By Robert Louis DalColletto
On Oct. 15, 2008, at Opa-Locka Airport in Florida, Barrington Irving — the youngest person and first black pilot to fly solo around the world — climbed into a student-built aircraft called Inspiration II while a crowd of 4,000 students (including 14 busloads of NASA students) watched him take to the sky.
As Irving settled into the cockpit, he paused and thought to himself, “I know why I’m doing this,but I can’t believe I’m doing this.”
Then as a cameraman signaled for comment, Irving looked into the priceless faces surrounding him in awe and simply said, “No risk, no reward.”
It’s that motto that made Irving’s Experience Aviation a reality. Experience Aviation is a non-profit organization founded by Irving to inspire inner city youth and encourage them to pursue careers in aviation. It is the foundation for the “Build and Soar” program, which provides a unique opportunity for students to receive instruction, work with a team and build a functioning airplane. It is Irving’s way of giving back the gift and opportunity in aviation introduced to him by his early mentor, Capt. Gary Robinson.
Irving collaborated with the George T. Baker Aviation School for this inaugural project. He and Baker School instructors worked tirelessly with 60 selected students from Carol City and Norland senior high schools. Each student participated in this special hands-on opportunity to build an airplane with their own hands and to work in a self-esteem-building, team environment.
“The students worked five days a week, eight hours a day, for 10 weeks, some even 10 to12 hours a day — it was very impressive to witness,” Irving said. And in the words of Davon Ochoa (11th grade, age 17),”Captain Irving influenced me to go to school, study hard and follow my dreams. His program has given me a chance to do something with my life.”
The Zenith XL aircraft was named Inspiration II in honor of Inspiration, the single-engine Columbia 4000 that Irving flew 30,000 miles around the world in 2007.
“I trusted the students and they trusted me. They held up their end of the bargain by building the plane, and I had to hold up my end of the bargain by flying it,” he said. “When I flew around the world, my life was in my own hands. But now my life was in these students’ hands, and once that runway disappeared, it was very intense.”
For 10 suspenseful minutes, Irving flew Inspiration II, demonstrating his deep faith and confidence in the ability of the students, who cheered triumphantly from below. Afterwards, several of the students, many of whom didn’t think he was actually going to fly the airplane, came forward with their impressions:
“This program opened my eyes to a world that was unknown to me,” said Shammon Julme (12th grade, age 16).
“I’m very happy about Barrington bringing this program to our schools. When I heard about it I immediately signed up,” said Thomas Nelson(10th grade, age 15).
“I’m very grateful for all the people who believed in us, especially Mr. Barrington Irving. He had a lot of faith and trust in us,” said Ruschay Levy (10th grade, age 15).
Irving got the idea for Build and Soar last summer, during his around-the-world, record-setting flight. While pondering the current worldwide shortage of engineers and mechanics in aviation, Irving wanted to make it easier for underprivileged students to discover aviation, for personal development and career opportunities.
The proof of the program’s success is the life-changing impact it has made on the participants. Many say Build and Soar has kept them in school and out of trouble. “Build & Soar helped me better myself. It allowed me to meet new people and learn new things. Barrington helped motivate me to finish school and pursue a good career,” said Kenneth Mack (10th grade, age 16). Durante Felton agreed. “Barrington helped me stay out of trouble and better myself instead. Being in the Build & Soar program will help me achieve my future goals,” said Felton(11th grade, age 16).
After safely landing Inspiration II, Irving recalled, “I couldn’t believe the expressions on the kid’s faces, how proud they were. I knew that day that I had touched those kids’ lives and that they would touch the lives of so many other students.”
Irving’s vision is to take Build and Soar across the nation to introduce thousands more students to aviation. He inspires and empowers his students to believe in a dream. For 16-year-old Deshorn King that has made all the difference.
“The program has opened many doors to help me fulfill my dream of becoming a pilot. If it wasn’t for Barrington, I would never have gotten this experience,” King said.
As for Irving, his dream is fulfilled every time he sees his own reflection in the face of a young person interested in aviation.
Irving’s upcoming book is scheduled for publication by Scholastic in the spring of 2009. For more information about Irving, his flight and the Experience Aviation programs, visit [http://www.experienceaviation.org].