By Kip Tabb | Outer Banks Voice on August 14, 2022
At 5:43 p.m. on Saturday Aug. 13, 17-year-old Mack Rutherford’s Shark Aero ultralight aircraft appeared over the trees to the southwest of First Flight Field at the Wright Brothers Memorial as his plane touched down to a perfect landing.
“It’s pretty amazing to be here where aviation started. It’s definitely a special feeling,” he said when asked about landing at the memorial site.
The visit to the Outer Banks was the latest stop on Rutherford’s quest to be the youngest aviator ever to fly solo around the world. Last August, his sister Zara landed at First Flight as she became the youngest woman to circumnavigate the world solo at age 19.
There doesn’t seem to be much sibling rivalry, though. “She was the youngest woman. So we’re setting different records. There’s not much competition,” Mack said.
There have been some changes in the flight plan since his sister set her record, due to geopolitical factors. Zara flew from west to east, flying from Alaska to Russia. That route is no longer available.
“Because the war in Ukraine, I can’t go through Russia. And so I had to find another route and the Japanese kindly allowed me to fly through their airspace,” Mack explained.
The flight plan he has been following is, for the most part, east to west. He left Sofia, Bulgaria on March 23, flew south to Africa, then across Asia to Japan. The flight from Japan to Alaska was one of the more memorable legs of his journey.
“I flew from Japan straight to the U.S., and then to one of the Aleutian islands. That was a ten-hour flight,” he said.
But that flight did not get him all the way to Anchorage or even Shemya Island, an almost deserted island in the Aleutians with a small airstrip. Instead, he landed at Attu Island, the westernmost island of the Aleutian chain and therefore the westernmost point of the United States. According to an email response from his father Sam, headwinds over the north Pacific dictated he land where he did.
“The first American island I was on. It’s completely uninhabited. That was a very special place to land. It’s a very small island in North Pacific,” Mack said.
Although deserted now, Attu Island at one time had a major military base on it and was the only place on the North American continent that the Japanese controlled during WWII. The battle to retake the island is now a largely forgotten moment in history, but it was by all accounts, brutal and horrific. There is a monument maintained by the Japanese and American governments memorializing the battle on the island.
Although just 17 years old, Rutherford seems well-equipped to take on the challenge of his journey. Both of his parents are commercial pilots, and he has had his private pilot license for two years now. “I’ve been flying my whole life. And when I was fifteen, I got my license, which at the time made me the youngest pilot in the world,” he said.
The trip around the world is winding down. His next leg takes him to JFK airport in New York then he crosses the Atlantic from Canada to Greenland, Iceland and Scotland. If all goes as scheduled, he should be touching down in Sofia on August 24.
There’s a lot of open water to cross in the Atlantic. But to Mack, flying over the ocean is some of the easiest there is, although getting ready means some extra caution.
“Beforehand, you make sure everything’s okay. To actually fly, it’s quite simple. There’s no mountains. Very little traffic,” he said.
Mack is still processing what he’s accomplishing — he hasn’t quite thought about what it will mean. He points out right now, his focus is on his mission and finishing that.
“I’m still sort of in the zone so I’m not really thinking back on what I’ve done,” he said. “More thinking [about] what I have to do. For the next day, and the next few days.”
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