In 2007, at age 23, Captain Barrington Irving became the youngest pilot to fly around the world solo in a single engine airplane. This Tuesday, he will revolutionize online learning when he takes off from Washington, D.C. in the world’s first Flying Classroom. Before his departure, Captain Irving answered a few questions about his role as a mentor and educator and why it means more to him than setting world records.
How did you get the idea to turn a jet into a classroom?
I didn’t just want to fly around the world again. It’s one thing to inspire people, but I wanted to empower and educate too. One day it hit me: what if I could create a real life magic school bus with wings to reach millions of kids? But how? How could I create a real life magic school bus when every kid in America wouldn’t be able to fit into the airplane?
It took a while to figure out. I didn’t want the Flying Classroom to just be something kids could follow after school. I wanted them to be able to utilize it in the classroom as well. I began to wonder. What if we were able to help teachers teach math and science while doing something cool to engage the kids? That’s really what we wanted to do. We wanted to take kids on a journey to learn.
Has your goal changed since that first idea?
The goal hasn’t changed. There are tons of Barringtons out there, kids who don’t really know what they want to do in life. I grew up less than two miles from an airport and never thought I was smart enough to fly a plane. Then I actually met a pilot who showed me otherwise. I don’t believe kids in America hate math and science. It’s not that they don’t want to be engineers. They just have limited interactions with engineering. If they saw the amazing things people do with STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) every day, I’m sure tons of kids would say, “I’m willing to try that.”
How is the Flying Classroom different from your other initiatives, Experience Aviation and Build & Soar?
Experience Aviation’s goal is to use aviation as a vehicle to help students realize aptitude in math and science. Within that, we have hands-on programs like Build & Soar where kids do specialty projects like building a car, airplane, or hovercraft. What makes the Flying Classroom different is that it includes a curriculum aligned to National Common Core Standards.
How is the Flying Classroom different from existing teaching methods?
The Flying Classroom is built to communicate with kids. Many school curriculums are not designed for the end user. They’re not designed for the student. We first started with the student and then worked backwards to what administrators want to see.
Cell phone companies, apparel companies, every industry has figured out how to communicate with our kids, except education. So instead of talking down to them, the Flying Classroom talks with them. What kid wouldn’t want to see what it’s like to fly aerobatics? What it looks like to hunt for sea snakes? We’re trying to bring the world to the classroom, and we’re trying to do it in a way that kids care about. Kids may say they don’t care about solving a geometry problem, but they do care about how a video game is made. We show them how the two are related. What kids want is really simple: they want to see theory become real.
Who’s helped you make this dream a reality?
First, educators who feel muzzled in schools. They want greater, more challenging content but they don’t know how to get it. I heard teachers tell me, “I can’t solve the problem if you didn’t eat this morning. I can’t solve the problem if you have a toothache and can’t go to the dentist. I can’t solve the problem if your clothes haven’t been washed in x number of days. But what I can do is, when you come into my classroom, I can engage you for those 50 minutes.” That’s what teachers want. Engagement. That’s what the challenge was. “Help me engage kids and help me teach them about things I don’t know.”
Second, look at our title sponsors, Executive Air Services and Universal Weather and Aviation. One’s a charter company; the other is a flight planning and logistics company. What do they have to do with kids? They want talent. They want kids to be stronger in STEM. They want the next generation of pilots, engineers, and meteorologists.
The world of STEM is rapidly changing. Think about the process of building a traditional school curriculum. By the time it’s released, the content is already 3-4 years old. What kid are you going to impress? At Flying Classroom, we aim to release content that’s maybe a few months old or days old—or hasn’t happened yet like a 3-D printed shoe. Releasing stuff like that comes back to communicating with kids, showing them science on the cutting edge.
What part of the project has been most challenging?
The greatest challenge was figuring out the path. We all have dreams. That’s the easy part. It’s the execution that’s the hardest. How do you get people to buy in?
And the most rewarding?
Oh man, you tell a kid in upper elementary or middle school some of the things we’re going to see and they have a reaction that just makes you light up.
What I like most about the Flying Classroom is that the coolest people in our program are not athletes. They’re not entertainers. They’re people with special gifts in STEM. We’re trying to introduce kids to a different set of heroes. It’s almost like fantasy football for math and science. We go out and find people doing amazing things, and then highlight their stories and talents.
You take off tomorrow. For which flight leg are you most nervous and most excited?
I am a little bit nervous about flying across the North Pacific. The weather conditions there can be a little nerve-wracking. In 2007, I had to land in Shemya, Alaska, an island only one mile long and two miles wide.
But I’m also flying to places I’ve never seen before. I’ve never been to Australia. I’ve never been to Indonesia. I’ve never been to China. It’s pretty cool to be the eyes and ears for kids all around the world. Unlike my solo flight, I’ll actually be able to share my experiences now because I have a team.
Will there be a year two or three?
Absolutely. We’re going to cover all seven continents and a few wonders of the world.
Who would you like to thank?
So many people. Educators. Sponsors, especially the title sponsors, Executive Air Services and Universal Weather & Aviation. I also want to thank the people who do the small things, the people whose names will never be on the side of the airplane, the people who give you that one tip that makes you think differently about your project.
What words of advice do you have for kids with big dreams?
Hustle. Some people may say it's grit, perseverance, determination. It’s hustle. How bad do you want it? When people see how bad you want something, they actually start believing you’re going to do it. The same way you hustle in the streets, you got to take that and apply it to your dreams.
NEXT STOP: The Flying Classroom launches from Washington, D.C.