Idea Festival: Barrington Irving, flying solo

Barrington Irving has seen a lot more of the world than most college students. What’s more impressive is that he was the one flying. Earlier this year, Barrington completed a round-the-world solo flight, taking 97 days to travel 27,000 miles. He’s (unofficially) the youngest person to make a round the world solo flight and the first person of African descent to do so. The trip involved visits to Newfoundland, the Azores, Spain, Egypt, UAE, Hong Kong and crossings of the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.

Irving was born in Kingston, Jamaica, and grew up in inner-city Miami. He attended Northwestern Senior High, one of the great football powers in America. (Northwestern is the second ranked football school in the nation, facing off against a major football power in Dallas tomorrow.) He was a star football player, heading towards a scholarship at a Division I college. But a mentor put him on a different path – Captain Gary Robinson, who flies for United, met Irving as he was considering his college and career prospects. Irving admits that one of the first questions he asked his mentor was “How much money can you make doing this?” The answer – $117 dollars an hour – helped convince him to consider a career outside of football.

It was difficult, though, at a football-mad high school to pass up “signing day”, and “sign with me, myself and I”. And it required a huge amount of work washing airplanes on the tarmac for Irving to earn $6000 he needed to earn his first pilot’s license.

Early in his aviation career, Irving decided he wanted to achieve a major goal – a round-the-world flight. The challenge started well before he got in the air – he needed to find a plane capable of long-distance flights, which meant getting a custom-built single engine plane assembled by Columbia Aircraft. The deal he struck with Columbia was that, if he was able to get all the appropriate parts donated, they’d build his craft. He solicited parts one vendor at a time, getting a $30,000 set of seats from one vendor, the engine from another. To get the engine, he drove from Florida to Alabama, and took a tour of Continental Aviation, pretending “to be a spoiled rich kid, trying to find out whether these engines were good enough for his plane.” He talked his way into the president’s office, gave a five minute pitch, and was rewarded a few weeks later with a commitment to donate a $83,000 engine.

In total, the airplane cost $300,000, entirely built by sponsors. It took two and a half years simply to line up the sponsors. Major support from Chevron, to provide fuel, and Universal Weather, a flight planning firm, made the trip possible. It took more than a year to gain all the permits neccesary to fly over countries like Saudi Arabia and Iran. Irving’s team for planning and executing the event was his best friend, Juan Rivera, and a volunteer PR person. The aircraft lacked some basic gear you might expect for an around-the-world flight – it had no deicing system, and outside of the US, no radar. As he puts it, “outside the US, I was flying Lindberg style.”

Irving’s point in executing the project was to call attention to the possibility of careers in aviation for youth, especially inner city youth. He points out that the aviation industry is ageing very quickly – the average age for an aviation engineer is 54. There’s a need to hire 15,000 air traffic controllers over the next decade. He points out that many of the world’s major airports are located in “the backyard of inner cities” – inner-city kids should be training for these sorts of careers. Irving now runs a program called Experience Aviation which is designed to train kids for careers in aviation.

Before he could complete his flight, Irving points out, he had experiences of rejection, of ridicule, of disappointment. He keeps these rejection letters as a reminder of what’s required to live your dream, to follow your vision and persist. It’s an impressive achievement and an amazing story to hear from a 23-year old – the work required to make the trip possible is at least as impressive to me as Irving’s stories about landing on a tiny island in the Bering Straits in a terrible summer storm.

In fielding questions, Irving admits how close to failure he came in executing his project. Early in his trip, he was grounded for two weeks in snowstorms in St. John, Newfoundland. When he took off for the Azores and flew nine hours over unfamiliar ocean, he freaked out, and seriously considered ditching his airplane. Fortunately, he realized that he was simply responding badly to the stress of the event, and brought the craft in safely. But the experience caused him to realize how important mental preparation was before flying any leg of the trip.

It’s likely that you’ll hear Irving’s story in the near future – he’s producing a book and a documentary, designed to support his work with an educational center. And he admits that he’s intrigued by the idea of private space flight, if only he can persuade his mother that those plans aren’t even crazier than his round-the-world flight.

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2 Responses to Idea Festival: Barrington Irving, flying solo

  1. Henok says:

    What a great story. Thanks for sharing Ethan.

  2. Keith says:

    Inspirational…..gives me incentive to get back to flying ( not flown for 3 yrs) regardless of the obstacles – mainly financial. Great for black people to read of success stories like this and to realise the sky is indeed the limit

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