David Harris, first Black pilot to fly a commercial plane for a major airline, passes on at 89

BY Preta Peace Namasaba March 18, 2024 3:12 PM EDT
David E. Harris. Photo credit: South Carolina Living

David E. Harris, the first Black pilot to fly a commercial plane for a major airline and the first Black man to achieve the rank of Pilot Captain for a major U.S. commercial airline, has died at 89. His family said he died on March 8 in Marietta, Georgia. No cause was given.

American Airlines CEO Robert Isom issued the following statement after the family’s announcement:

“We are deeply saddened by the passing of Capt. David E. Harris, a trailblazer in aviation who became the first Black commercial airline pilot when he was hired by American Airlines in 1964. Capt. Harris opened the doors and inspired countless Black pilots to pursue their dreams to fly. We will honor his legacy by ensuring we continue to create access and opportunities for careers in aviation for those who otherwise might not know it’s possible. On behalf of all of us at American, our thoughts are with Capt. Harris’ family, friends, and colleagues during this difficult time.”

Harris was born on December 22, 1934, in Columbus, Ohio where he initially became interested in airplanes. He and his brother would visit Lockbourne Air Force Base where the Tuskegee Airmen were stationed after World War II. Harris graduated from Ohio State University, with a bachelor’s in education but he was twice rejected for Ohio State’s advanced Air Force ROTC program on racial grounds. He persevered and was eventually granted admission, rising to the rank of cadet colonel.

Harris served at several bases located in Florida, New York, and Texas after enlisting in the Air Force in 1958. He piloted B-17 and B-52 bomber jets for the Strategic Air Command (SAC) and was promoted to the rank of Captain. After struggling with race-based housing discrimination during his assignments, Harris decided to leave the military.

After nearly seven years in the military, Harris applied to be a pilot at several commercial airlines. He was rejected by several airlines,  some didn’t get back to him and one airline didn’t even take his application. To avoid the inevitable, Harris immediately informed the interviewer at American Airlines that he was African American. “This is American Airlines and we don’t care if you’re black, white or chartreuse, we only want to know, can you fly the plane?” the chief pilot conducting the interview responded.

“I was perfectly aware that there weren’t any Black pilots flying with the airlines. I didn’t want to go with any airline that wasn’t really ready to hire Blacks,” Harris once said about his career.

On December 3, 1964, Harris made history by becoming the first Black commercial airline pilot to be hired by a major U.S. airline company, American Airlines. He completed a nine-week training course and was onboarded as a co-pilot. In 1967, Harris was promoted to the rank of Pilot Captain becoming the first Black man to hold the position for a major U.S. commercial airline. He worked for American Airlines for 30 years and retired in 1994.

Post-retirement, Harris kept flying in his single-engine Socata Trinidad aircraft. He leaves behind a legacy of inspiring African American employees who remain underrepresented in aviation.
“It’s the greatest job in the world. I flew and flew and flew and was ready to fly more in my life. I would have done it another 30 years had I not grown old,” Harris told NPR in 2012.