Remembering David Harris, the First Black Commercial Pilot for a Major Airline


March 13, 2024

David E. Harris, a former Air Force airman who became the first Black pilot for a major U.S. passenger airline, died on March 8 in Marietta, Georgia. He was 89 years old. 

Harris worked for American Airlines from 1964 to 1994, according to The Washington Post, becoming the first Black pilot to man the cockpit of a major airline. 

“There is no way I should be the first,” Harris once said about his historical achievement. “It should’ve happened long before 1964.”


Harris was born in Columbus, Ohio, in 1934. He earned his B.S. degree in education from Ohio State University where he joined the Air Force ROTC Program and first got the desire to fly. “I think my early interest in flying came as a matter of chance and circumstance,” Harris said. “I cannot remember having a burning desire to be a pilot as a boy. Maybe it was there, but out to the back of my mind because there were no minority role models out there as airline pilots. World War II and the Tuskegee Airmen had come and gone, and they were not accepted and therefore not seen in the commercial arena.”

Harris joined the U.S. Air Force in June of 1958 and was assigned to the B-47 in the Strategic Air Command and then the B-52. Two days after he left military service, he was hired by American Airlines on Dec. 3, l964 becoming the first Black person to pilot with any major commercial airline. He would stay with American for 30 years.

Although Harris is the first Black person to make his way to the cockpit, he certainly wasn’t the first to try. Other Black pilots, ex-Tuskegee Airmen Perry Young, and August Martin, were denied jobs at the big U.S. airlines. Marlon D. Green had been hired by Continental Airlines in 1957, but the offer was rescinded based on his race. After a six-year court battle, the Supreme Court ruled in April 1963 that denying his right to fly was unconstitutional. Harris would start flying for American one year later after this ruling. 


“I was perfectly aware that there weren’t any Black pilots flying with the airlines,” Mr. Harris told South Carolina Living. During his nine weeks of training with American, Harris endured racist remarks from his roommates, who were unaware that Harris himself was a Black man due to his light complexion. After he completed training, Harris became a co-pilot before being promoted to captain in 1967. In 1984, he was part of the first all-Black cockpit crew.

Currently, only about 3 percent of U.S. commercial pilots identify as Black, according to the Organization of Black Aerospace Professionals. But because of Harris, aspiring Black pilots know that the sky is the limit. “Capt. Harris opened the doors and inspired countless Black pilots to pursue their dreams to fly,” American Airlines chief executive Robert Isom said in a statement after Harris’ death.

Harris continued to fly well into his 80s. He is survived by two daughters, six grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren.


Cover photo: Remembering David Harris, The First Black Commercial Pilot for A Major Airline / Photo credit: American Airlines

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