Pilot and Educator
Photograph by Jon Ross
Barrington Irving is very good at rising above obstacles. Literally. Raised in Miami's inner city, surrounded by crime, poverty, and failing schools, he beat the odds to become the youngest person and only African American ever to fly solo around the world. He built a plane himself, made his historic flight, graduated magna cum laude from an aeronautical science program, and founded a dynamic educational nonprofit. Then he turned 28.
His message for kids: "The only thing that separates you from CEOs in corner offices or scientists in labs is determination, hard work, and a passion for what you want to achieve. The only person who can stop you from doing something great is you. Even if no one believes in your dream, you have to pursue it." The secret, he believes, is having a dream in the first place, and that starts with powerful learning experiences that inspire kids to pursue careers—particularly in science, technology, engineering, and math.
The moment of inspiration for Irving came at age 15 while he was working in his parents' bookstore. One of their customers, a Jamaican-born professional pilot, asked Irving if he'd ever thought about becoming a pilot. "I told him I didn't think I was smart enough; but the next day he gave me the chance to sit in the cockpit of the commercial airplane he flew, and just like that I was hooked. There are probably millions of kids out there like me who find science and exploration amazing, but lack the confidence or opportunity to take the next step."
To follow his dream, Irving turned down a full football scholarship to the University of Florida. He washed airplanes to earn money for flight school and increased his flying skills by practicing at home on a $40 flight simulator video game.
Then another dream took hold: flying solo around the world. He faced more than 50 rejections for sponsorship before convincing several manufacturers to donate individual aircraft components. He took off with no weather radar, no de-icing system, and just $30 in his pocket. "I like to do things people say I can't do."
After 97 days, 26 stops, and dozens of thunderstorms, monsoons, snowstorms, and sandstorms, he touched down to a roaring crowd in Miami. "Stepping from the plane, it wasn't all the fanfare that changed my life. It was seeing so many young people watching and listening. I had no money, but I was determined to give back with my time, knowledge, and experience." He's been doing it ever since.
Irving's nonprofit organization, Experience Aviation, aims to boost the numbers of youth in aviation and other science- and math-related careers. Middle and high school students attend summer and after-school programs tackling hands-on robotics projects, flight simulator challenges, and field trips to major industries and corporations. In his Build and Soar program, 60 students from failing schools built an airplane from scratch in just ten weeks and then watched Irving pilot it into the clouds.
"We want to create a one-of-a-kind opportunity for students to take ownership and accomplish something amazing," he notes. "Meaningful, real-world learning experiences fire up the neurons in kids' minds. If you don't do that, you've lost them. Purposeful, inspiring activities increase the chance they'll stay on that learning and career path. We've had one young lady receive a full scholarship to Duke University as a math major, and several young men are now pilots, engineers, and aircraft mechanics."
"It's great to reach a few hundred kids every year," he says, "but I also wanted to find a way to inspire on a larger scale." How about millions of kids? Irving's next endeavor will transform a jet into a flying classroom that will circle the globe sharing science, technology, engineering, math, geography, culture, and history. "This isn't just an aircraft; it's an exploration vehicle for learning that will teach millions of kids in ways they've never been taught before—making them part of the expedition and research."
A web-based experience will make it easy for kids to participate at home and school, voting on everything from where Irving should make a fuel stop to what local food he should sample. He plans to call classrooms from the cockpit; broadcast live video from 45,000 feet; blog with students; collect atmospheric data; communicate with the International Space Station; and wear a NASA body suit that transmits his heart rate, blood pressure, and other vital signs.
Along the way, kids will have a virtual window on about 75 ground expeditions, including Machu Picchu, the Galápagos Islands, the Pyramids, the Serengeti Plains, the Roman Coliseum, the Taj Mahal, and the Great Wall of China. Cameras will provide 360-degree panoramic views of destinations from ancient archaeological sites to Hong Kong skyscrapers. Apps will track adventures such as shark tagging, giving students ongoing location and water temperature data.
A steady stream of challenges will let kids compete to solve problems ranging from evacuating populations after tsunamis to collecting trash in space. "We also want to create a forum where kids, parents, and teachers can speak to astronauts, scientists, and other specialists."
This "Journey for Knowledge" flight is scheduled to depart in 2013 and will make Irving the youngest person ever to fly to all seven continents.
Perhaps Irving's most compelling educational tool is the example his own life provides. After landing his record-breaking flight at age 23, he smiled out at the airfield crowd and said, "Everyone told me what I couldn't do. They said I was too young, that I didn't have enough money, experience, strength, or knowledge. They told me it would take forever and I'd never come home. Well ... guess what?"
Latest Explorer News
Follow @Captainirving on Twitter
In Their Words
Kids want to be challenged, but today too many are bored and uninspired. I want to use aviation to excite and empower a new generation to become scientists, engineers, and explorers.
Barrington Irving became the youngest person (and first African American) to fly solo around the world when the 23-year-old landed in Miami on June 27, 2007.
Tell Me More is taking a look at African Americans in science, technology, engineering and math who are inspiring future generations.
Our Explorers in Action
Meet female explorers who have pushed the limits in adventure, science, and more.