First African-American commercial pilot shares his experience

  • Posted: Tuesday, February 26, 2013 11:51 p.m.
    UPDATED: Wednesday, February 27, 2013 8:32 a.m.
STAFF PHOTO BY AMY BANTON
David Harris sits in his study where the walls are covered with photographs and plaques from his career with American Airlines.
STAFF PHOTO BY AMY BANTON David Harris sits in his study where the walls are covered with photographs and plaques from his career with American Airlines.

 
 
David Harris isn't one to take “no” for an answer.

Harris, 78, retired and currently a resident of Trenton, has lived a life of perseverance and broke racial barriers when he became the first black pilot of a major passenger airline.

In the office of his Twin Lakes home, Harris has photos and other memorabilia from his career flying for American Airlines from 1964 to 1994 hanging on his wall.

In one corner, there's a framed magazine advertisement for American Airlines that reads, “It takes 5 ˝ hours to fly from New York to Los Angeles. After 1,660 hours flying B-47s and B-52s, David Harris knows how to do it.”

“It maybe was a little bit of being at the right place at the right time and kind of accidental,” Harris said when asked what got him into aviation. “I really never was a youngster who looked at the airplanes flying and said, 'Oh my gosh, I want to do that some day.'”

Harris, originally from Columbus, Ohio, majored in physical education and minored in biological science. While attending Ohio State, he was required to participate in the ROTC program for two years but he continued his time in and graduated in 1957 with his degree and a commission in the U.S. Air Force in which he flew for six and half years.

Harris then began applying to the large airlines. Harris said it was an industry that was growing pretty fast in the early to mid-1960s and a lot of pilots were being hired at that time.

“Their requirements were pretty high, and I had what they needed in spades so I applied to three or four airlines and was turned down,” Harris said. “I suspected and knew, and you get used to it after a while if you were getting turned down for valid reasons or if it's racism going on.”

Harris remembers walking into Pan American Airways' personnel office and staff wouldn't even give him an application.

He made an inquiry to United Airlines which subjected him to a simple, pre-employment test that is given to anyone who applies.

“They told me my scores were not high enough to be considered as a pilot applicant,” Harris said. “I said, 'You must have made a mistake because this was a pretty easy test.' I guess I contested enough, they administrated another test, another simple test. The response was the same.”

Harris got the runaround from several other airports. The airlines' advertisements in the Air Force Times newspaper listed the criteria and he had it. They also had at the bottom of the ads that they were “equal opportunity” employers but, from Harris' experience, he wasn't really receiving a fair chance at all, he said.

Harris made sure that when he submitted letters to the airlines, he would list his professional and educational background and close with that he was married, had two children and was “a Negro” which was the term used those days, he said. He did that to avoid having more of his time wasted.

Finally, he was hired by American Airlines in 1964, which Harris said was a blessing in disguise as some of the other airlines he applied to went bankrupt and are no longer in service.

Harris moved up the ranks fast and was captain of a BAC-111 within three years.

“I can remember when I was hired, when I looked in the mirror, I was looking at the only black guy in the industry but then a few months later here comes another, another and another,” Harris said. “It changes but it changes so slowly, it's a bit frustrating.”

Harris has many memories from those days and one that stands out was when he met civil rights leader Whitney Young. When Young died in 1971, his wife requested that Harris fly his funeral charter.

Harris is also pretty humble about his success and, these days, he tries to do what he can to inspire the youth. He has attended comedian Steve Harvey's annual mentoring program held in Dallas for young men and has spoken to local children, as well.

“I try not to let my head get swollen up,” Harris said. “I'm constantly trying to talk to young people when the opportunity avails itself and do whatever nurturing I can from the outside.”

Harris said that finally gaining employment in the field was fulfilling but getting there was quite a trial.

“Unfortunately, that's the world we live in and it's not all gone yet,” Harris said. “We'd like to think it's all gone but we're a nation of people with various attitudes and they don't change. You make laws but attitudes change voluntarily and, luckily, we've made progress.”

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