Historic aviator inspires others

2/10/2017, 8:53 p.m.
Jamaica native Barrington Irving moved to Miami with his family when he was 6, excelled on the gridiron and as …
Nick Booker, a seventh-grader at Richmond Preparatory Christian Academy’s Douglass School, takes a selfie with aviator Barrington Irving, left, following Mr. Irving’s talk Wednesday to several hundred students at the Science Museum of Virginia. Also in the selfie is Elbert Brinson, dean of the Douglass School.

By Holly Rodriguez

Jamaica native Barrington Irving moved to Miami with his family when he was 6, excelled on the gridiron and as a student and had several football scholarship offers when his career ambitions suddenly changed from football to flying.

He was working in his parents’ bookstore, he recalls, “when I saw this white Lincoln Navigator pull up, and a brother in a sleek suit stepped out of it.

“As a kid who grew up in the ’hood with limited means, that immediately got my attention.”

The man was Capt. Gary Robinson, a fellow Jamaican who was flying airliners for United Airlines.

The captain asked Mr. Irving, who was 18 at the time, if he’d ever thought about becoming a pilot. When he responded that he did not think he was smart enough, Capt. Robinson invited him to sit in the cockpit of a Boeing 777 the next day.

That’s when Mr. Irving knew he was hooked.

Putting football aside, he went to college with the goal of becoming a pilot.

Six years after meeting the man who continues to be his mentor today, Mr. Irving became the youngest person and first African-American to fly solo around the world. He was 24.

What adds to his record-breaking, 97-day flight through trying weather conditions ranging from sandstorms to monsoons is the fact that Mr. Irving had the plane built using $300,000 in donated parts.

His dream to fly around the world was built from the ground up.

He named the plane “Inspiration,” which is what Mr. Irving does today as he speaks to audiences around the globe.

Now 33, Mr. Irving talked with more than 600 youngsters Wednesday afternoon at the Science Museum of Virginia in Richmond. He talked about his experiences, his strong belief in hands-on learning and using aviation as a platform for teaching lessons in STEM.

“Exposure to the possibilities of where students can go is key, but people conform to and explore what they are told,” he said.

“Starting out, I imagined the world through (Capt. Robinson’s) words when he spoke of his travels.”

His visit was sponsored by the Science Museum in partnership with the Steward School. Students from the school, as well as youngsters from Richmond Prepatory Christian Academy, the Boys and Girls Clubs of Metro Richmond, Divas with A Purpose, Gentlemen of Valor and Youth Life Foundation of Richmond, were able to interact with him during the program.

Mr. Irving was a student at Broward College in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., when he made his flight. He went on to earn a bachelor’s in aeronautical science from Florida Memorial University, a historically black institution in Miami Gardens, Fla.

In 2012, he received the National Geographic Emerging Explorer Award and started a mentorship program, Experience Aviation. Through the nonprofit, he has raised more than $1.3 million in scholarships to support students with an interest in science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, programs and careers.

Mr. Irving also has a website, “The Flying Classroom,” which is an online tool for students and teachers alike. Through the website, youngsters and adults can follow him as he travels around the world and covers topics such as how Nike is using recycled bottles to make uniforms, and how an artist on the Indonesian island of Bali uses art to create artificial reefs to help restore coral colonies.

“I knew that setting out on my journey around the world was risky and there were people who told me I couldn’t do it,” he said. “But I decided to do it anyway, and that’s what I want students to take away from my story — that they determine how far they can go, that it’s up to them to decide their own success.”

To visit Mr. Irving’s websites, go to www.flyingclassroom.com and www.experienceaviation.org.