The Flying Classroom wasn’t the only dream launched today. Hundreds of students gathered at Reagan National Airport on Tuesday morning to meet Captain Irving and wish him well as he began his next global adventure.
The event, hosted by Signature Flight Support, featured a cast of inspirational speakers, including former astronaut and current NASA Administrator Charles Bolden; Teri Bristol, Chief Operating Officer for the FAA; Federick Ingram and Rebecca Pringle from the National Education Association; and Lex den Herder of title sponsor Universal Weather & Aviation.
After Fabio Alexander, Flying Classroom’s “Chief Believer” and title sponsor, shared a few stories about the project’s origins, he welcomed Captain Irving to the stage. Irving quickly redirected the attention. He asked all students in attendance to stand up. “The reason we’re all here today is to help you realize your dreams.”
In his remarks, Irving thanked the NEA’s Rebecca Pringle and Federick Ingram “for caring about kids like me, kids who come from the ‘hood with very little and still have the opportunity to get an education."
"I grew up poor. I couldn’t afford a pair of Nikes until eighth grade. I saw my first dead body in ninth grade. I saw what the inside of a prison looked like in tenth grade. I played fullback and linebacker on a football team that was ranked third in the nation. 197 pounds. 3% body fat. Ran a 4.3 in the [40-yard dash]. I thought football was my way out.” But as he went on to explain, one day he met a pilot who encouraged him to have other dreams.
“I remember when I first wanted to fly and become a pilot, and I turned down my football scholarship. My friends said, ‘What are you doing?’ They didn’t understand. Your friends aren’t going to understand.”
“But when you reach that point in your life when you see all your friends from the past wanting to be your Facebook friends, then they will understand. 4.3 is great. But you know what’s better? Flying 500mph at 45,000 feet where you can see the curvature of the Earth. And you can only do that with an education.”
The crowd cheered loudly, but the loudest cheers came during the Q&A following Irving’s speech, when a boy approached the microphone and said, “My question is: Can I have a hug?”
Earlier in the program, Mr. Bolden challenged students to think of the launch as much more than “a nice field trip.” “It’s intended to be an opportunity for you to see people like Barrington Irving, who have set a goal in their minds,” he said.
“The space program is soaring to new heights with new destinations on the horizon with new workers needed to advance aviation and space technology. We’re building a spacecraft right now, and perfecting the technologies for a human mission to Mars in the 2030s. I’m not going to have the chance to do that. But I look at you right now. You will have an opportunity to do it.”
Elsewhere in the hangar, National Geographic, Scholastic Books, and dozens of other organizations manned tables, offering students an array of career opportunities. Doug Williams from the Association of Collegiate Training Institutes explained how more of the FAA's air traffic controllers come from their schools than from any other source outside the military.
At the National Air Transportation Association table, Kim Blankenship and Elizabeth Nicholson were teaching “aircraft marshaling” signals to a half-dozen junior high students from Bloomington, Illinois. They were members of a group called the “Navigators Club,” led by self-proclaimed “aviation freak” Kenneth Hordge. He had read about Captain Irving in an aviation magazine and was inspired to bring his Navigators to D.C. to meet him. He, too, wants students to see the big picture. “Navigators is not just about aviation,” said Hordge. “It’s about navigating life.”
Hordge’s students had traveled the furthest for the event and Mr. Bolden acknowledged as much in his speech. Afterward, he and Captain Irving posed for pictures with the Navigators along with Fabio Alexander and Ms. Bristol of the FAA.
At 1:30, it was time for Captain Irving to depart. Once Signature’s ground handlers had towed the Flying Classroom out of the hangar, scores of students rushed to the doors to say goodbye. Irving came back to sign a few more autographs before climbing aboard the plane. From the cockpit, he gave a wave, and then—after more than six years of hustle—he was off, taxiing down the tarmac to prove, once again, anything is possible.
Huge thanks to Signature Flight Support and all the sponsors that made the event possible: The Maryland Aviation Administration/BWI Airport; the Aero Club Foundation; Experience Aviation; National Air Traffic Controllers Association; Cargo Airline Association; Jeppesen; The General Aviation Manufacturers Association; and the American Association of Airport Executives.
NEXT STOP: Wichita, Kansas