David E. Harris




Black Airline Pilots

David E. Harris

First African American Pilot For American Airlines



David A. Harris was born in Columbus, Ohio in 1934. His entire education was in the secondary and higher institutions of learning in the State of Ohio. It was a stint in the Air Force ROTC Program at Ohio State University that got him interested in trying. "I think my early interest in flying came as a matter of chance and circumstance," Harris said. "I cannot remember having a burning desire to be a pilot as a boy. Maybe it was there, but out to the back of my mind because there were no minority role models out there as airline pilots. World War II and the Tuskegee Airmen had come and gone, and they were not accepted and therefore not seen in the commercial arena."

Harris continued that "Many (Tuskegee Airmen) were still in the military, but I wasn't really looking in that direction for role models until I found myself in ROTC at Ohio State. There I became aware that there was an opportunity to get a second lieutenant's commission; go into the Air Force and learn to fly." This would have been prohibitive for me otherwise, and flying airplanes at that time at government expense seemed at a great idea. So, I applied for advance ROTC with that in mind," he said. 

Harris, who holds a B.S. degree in education From Ohio State, joined the U.S. Air Force in June of 1958, a year after Marlon Green had begun his court battles to gain a job with Continental, and completed his military duties in December of 1964, a year after Green had won his fight and began fighting for a commercial airline.


During this time, he would be stationed at Air Force bases in Florida, Texas, New York and Maine, being assigned to the B-47 in the Strategic Air Command and then the B-52. Two days after he left military service, he was hired by American Airlines (December 3, l964). Harris would go on to stay with American 30 years, retiring in December of 1994.

During that time he would fly various commercial aircraft, including the DC-6 and DC-7, Lockheed Electra, BAC 11 1 , Boeing 747, 727, 767, Airbus 300, McDonell Douglas MD 11. He was captain on the BAC11, Boeing 727, 767, Airbus 300 and MD l l. Harris gained the distinction of being known as one half of the "Sam and Dave, The Soul Patrol" team when he and his first officer Herman Samuels flew together for American. Harris' initial plan to have his flying lessons paid for through government expense, turned into a thirty-six and a half year flying career. Within a year later Harris' hiring, Fred Pitcher became a pilot with Western Airlines and Bill Norwood found employment under United. Other pioneers in the commercial field included Les Morris (Eastern), John Gordon (TWA), Sam Grady (Delta), Woodie Fountain (Northwest), Irvory Carter (DHL), and M. Perry Jones (Pan Am).  

After Harris, Pitcher and Norwood earned their wings, clusters of Blacks were hired, but only a few entered the ranks during 1973-80. The year of `78 saw regulation come into being and along with it furloughs. Airlines began merging with each other and that created a surplus of pilots adversely affecting Black pilots. As the last in the door, these aviators were quickly shown the door to unemployment. At this time, the number of African American commercial pilots had reached slightly more than 100. After the beginning of the `80s Black pilot numbers rose to where the ranks could "boast" a princely sum of 175 out of 40,000 in 1956. According to an Ebony magazine article of that year, the following statistics bore out the numbers: Eastern-40 (out of 3,948): American-36 (out of 4,500); US Air-26 (out of 2,000); United-27 (out of 6,300); Trans World Airways-14 (out of 2,000); Continetal-12 (out of 1,900); Republic Airlines-14 (out of 2,000); Piedmont Airlines-13 (out of 2,000); Western-1,000); and Northwest Orient-3 (out of 2,000). Of the airlines then six carriers (Western, Eastern, Republic, Piedmont, and Peoples Express) have gone out of business.

At that time there were 30 Black captains, with American, Continental and Piedmont leading the pack at seven each. Today, the total number of African American pilots hovers around 500 out of some 50.000 pilots. "I was asked (by the White captain ) how many "Black boys" American had flying. I answered, "one of the requirements for being a pilot with American Airlines is being an adult, a man if you're male." Don Barton, Black captain for American from a 1987 Frequent Flyer magazine article.
Dave Harris was the first African American in the cockpit for a major passenger airline. Harris joined American Airlines in 1964 flying the DC-6 aircraft. After rejections from several other major airlines at the time, Harris wanted to avoid any misunderstanding down the road. Following his interview with American, Harris recalls, “I felt compelled to tell [the interviewer] I was black.”
The chief pilot who conducted the interview responded, “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?” He retired from American in 1994 as a captain, flying American's largest airplane at that time, the wide body MD-11. A humble man, Harris made this statement at a ceremony in his honor: "I'm honored and humbled by this award … but the reality is that there were 500 pilots Tuskegee Airmen who were qualified for airline jobs when they left the service. None of them received an opportunity to sit in a cockpit.  
There is no way I should be the first; it should've happened long before 1964." Harris was featured in a Smithsonian Museum exhibit called "Black Wings." The American Airlines C.R. Smith Museum in Fort Worth, Texas, has a permanent exhibit honoring Harris. He remains an active member of the Organization of Black Aerospace Professionals (OBAP).
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