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The first Black pilot of a commercial airline has died at 89

todayMarch 14, 2024

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    The first Black pilot of a commercial airline has died at 89 NPR

American Airlines has announced the passing of Capt. David E. Harris. In 1964, Harris became the first Black pilot of a commercial airline when American hired him.
American Airlines
American Airlines has announced the passing of Capt. David E. Harris. In 1964, Harris became the first Black pilot of a commercial airline when American hired him. American Airlines
Updated March 13, 2024 at 12:38 PM ET

In 1964, David Harris broke the color barrier in commercial aviation when he was hired by American Airlines. Harris joined the company after serving as a captain in the U.S. Air Force flying B-52 bombers.

“It’s the greatest job in the world. I flew and flew and flew and was ready to fly more in my life,” Harris told NPR in 2022. “I would have done it another 30 years had I not grown old.”

Harris died on March 8th in Marietta, Georgia. He was 89. His death was announced by American Airlines.

“We are deeply saddened by the passing of Capt. David E. Harris, a trailblazer in aviation,” wrote American Airlines CEO Robert Isom in a statement, “Capt. Harris opened the doors and inspired countless Black pilots to pursue their dreams to fly.”

Harris first got hooked on airplanes as a kid growing up in Columbus, Ohio. He and his brother would visit Lockbourne Air Force Base where the decorated Tuskegee Airmen were stationed after World War II.

“My brother and I would run around the base and enjoy the facility and never paid any attention to the fact that all the people on the base were Black,” Harris remembered.

His life was the subject of the middle-grade book, Segregated Skies: David Harris’s Trailblazing Journey to Rise Above Racial Barriers by Michael Cottman.

After six and a half years in the military, Harris applied to be a pilot at several commercial airlines. Cottman told NPR that only American responded. “He’d been rejected by some airlines. Other airlines just didn’t get back to him. I think there was one airline that didn’t even take his application. So, by the time he got to American Airlines, I think this was about it,” Cottman explained.

As a light-skinned African American with green eyes, Harris was often mistaken for white. Cottman said that during the American Airlines interview, Harris went out of his way to set the record straight. “He stopped them and just said, ‘Hey, look, I just want you to know, before we proceed, that I’m Black,'” Cottman explained, “Because he is so proud of his heritage that he didn’t want to pass as white.”

Once Harris was established with American Airlines, he started mentoring young African Americans — men and women — who were interested in flying. “Reaching back and helping others to succeed, that’s what I’d like for my legacy to be,” says Harris.

This story was edited by Rose Friedman.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Transcript :

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

When American Airlines hired David Harris in 1964, he became the first Black pilot for a major commercial airline. Captain Harris died in Marietta, Ga., on March 8. He was 89. NPR’s Elizabeth Blair has this appreciation.

ELIZABETH BLAIR, BYLINE: Growing up in Columbus, Ohio, David Harris and his brother used to visit the Lockbourne Air Force Base. That’s where the decorated Tuskegee Airmen were stationed after World War Two.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

DAVID HARRIS: My brother and I would run around the base and never paid any attention to the fact that all the people on the base were Black.

BLAIR: In 2022, Harris told NPR he got to know some of the famed airmen. He said they would have been perfect for the commercial airlines.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

HARRIS: But nobody would hire them.

BLAIR: But nobody would hire them. President Truman desegregated the armed forces in 1948. A decade later, Harris was in flight training for the Air Force. After six years in the military, he applied to be a pilot at several commercial airlines. Only American Airlines offered him an interview. With his light skin and green eyes, Harris was often mistaken for white. Michael Cottman, who wrote a biography of Harris, told NPR he went out of his way to set the record straight.

MICHAEL COTTMAN: Just said – hey, look, I just want you to know before we proceed that I’m Black – because he is so proud of his heritage that he didn’t want to pass for white. He said he was stunned because the recruiter just said, look, I really don’t care if you’re Black, white or chartreuse. Can you fly an airplane?

BLAIR: He could, but the skies were not always friendly. In the 1960s, Harris faced overt racism and took inspiration from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MARTIN LUTHER KING JR.: The hour has come for everybody and for all institutions, for the public sector and the private sector, to work to get rid of racism.

BLAIR: Not long after King was assassinated, Harris and a co-pilot were flying into Washington, D.C. They could see the black smoke from the riots. As they approached the landing, Harris’ white co-pilot started talking.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

HARRIS: He was making all kinds of nasty comments about Martin Luther King, and I sat quiet in the other seat.

BLAIR: Sat quiet because the two of them were responsible for landing a plane full of passengers.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

HARRIS: You’re in the cockpit with the crew, and you’ve got to get along and work professionally and not to get into verbal fights airborne.

BLAIR: Once he was established at American Airlines, Captain Harris began mentoring young African Americans, men and women, who were interested in flying.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

HARRIS: Reaching back and helping others to succeed – that’s where I’d like for my legacy to be.

BLAIR: In a statement, American Airlines CEO Robert Isom said David Harris opened the doors and inspired countless Black pilots to pursue their dreams to fly. Elizabeth Blair, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF GOAPELE SONG, “CLOSER”) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Written by: NPR

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