David E. Harris, Pilot, American Airlines

Pioneering Black Pilot, David E. Harris, First Black Pilot Hired By Major Airline, Passes Away At 89

The former pilot was hired after serving in the Air Force in 1964.

David E. Harris, who became the first Black pilot hired at a major U.S. airline in 1964, has died at the age of 89 years old.

The Associated Press reported that Harris, who worked for 30 years at American Airlines, died on March 8 in Marietta, Georgia, according to his family. No cause of death was given.

American Airlines CEO Robert Isom issued a statement commending Harris for making a path for others who followed in his footsteps.

“Capt. Harris opened the doors and inspired countless Black pilots to pursue their dreams to fly,” said Isom. He also stated that he would honor Harris’ legacy by continuing to offer aviation careers “for those who otherwise might not know it’s possible.”

Harris was born in 1934 in Columbus, Ohio, and earned his college degree in education after attending Ohio State University. After graduating, he enlisted in the Air Force, and while serving, he dealt with discrimination in areas surrounding bases in Florida and Texas, according to his family. He was a pilot with the Air Force for more than six years but couldn’t find work in the airline industry. Before being hired by American Airlines, his job applications were rejected or ignored.

After the Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964, he began applying for jobs with major airlines. After American Airlines hired him, he became the first Black aviator to enter commercial airline pilot training. He then became an instructor at the airline’s flight academy and helped create the Organization of Black Airline Pilots.

Although Harris retired in 1994, he kept flying in his single-engine Socata Trinidad aircraft.

He is survived by two daughters, six grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren.

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