Wing and a prayer propel a young black pilot to aviation records

Barrington Irving shunned the drugs and gangs of his Miami neighborhood for his dream of flying – now he helps other kids soar.

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

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    The aviator: Barrington Irving teaches Aliyah Tarpley-Fullard at his nonprofit center in Miami. Irving is the youngest, and first person of African descent, to fly solo around the world.
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Like many children growing up on the streets of Miami's poorest neighborhoods, Barrington Irving did not dream he would become one of life's high flyers. Born in Jamaica to a Catholic family that moved to Florida when he was six, his greatest ambition was to evade the drugs, gangs, and violence that blighted Miami Gardens.

But after discovering a passion for aviation from a chance meeting with an American Airlines pilot when he was 15, Irving set his sights higher.

Today, after an extraordinary year that saw him fly solo around the world in 97 days – the youngest pilot (he was 23) and the first person of African descent to do so, according to Earthrounders, an organization that tracks world flight records – Irving is, by his own admission, soaring.

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"It's still a complete whirlwind right now, even though I've been back for several months," he says.

In those months, he has traveled the country sharing tales of his epic adventure in schools, at charity dinners and community groups, and even returned to Jamaica, where he was honored with the government's Musgrave Award for young achievers before thousands of well-wishers.

Now, with the same determination that helped him raise money for the flight and saw him through long hours in the cockpit of his custom-built, single-engine Columbia 400 plane – battling 100 mph winds, sandstorms, monsoons, and turbulence – he has thrown himself into a new project.

At Miami's Opa-locka Airport, Irving has set up Experience Aviation, a nonprofit learning center aimed at introducing school children to the joy of flying. The center, he says, will address the shortage of youth pursuing aviation.

"I want my historic venture, and the center, to be for young people who are looking for a purpose in life beyond the streets of the inner city," Irving says.

"It doesn't matter where you come from, what you have, what you don't have. The only thing that matters is that you set a goal and you just dream, live, and fly."

• • •

Irving's earliest years were spent in Spanishtown, one of Jamaica's most deprived parishes. As a child in Miami, he helped out at the Christian bookshop managed by his father, a Sunday School teacher who had brought his family over to the US in search of a better life.

One day, while Irving was stacking books, an American Airlines pilot and a fellow Jamaican, Gary Robinson, entered the shop. Captain Robinson struck up a conversation with the young man, and later took him to see the cockpit of his Boeing 777. The experience ignited his passion for the skies.

Robinson says he saw something special in the young student – humility coupled with a determination to overcome any obstacle.

"I speak to a lot of young people. Some get it and some don't. When I spoke to Barrington, we spoke for an hour. He got it. He wanted to fly," says Robinson, who became Irving's mentor.

From then on, Irving spent every spare minute at Opa-locka airport, washing planes to raise money for flying lessons. He bought flight simulator software from tips, and spent hours on the family's aging computer.

"I'm grateful for what I had," Irving says. "When my parents first came here, when I was 6, they worked hard and I learned so much from them. A lot of young people aren't blessed or as fortunate to have both parents in the household taking care of them."

He credits his parents' guidance for helping him escape the crime that claimed many of his peers in the depressed Miami Gardens neighborhood.

Their shared faith, he says, is another constant in their lives. "I spoke to God a lot while I was alone up there," he says. "My relationship with Him played a huge part in what I've done and what I'm doing. It helped me get through the challenge and keeps me grounded, no matter how great a feat I accomplished."

For his journey, Irving, who completed his flight training at Florida Memorial University with a community scholarship, begged his own sponsorship, and $300,000 worth of parts from aircraft manufacturers for his custom-built plane. (Naming the plane "Inspiration," he says, was a no-brainer).

Even so, it was a shoestring affair. The day he flew out of Opa-locka, Irving had just $30 in his pocket, and fundraising continued through his journey. Other challenges included his fear of heights, inability to swim (he learned to float in case of emergency), and the solitude. "One of the things that can cripple any pilot is getting too emotional and losing focus," he says.

The rewards were some stunning views of the planet and a crash-course in world culture. Monsoons and a storm allowed him to enjoy extra time in Calcutta, Tokyo, and Hong Kong.

"I wish I'd had more time to spend in Bangkok because half a day was not enough to learn much about the Thai culture," he says. "But that gives me a reason to return someday. There's so much to learn about the different countries and cultures in the world."

As the eldest of three boys, Irving sometimes worries that his youngest brother's ambition to become an astronaut might be too much for their mother Clovalyn, who, he says, was apprehensive about his own trip. His father, whose own dreams of obtaining a private pilot license were thwarted by tight finances, is unsurprised by his son's accomplishments.

"I have a great sense of pride knowing that Barrington is a trailblazer in the family. I'm a high-risk person and I think he got those genes, he's a child of destiny and of purpose," says Barrington Irving Sr.

"With him on the mission I never had any doubt. I never had any fear that he wouldn't be successful."

• • •

The children attending Irving's center say Irving is cool because he's achieved something so early. "He's so young and did a lot on his own," says Aliyah Tarpley-Fullard, 11, a sixth-grader at Miami's Bob Graham Education Center, where 88 percent of students are from racial minorities.

"He showed you can do whatever you want to do, and don't let people tell you that you can't. My mom wanted me to come to the center, she's big on African-American stuff ... I've learned a lot."

Aliyah is one of hundreds of children from schools in some of Miami's most destitute areas, getting a rare chance to play with simulators, sit in a real plane, and hear about the wealth of careers in aviation – pilots, engineers, air-traffic controllers.

"Less than 1 percent of pilots [in the US] are black, and the problem has been a lack of exposure. What he is doing is making kids aware that the opportunities are there and that there are black pilots out there," says Captain A. J. Tolbert, director of the Pilots in Schools program for the Organization of Black Airline Pilots.

According to the organization, there are only 674 blacks, 14 of them women, among the nation's 71,000 pilots flying with major commercial, commuter, and freight airlines.

"That's the most ironic thing," Irving says. "A lot of these airports are located in the backyard of these schools, and how many of the kids ever go past the gates? Every class I go to, I ask, 'Who's ever been on a plane?' I might get 8 or 10 hands out of a class of 30 kids.

"Here you have an industry that needs young talent, and there you have kids out on the streets with nothing to do. The key is bringing the two together." So with financial help from the Children's Trust and equipment from local and national businesses, Experience Aviation was born.

He's so passionate about his venture that at 4 a.m. the day after his round-the-world trip, when anyone else would've been resting, he and a friend were ripping down ceiling tiles at his new center.

Now, sitting behind the desk of his new office, he ponders expanding the project to Jamaica – and perhaps even another grand adventure. He won't rule it out, but says he doesn't know where he will find the time.

"I've found my calling here," he says. "I think this is my main niche – education, entrepreneurship, and aviation. I'm not an investor in stock, I'm an investor in lives."

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