OFFUTT AIR FORCE BASE, Neb. - Captain Barrington Irving, a record-setting pilot, visited U.S. Strategic Command (USSTRATCOM) Headquarters to discuss the importance of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) with members of the command, May 6, 2016.
"You guys are part of an organization that when you talk about STEM and you talk about career opportunities, itâ€™s hereâ€¦ this is it," Irving said. He added that the most important skill needed to succeed in STEM is the ability to ask "how do I explore things that Iâ€™m not exposed to, things that I am not aware of, and how do I entrench myself and explore something different?"
U.S. Navy Adm. Cecil D. Haney, USSTRATCOM commander, has also been a mentor and vocal advocate for youth entering into STEM careers.
"As USSTRATCOM commander, I work with STEM experts every day and see first-hand the importance of what they bring to the table," Haney said. "These are critical career fields, so it is essential that we motivate and educate the next generation of STEM practitioners to meet the ever growing demand. I want to thank Barrington for his work in promoting STEM to our youth."
In February, Haney joined more than 140 senior military officers and civilian senior executive service personnel who took part in a series of STEM mentoring sessions targeted at high schoolers during the Black Engineer of the Year Awards (BEYA) conference in Philadelphia.
"Avoid the feeling of embarrassment of asking a question or two or three," Haney told the students. "I can't say enough about that. Sometimes it's unpopular to cause a class to be a little bit longer by raising your hand and saying 'I don't understand that.' But it's very important. That's how we grow and learn. And don't just do it today. Continue to question things. In my opinion, it makes us a lot smarter."
During his discussion with USSTRATCOM personnel, Irving shared how he was inspired to turn down a full-ride football scholarship to the University of Florida to fly planes after meeting a pilot in a store.
"I was looking at this guy like â€˜this brother looks really sharp,â€™" Irving recalled. "He sees [me looking] and walks over to me and says, â€˜hey son, have you ever thought about becoming a pilot?â€™ My immediate response to him was, â€˜Sir, I donâ€™t think Iâ€™m smart enough to fly an aircraft."
Irving then asked the pilot a "powerful question," how much money he made. After hearing the answer, and with motivation one of his high school teachers and mentors, Irving said he quickly became interested and his "interest turned into passion."
"I never knew anyone who made 117 dollars an hourâ€¦legally," he said.
Once he made the decision to become a pilot and fly around the world, Irving said he needed a plane.
"How was a poor kid able to get his hands on a 650,000 dollar aircraft?" he asked. "Well, I had to get innovative."
Irving said the plan he developed to purchase his first aircraft was inspired by illegal car chop shops. He started by listing all the parts he would need. Then he reached out to more than 40 individual manufacturers asking them to donate a single part each and used the donated parts to build the plane himself at a significant discount.
"It was a long shot," he said. "But after we got the first [part], then the second one came, the third one came, the 10th one came, it cut the cost of the plane from 650,000 [dollars] down to 350,000."
At the age of 23, Irving became the youngest pilot to fly around the world in a single-engine aircraft; the previous record holder was 37 years old. Since then, Irving said he helped two individuals eclipse his record.
Over the course of his career, Irvingâ€™s scientific research expeditions enabled him to travel to every continent on the planet except Antarctica, which he plans to visit in 2017.
On one trip, he met scientists who developed cameras small enough to fit inside a pill, allowing doctors to view a patientâ€™s digestive system.
"You swallow this pill and the camera basically takes a virtual tour through your body without having to go through the process of an endoscope," Irving said, showing a video that was captured from a pill he ingested.
During another, he observed a demonstration that would enable consumers to 3-D print products from their homes instead of going to a store. He said the technology will be available within the next five years.
Irving also discussed a number of expeditions that involved studying poisonous and venomous animals in order to reverse engineer their DNA to produce treatments for afflictions like cancer and heart disease.
Irving said he had to overcome many challenges during his career as an aviator and STEM researcher. He also shared what motivated him to continue pursuing his goals.
"I just wanted to learn something different and see different things," he said. "What drives me is my willingness to explore something differentâ€¦ and of course proving people wrong."
In 2003, Irving founded the Experience Aviation, a non-profit organization, and set up the Experience Aviation Learning Center to offer STEM-based programs and career guidance to middle school and high school students in the Miami area.