Barrington Irving stood silently in front of the cheering crowd. It was all for him, this mass of thousands eager to see him start his historic journey around the Earth.
"Please forgive me, " Irving said Friday at Opa-locka Executive Airport. "I just need to soak it all in."
Irving was still wondering about it all. Just a few years ago, people mocked the 23-year-old's desire to become the youngest person -- and first black -- to fly solo around the world.
Now, he was about to do it. Schoolchildren smiled in front of him. His parents and politicians sobbed behind him.
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Somehow, Irving, a Northwestern high school graduate still working toward a college degree, got them all to believe in his dream.
He left Friday on a speedy single-engine plane, "Inspiration." He'll fly 25,600 miles. He'll return the end of April, after stopping to see places he never thought he'd see: Athens, Rome, Dubai, Bangkok, even Cleveland.
For so long, Irving said, he has wanted to fly away from the violence around him. His family came to Florida from Jamaica's violent capital, Kingston. They moved to Miami Gardens, he played school football in Liberty City -- but still found violence. He wasn't sure how to escape.
Aboard Inspiration, Irving said he wants to jet past the negativity he's seen all his life.
"If I saw a pilot who looked like me when I was a little boy, I would have said 'No way, ' " said Irving, whose parents owned a small bookstore in Pembroke Pines. "Men who live around me never had careers like that."
Then he met Gary Robinson, a Jamaican-born pilot who became his mentor. Irving, all of 15, became fascinated with flying.
At 19, he got his pilot's license. He's majoring in aerospace at nearby Florida Memorial University, where he also became a member of the ROTC program.
His dream came up one day about three years ago when he and fellow ROTC cadets were traveling to the University of Miami for a training exercise. They were discussing what they wanted to do after college, recalled Curtis Major, FMU's transportation manager.
A wide-eyed Irving told Major and the others, "I am going to fly around the world."
"They all looked at me like I was kind of crazy, " Irving recalled. "They all wanted to know why I wanted to even bother."
He told them he wanted to see the wonders of the world -- and to be the type of role model for children that he didn't have.
All he needed was the money and the plane, so he sought sponsors. At first, they all gave him the same look as the ROTC students.
He tore his rejection letters in frustration. Then he began saving others in boxes. He has more than 50.
Fabio Alexander V, chief executive of Miami Executive Aviation, was the first willing sponsor. He pledged $100,000.
"I really tried to test his will and spirt, " Alexander said. "Why would a football player want to fly planes? But he was so determined. I couldn't say no. "
Irving traveled the country to get more support. He also gave speeches to children from North Carolina to Mississippi and opened a flight learning center at the Opa-locka airport for local children.
In all, more than 40 sponsors have contributed $600,000 worth of donations.
Preparing for the flight, he tried to keep his blood pressure down by trying not to worry. He's been drinking 80 ounces of water a day to keep hydrated -- and 16 ounces of energy drinks to keep awake. He's done light weights and has jogged at least a half-hour a day. He has prayed for safety.
His cockpit is tiny, about 7 feet tall and 10 feet wide and holds only a few things: two Red Bull cartons, a carton of bottled water, a new Bible, thank-you notes from children, that box of rejection letters.
"People refer to me as a prodigy, " Irving told Friday's crowd. "But I'm not. I'm just an ordinary person, surrounded by extraordinary people, empowered by an extraordinary guy."
Then he climbed into Inspiration. He circled the airport four times, then flew off. His parents, Clovalyn and Barrington Irving Sr., watched, their eyes filling with tears, as their son disappeared into the sky.
A black woman and her son walked and tapped them on their shoulders.
"I just wanted to introduce my son to you, " said Denise Johnson, in the company of her 12-year-old, Albert Porter. "He wants to be the next great pilot."
FAMOUS SOLO & ROUND-THE-WORLD FLIGHTS
Hundreds of people have embarked on solo and round-the-world flights. Here are some of the more famous ones:
MAY 20-21, 1927First solo nonstop transatlantic flight. Charles A. Lindbergh lifted his Wright-powered Ryan monoplane, Spirit of St. Louis, from Roosevelt Field, N.Y., to travel 3,600 miles to Le Bourget Field outside Paris. It took 33 hours, 39 minutes.
MAY 20-21,1932First woman's transatlantic solo. Amelia Earhart, flying a Pratt & Whitney Wasp-powered Lockheed Vega, flew alone from Harbor Grace, Newfoundland, to Ireland in approximately 15 hours.
JULY 15-22,1933 First round-the-world solo flight. Wiley Post took a Lockheed Vega, Winnie Mae, 15,596 miles around the world in 7 days, 18 hours, 49½ minutes.
MAY 29, 1951First solo flight across North Pole. Charles F. Blair Jr. flew a modified P-51.
FEB. 28-MARCH 3, 2005First nonstop solo flight around the world without refueling. Steve Fossett flew the Virgin Atlantic Globalflyer 22,878 miles around the world, arriving back in Kansas 67 hours later