, but her support crew in Belgium - including her father, a former British air force pilot - have planned the adventure carefully, notably by setting up in advance the necessary authorisations to fly into many different national airspaces.
Crossing the Atlantic will be the first big challenge, she says, but the long trek over Siberia to Mongolia will also see her often far from civilisation if she gets into difficulties.
"I didn't sleep very well, I'm quite nervous but I'm really excited," she told AFP.
"Right now, I'm feeling a bit of disbelief. I think I will only start realising that I have actually started when I have landed in the UK."
Family, friends, journalists, airport staff and the town mayor turned out at Kortrijk Wevelgem Airport to see her off - an emotional moment for her proud Belgian mother, Beatrice De Smet.
"Obviously I have a lot of mixed emotions. I'm a mum and my heart beats harder when I see her leaving like this, and with all this attention that adds to the stress, it's not easy for her," De Smet said as the tiny plane disappeared into the grey Flanders sky.
"But I'm extremely proud, not just of the flight that she's going to undertake, but of the mission that lies behind it, to inspire little girls to follow their dreams and to reach for the stars."
If everything goes according to plan, Rutherford will be arriving back in Belgium on Nov 4, her feet back on the ground but her eyes riveted on another horizon as she looks to pursue her engineering studies.