Thursday, April 25

David E. Harris, Pioneering Airline Pilot, Dies at 89

David E. Harris, a former Air Force bomber pilot who, at the height of the civil rights movement in the 1960s, became the first black pilot hired by a major commercial airline in the United States, died on March 8 in Marietta, Ga., about 20 miles northwest of Atlanta. He was 89 years old.

His death, which occurred in a palliative care center, was confirmed by his daughter Leslie Germaine.

American Airlines hired Mr. Harris in 1964 and he flew for the carrier for 30 years, becoming a captain in 1967. In 1984, he made history for the second time with American by flying with the first all-black crew on a plane. commercial airliner.

Before Mr. Harris was hired, airline executives had discriminated against black pilots for years, fearing that white passengers would not want to board the planes they were flying on and that it is too difficult to find hotel accommodation for them.

“He knew he was extremely qualified, so on paper he would seem to be an ideal candidate for many commercial airlines,” wrote Michael H. Cottman in his book “Segregated Skies: David Harris’s Trailblazing Journey to Rise Above Racial Barriers” (2021). . “But once he was called in for an interview and a potential employer saw the color of his skin, he was afraid of being disappointed again and again.”

Mr. Harris, who is light-skinned and green-eyed, also worried that airline employees might mistakenly think he was white. He decided to leave no doubt about who he was, ending his application letters by writing: “I am married, I have two children, and I am black. »

Several airlines didn’t even bother to respond.

Another black pilot, Marlon D. Green, was among the first to fight back in court. He sued Continental Airlines for racial discrimination after being denied a job in 1957. The case ended up in the United States Supreme Court, which ruled in favor of Mr. Green in 1963; Continental hired him in 1965.

“Marlon Green is part of aviation and civil rights history,” Mr. Harris was quoted as saying in Mr. Cottmanthe book. “He paved the way for me and many other black drivers who followed.”

In 1964, Mr. Harris received a telegram from American Airlines arranging an interview in Dallas with the company’s chief pilot. Even after Mr. Green’s legal victory, Mr. Harris still had doubts about whether his qualifications were sufficient to be hired.

“I don’t want there to be any misunderstandings with you or your company,” Mr. Harris told the chief pilot, according to Mr. Cottman’s book. “I like niggers. “I’m a little worried because I’ve put this forward in many applications to other airlines and been turned down.”

“Young pilot,” replied the chief pilot, “this is American Airlines. We don’t care if you’re black, white or chartreuse. We only want to know this: can you fly the plane the right way?

Mr. Harris responded in the affirmative.

David Ellsworth Harris was born December 22, 1934 in Columbus, Ohio. His father, Wilbur Harris Sr., was a plumber, electrician and carpenter who installed gas station equipment. His mother, Ruth Arlene (Estis) Harris, ran the household.

Mr. Harris attended Ohio State University, where he studied education and was a member of Air Force ROTC. After earning a bachelor’s degree and an Air Force commission in 1957, he began pilot training at Bartow Air Force Base in Florida, where he flew B-52 and B-47 bombers. He retired in 1964 as captain.

Mr. Harris married Linda Dandridge in 1958. They divorced in 1984 but remained lifelong friends. His second wife, Virginia Lynne Harris, died in 2000. Besides his daughter Leslie, he is survived by another daughter, Camian Harris-Foley; six grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.

In 1971, Whitney M. Young Jr., executive director of the National Urban League and a leading figure in the civil rights movement, drowned while swimming in Lagos, Nigeria.

Mr. Young’s wife chartered an American Airlines plane to transport her husband’s body from his funeral in New York to his burial in Kentucky. Several civil rights leaders, including the Reverend Jesse Jackson, would be there. She requested that Mr. Harris serve as pilot.

As Mr. Harris left the house that morning, his wife joked: “For God’s sake, don’t ruin this.” You are going to destroy the entire civil rights movement!

Mr. Harris considered this flight among the most important of his career.

“I was flattered that she asked me to fly a charter,” he said. “It was an honor.”