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.
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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.
"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."
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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."