“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 aviators, scientists, engineers, and explorers."
-Barrington Irving, Pilot and Educator
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.
Irving’s message for kids: “The only thing separating 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, starting with powerful learning experiences that inspire kids to pursue careers, particularly in STEM: Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math.
The moment of inspiration for Irving came at age 15 while working in his parent's 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,” says Irving, “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 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 orchestrated the assembly of the plane from the donated parts and 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,” Irving says.
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,” he says. “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 has been doing it ever since.
Irving's non-profit 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 10 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 Hawker 400XPR jet into a flying classroom circling the globe in three two-month trips, sharing the world’s first STEM+ curriculum: 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.”
The web-based experience will make it easy for kids to participate at home and school, voting on everything