Black Pilot to Create Classroom in the Sky

Barrington Irving was the youngest and the first black pilot to fly solo around the globe.

Kevin Winter/Getty Images
Kevin Winter/Getty Images

In high school, Barrington Irving was a football star who never dared to imagine a career in aviation until he met a United Airlines pilot who asked him if he’d ever considered flying. A few years later he was in college on a full scholarship, studying aeronautical engineering. By age 23 Irving, born in Jamaica and raised in inner-city Miami, had become the youngest and first black person to fly solo around the globe.

Now Irving is 28, and his goals today have less to do with breaking records and more to do with giving students interested in aeronautics careers the same opportunities that propelled his achievements. At Experience Aviation Learning Center, which Irving founded while he was still in college, middle and high school students learn about aviation and aerospace through simulators, participation in hands-on NASA activities and chartering personal flight plans that call on their math, science, reading and geography skills. In 2008 he piloted a plane built entirely by those students.

Recently he was one of several young overachievers featured at the UNCF: An Evening of Stars, which will air Jan. 29 on BET. He has also been honored with a congressional resolution acknowledging his work, but he’s not even close to being finished.

The Root talked to Irving about black children’s relationship with math- and science-based careers, given that schools often fall short in making these topics interesting, and his lofty plans for a flying classroom.

The Root: Why don’t more African-American kids pursue aerospace and other math- and science-based careers?

Barrington Irving: I really think the biggest thing is lack of exposure. Even for myself — I was a high school football star, and I always thought aviation was cool, but I didn’t think I was smart enough to do it until I met a United Airlines pilot. That changed it for me.

I start with exposure, from my global flight, to building into the [Experience Aviation Learning Center] program a project where kids build an airplane in 10 weeks, to talking at conventions. We’re able to pique student interest, and we take that and develop it into passion.

We provide students hands-on opportunities to build different things. We provide them with field trips to air shows, business and aviation conventions and so forth. We provide them access to professionals within the industry who look like them and talk like them, and they have the opportunity to speak with those professionals and ask the questions. That’s what worked for me, and I’ve just figured out a way to do it on a larger scale.