“I pursued a career I never thought possible for myself because of a chance meeting with a pilot.” – Captain Barrington Irving
Captain Barrington Irving
Several years ago, I picked up a National Geographic Kids Magazine to read with my son Adrian at bedtime. Together, we read an incredibly inspiring story about Captain Barrington Irving, the youngest pilot and first African American to fly around the world at the age of 23. Not only did he break the record, but he did so in an airplane that he assembled himself with parts that he raised money for over several years!
Talk about perseverance and creativity at play.
At the time I read his story, I was in the middle of researching inspiration and how it functions, especially in terms of work and extraordinary performance. I remember thinking in that moment, I’ve got to learn more about this inspiring man…
In 2018, I reached out to him to see if he would be willing to speak to us about inspiration… and he said yes! I learned so much about his life and professional journey, what inspired him to fly around the world and how his inspiration sparks have evolved over time. Some highlights from our conversation are featured below. Buckle your seatbelts and get ready because Captain Irving’s message flies high in terms of vision, passion, and inspiration.
What is the experience of inspiration like to you?
“I pursued a career I never thought possible for myself because of a chance meeting with a pilot. I simply wanted to inspire kids by breaking a record flying around the world. This simply would have never happened had I not been inspired by Captain Gary Robinson, who introduced me to aviation as a kid.” They met in a bookstore when Captain Irving was 15 years old.
“After I became a young pilot, I said to Captain Gary Robinson, ‘I want to fly around the world to inspire kids.’ If he had said ‘No, don’t do that,’ I would have never done it. Instead, he said ‘If there is anyone I believe can execute it and get it done, it’s you.’ At that time, I had only 200 flight hours clocked and had never flown a plane internationally. He’s the one who inspired me.”
I noticed you named your plane, the one you flew around the world in 2007 date, Inspiration. Why?
“Inspiration drives me to do things I never before thought possible. When I build the plane to fly around the world, I named it Inspiration to remind me of this. Years later, when I worked with kids to have them build their first plane, we named it Inspiration 2, and then the next one, Inspiration 3.”
Years ago, you were inspired to become a pilot – then you were inspired to break the world record by flying around the world. How has your inspiration evolved today?
“Now what inspires me is working with young people through the organization I founded called Experience Aviation and our Flying Classroom Curriculum. We have kids from all backgrounds build airplanes from scratch and fly them. Inspiration is a common denominator in learning, where economic status doesn’t matter. If you want to sell children on the value of learning, if you want to gain their buy in, you have to inspire them. How do I take kids who have no hands-on skills, skip class, don’t see value in it and have them build an airplane from scratch? When they are inspired, they want to learn. They don’t ask the question “how much math do I have to learn to do this?” They just learn what they need to learn to make it happen.
Also, today, I’m inspired by the future of travel on planet Earth or space. This is my ongoing inspiration, my third or fourth wind. It’s evolved for me over time.”
Irving continues to inspire middle and high school students to pursue aviation-related careers, frequently speaking at schools and events nationwide. He has traveled to more than 50 countries, conducted 30 STEP expeditions, and is constantly on the lookout for ways to push students to reach for their dreams, as he did.
How do you sustain inspiration?
“I’m still in contact with Gary Robinson, he’s an amazing individual who saw more potential for me than I saw for myself.
I will never forget how after flying around the world a teacher thanked me for inspiring her students. She took down a shower curtain of the world and used a sharpie highlighting everywhere I went to and created lessons around my trip. She said: “thank you for inspiring them… now, I need you to empower them.” For me, this was a life changing message because I thought I did something great to inspire kids with my flight. But, two to three years later, I realized that in order to empower someone you first have to inspire them to go beyond, do beyond. We often look at inspiration as a one-time experience. You need to be constantly inspired.
When you are inspired, things function differently – you are more willing to sacrifice and to take risks.
A lot of times society looks at inspiration as if it’s a cute, generous thing to do in life. I see it as being core to how we function as a society.”
I experienced so many takeaways from my conversation with Captain Irving. A big insight for me is how his initial inspiration which started in a specific chance moment (meeting Captain Gary Robinson at the age of 15) has stayed with him – he’s been able to sustain it over time by staying connected to Captain Robinson (inspiration engine mentors and heroes). Captain Irving has also kept inspiration alive over the years by evolving his experience of it, through what he calls his “second wind” and “third wind.” His inspiration has expanded over time to the domains of education, empowerment, and innovation in flight. He even noted that he plans to go after another world record, which is one of the key ways we talk about sustaining inspiration over time – by directing it toward meaningful goals and extraordinary performance.