As a young man at Miami Northwestern Senior High School, Barrington Irving knew he had potential. He imagined a football scholarship to a state school would fulfill that potential. When the Opa-locka native was offered a full ride to the University of Florida, he was set.
But another dream took off. Before turning 29 years old, Irving became the youngest person and the first black pilot to fly around the world, the founder of a non-profit organization and most recently, one of 15 National Geographic Emerging Explorers in 2012. The award recognizes pioneers in emerging fields, and sponsors them on their newest adventures. Irving, who has dedicated his time to educating young people about engineering and aviation, is going to use the benefits of the title to create the world’s first virtual flying classroom.
His journey began in Miami, long before he took off on his first flight.
Irving was sixteen and working at his parents’ bookstore in Miami Gardens when he met Gary Robinson, a customer and a commercial pilot. Robinson told Irving about the life of a pilot. Although the salary was intriguing, Irving didn’t feel he was smart enough.
“I never had that confidence,” Irving said.
But his confidence soared when Robinson invited Irving to take a test flight with him in a training plane from the Opa-locka airport. Flying above his own neighborhood, from the airport he lived so close to, Irving became enamored with aviation. Robinson gave Irving a handheld radio that could tune into airport traffic control, helping Irving tune into his own calling. Upon graduating, Irving rejected the UF football scholarship and started working odd jobs. He cleaned pools. He bagged groceries. But he dreamed of the skies. While he saved up, Irving started studying aeronautical science at Florida Memorial University in Miami Gardens.
With the help of his mentor, Irving started learning how to fly planes, first with simulator software, which he now uses with students grades 3 through 12 in his after-school and summer camp program, Experience Aviation. The non-profit educational program is based at Opa-locka Airport and for the first time this year, the newly restored Glen Curtiss Mansion in Miami Springs. Through the program, which he started in 2008, he has mentored hundreds of students in the South Florida area. Because of Irving’s success in aviation, he decided to give back by encouraging young people to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
“My ultimate goal is to show young people that they can do amazing things,” said Irving.
It’s something that Irving showed the world when he flew around the world in a plane put together from over $300,000 worth of donated parts. Irving reached out to aviation companies, telling them about his passion for flying and aerospace engineering. The companies saw the young man’s effort as remarkable. The airplane, a Cessna 400, is named the "Inspiration," and was manufactured and assembled by the Columbia Aircraft Mfg. Co. in 2005. Without a de-icing system or weather radar, the 23-year-old pilot took off from Miami making the unprecedented journey around the globe.
Upon landing, Irving felt the accomplishment would not be complete without teaching minority youth that they could do the same. Under his guidance, 60 high school students built a plane in 10 weeks– from scratch. Then, Barrington tested it out with a flight over Miami. The program evolved into Experience Aviation, which starts June 18th this year. There are some students in the program that are coming straight from jail, and some that are straight-A students. But according to Irving, you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference when they’re learning how to fly on a simulator, or building an engine.