Teenage aviator circles the globe solo, setting a record
By Christine Hauser
It can be boring to cross an ocean alone, but music helps. It can be lonely to spend the night on an uninhabited island with only sea gulls for company. And it is unnerving when your aircraft’s backup fuel tank stops working.
These are not a teenager’s typical challenges, yet this was how Mack Rutherford, a 17-year-old Belgian British pilot, spent his summer break as he flew alone around the world.
On Wednesday, Mack landed in Bulgaria, ending a record-setting journey that made him the youngest person to fly solo around the world in a small plane. About 5 p.m. local time, he guided his Shark Aero, an ultralight aircraft that was modified to carry extra fuel, into Sofia West Airport, southwest of Sofia, Bulgaria’s capital.
“And touchdown,” he said calmly from inside the cockpit during a livestream of the landing at the end of the final leg, from Slovakia.
“There we go, ladies and gentlemen,” a narrator on the tarmac said to applause from people who had gathered to greet Mack. “We have a new world record.”
Mack waved and smiled before climbing out of the cockpit. “Very happy to be here after five long months,” he said.
The moment marked the end of a challenging and sometimes lonely journey that took Mack nearly 30,000 miles, with stops in 30 countries, in the five months since he took off from the same airport on March 23. He was 16 at the time.
The feat has nudged Travis Ludlow of Britain out of the ranking as the youngest person to fly around the world alone in a small aircraft. It took Ludlow, who was 18 years (and 149 days) old when he set the record in 2021, 44 days to complete the 24,900-mile journey.
Solo flying, and breaking records doing it, runs in Mack’s family. He was at the controls of the same kind of aircraft that his sister, Zara Rutherford, then 19, was piloting when she set the world record in January as the youngest woman to fly solo around the world.
His family and sponsors, including ICDSoft, a web-hosting company based in Bulgaria, greeted him on the airstrip.
Mack told reporters on the tarmac that he had mixed feelings of excitement and frustration that the journey was at an end, and that he loved the unmatched sense of freedom of being in the air. After months of flying, some of it perilous, he said he felt “competent” and “able to look at a problem and work through a solution.”
Mack’s journey, which has been documented live online, made him the youngest person to fly solo around the world, and the youngest to do it in a microlight plane. It took him over deserts, forests, skyscrapers and sandstorms. From Bulgaria in March, he flew to Italy and then Greece. In May, he was in North Africa. Moving on after Kenya and Tanzania, his route took him through Madagascar and Mauritius.
There were numbing hours of solitude in the cramped cockpit of his plane, which reaches a cruising speed of 186 mph, and also the marvels of the elements, like sandstorms in Sudan and blazing heat in the United Arab Emirates. He flew to China, South Korea and Japan, and from Japan to Alaska — a leg of the trip that took him more than 10 airborne hours.
From there, he navigated the West Coast of the United States to Mexico, and pivoted north again to Canada before crossing the Atlantic. Mack closed in on his aerial finale last weekend, landing in Aberdeen, Scotland, where he was welcomed with bagpipes and haggis, the distinctive Scottish dish of boiled sheep innards wrapped in a sheep’s stomach.
Mack said he knew he wanted to be a pilot as a child, and flew hundreds of hours with his British father, Sam Rutherford, a former army helicopter pilot who works as a professional “ferry” pilot, delivering planes for others on long-distance flights. His Belgian mother, Beatrice de Smet, is a lawyer and flies recreationally. Mack earned his license to fly microlight planes a few months after he turned 15.
On Tuesday, he touched down at an airstrip near Charleroi, in southern Belgium, where he had learned to fly, inspired by his family’s generations of aviators. Then it was on to Slovakia. In an interview Tuesday, as he prepared for the final section of his journey, he described moments of beauty and boredom circumnavigating the globe.
There were “so many of these wildly different types that had those ‘wow’ moments,” he said, referring to his experiences flying over the windswept Sahara, the national parks of Kenya, forests in Myanmar and Thailand, and the mountains of Alaska.
“Big cities of the U.S. as well,” he said. “I was surprised how close you can actually fly. I was able to fly around the Statue of Liberty.”
Flying over oceans can be monotonous, he said. He rarely eats. “I look around, listen to music,” he said. A 24-hour-long playlist, which includes Coldplay and Queen, kept him occupied. “That surprisingly fills up the time quite nicely,” he said.
One day in late July, as he was flying across the Pacific to the United States, he was forced to stop on Attu, an uninhabited island at Alaska’s westernmost edge, to wait out strong headwinds. The ordeal was a treacherous one. He had just finished the last of his food: Oreos and a protein bar. It was getting dark, there were mountains, low clouds and no living creatures but sea gulls.
“I stayed the night on a completely uninhabited island, which was pretty special,” he said. “I found a shed on the side of the runway. I stayed there for the night on a broken-down sofa. I didn’t sleep very well there.”
Mack also confronted technical perils. As he was flying from Luxor, Egypt, a fuel bladder switch stopped working. “I had no idea how I was going to be able to refuel,” he said. But once he descended to a lower altitude, it once again kicked in, he said.
His mother joined him in Dubai on June 21, his 17th birthday, and they watched the latest “Top Gun” movie in a theater, “which was really cool,” he said. But he was delayed in the emirate for more than a month as he sorted out visas and permits, trying to figure out a route across the Pacific Ocean that avoided Russia, because of the war in Ukraine.
“I wasn’t quite sure how it was going to work out,” he said. “We had no idea how we were going to get through. But I just cracked on.”
Eventually, Japan gave him permission to fly through its airspace, providing him with a feasible crossing.
While he eventually got his way, there are some tasks that he will not be able to avoid. Mack, who is entering his final year at Sherborne School, a boys boarding school in southern England next month, is expected to catch up on studies that he has missed since March, and to reflect on what comes next.
After landing Wednesday, he said his next step would be to “go back to school and carry on that way. And keep flying.”