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

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.

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.

"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."
/ National Geographic
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National Geographic
"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."

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.

Elizabeth Blair is a Peabody Award-winning senior producer/reporter on the Arts Desk of NPR News.