Barrington Irving was recently presented the National Aeronautic Association‘s Frank G. Brewer Trophy for Aviation Education for “significant contributions of enduring value to aerospace education in the United States.”
Irving was raised in Miami’s inner city, surrounded by crime, poverty, and failing schools. But 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 an educational non-profit — all before age 28.
NAA President and CEO Jonathan Gaffney, chairman of the Selection Committee, said, “Barrington Irving’s inspirational story combined with his passion and dedication to aviation education is apparent in all he has done. He truly reflects the spirit of the Brewer Trophy.”
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,” Irving recalled, “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 the University of Florida. Instead, he washed airplanes to earn money for flight school and increased his flying skills by practicing at home on a flight simulator video game.
He also has a message for kids: “The only thing that separates 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.”
Irving’s nonprofit 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.
Irving’s next endeavor will transform a jet into a flying classroom that will circle the globe sharing science, technology, engineering, math, geography, culture, and history. The web-based experience will make it easy for kids to participate at home and school, voting on everything from where Irving should make a fuel stop to what local food he should sample. He plans to call classrooms from the cockpit; broadcast live video from 45,000 feet; blog with students; collect atmospheric data; communicate with the International Space Station; and wear a NASA body suit that transmits his heart rate, blood pressure, and other vital signs.