Barrington Irving: Sky’s The Limit

“Aviation provides a sense of wonder,” Barrington Irving told me over the phone a few days before Christmas while driving to his office at Miami’s Opa-Locka Executive Airport. Irving made headlines in 2007 at the age of 23, when he became the youngest person and the first black pilot ever to fly solo around the world.

Irving covered 30,000 miles and four continents in a span of about three months, from March 23rd to June 27th. During the circumnavigation, he was challenged by sandstorms in Asia and Africa and freezing conditions in the North Atlantic and North Pacific. He also witnessed such wonders as Alaska’s breathtaking glaciers and the skyscraper-dense Dubai while being immersed in the world’s cultures on his stops along the way.

“As a young man, I never had the mental perspective that I was going to live a long life, so I said I want to do this,” said Irving. “If I live or die, it will be worth something.”

Originally from Kingston, Jamaica, Irving grew up in Miami where he attended Miami Northwestern Senior High School in Liberty City. A football star in high school, Irving imagined his only hope for college would be on an athletic scholarship. A chance meeting with a Jamaican United Airlines pilot Captain Gary Robinson, who would become his mentor, shifted his focus to aviation at age 15. It was Irving’s tenacity, as well as the generosity of leaders in the aviation industry, that got his dream off the ground. With the guidance of Miami Executive Aviation, Irving secured $300,000 worth of donated parts in order to create his Columbia 400 aircraft named “Inspiration.” Chevron got on board to donate fuel for both training and the voyage while Universal Weather and Aviation provided assistance with flight planning and logistics at airports around the world.

Aviation held a sense of wonder for Irving since he was a teenager, but it was also the students at the non-profit he founded in 2005 that inspired his global flight. Experience Aviation’s mission is to introduce young people—especially at-risk middle and high school students from the inner city—to aviation, aerospace, and related fields through hands-on projects and activities, thereby enriching their skills in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM).

“I was so grateful to be introduced to aviation by my mentor [Captain Robinson],” said Irving. “He instilled in me the importance of giving back. He said, ‘Give time, give knowledge, give experience.’”
Through after-school and summer programs, students have the opportunity to work on Microsoft flight simulators, participate in NASA activities, and even build their own aircraft.

Barring Irving and his mentor, Captain Gary Robinson

One year after Irving’s flight around the world, his students at Experience Aviation would accomplish their own incredible feat. Over the course of 10 weeks, 60 students worked together to build an airplane that would normally take about six months to complete. Irving demonstrated his faith in his students’ work by flying the plane on its successful maiden voyage.
“The greatest way to engage kids is to challenge them with something really cool,” said Irving. “They were so proud of their accomplishment.”
Irving’s dedication to education and aviation continues to evolve, as he’s currently working on creating the first flying classroom at an altitude of 41,000 feet. Partnering with Embraer, the third largest aircraft manufacturer in the world, they’ll turn the Phenom 100 private jet into an online learning center. Irving will have the ability to host blogs and stream live footage while he flies to different regions of the world. He plans to travel to all seven continents and explore different careers in science, technology, engineering, and math in order to expose his students to real life applications of these skills.
For Irving, it seems the sky’s the limit for his ambitions in aviation and education. “Who knows,” he said, “Maybe one day I’ll go to space.”

Interview conducted by Shayne BenowitzTwitter @ShayneBenowitz