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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.

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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).

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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."

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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."