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Pioneering Aviator Captain David Harris Dies at 89

Harris made history in 1964, becoming the first African American to fly for a major airline in the U.S.

Captain David Harris began his airline career at American in 1964. (Photo: American Airlines)

David Harris, the first African American pilot to fly a commercial airliner for a major U.S. carrier, died Saturday at the age of 89. American Airlines, where Harris was first hired in 1964, confirmed his passing.

“We are deeply saddened by the passing of Capt. David E. Harris, a trailblazer in aviation who became the first Black commercial airline pilot when he was hired by American Airlines in 1964. Capt. Harris opened the doors and inspired countless Black pilots to pursue their dreams to fly,” said American CEO Robert Isom in a statement. “We will honor his legacy by ensuring we continue to create access and opportunities for careers in aviation for those who otherwise might not know it’s possible.”

Prior to joining the airline industry, Harris served in the U.S. Air Force as a second lieutenant where he flew the B-47 Stratojet and B-52s. While a student at Ohio State University, he was rejected from the Air Force’s advanced ROTC (Reserve Officer Training Corps) program twice on racial grounds, according to NBC DFW.

After leaving the military in 1964, Harris joined American’s ranks after being denied by several other airlines. He flew the Boeing 747, Boeing 727, Boeing 767, Airbus A300, Douglas DC-6, BAC One-Eleven, and the McDonnell Douglas MD-11 during his tenure at the airline.

Harris flew for 30 years at American before his retirement in 1994 as a captain.

Harris also achieved the distinction of becoming the first African American captain for a major U.S. commercial airline. No cause of death has been made public.

Ryan Ewing
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  • Ryan Ewing

    Ryan founded AirlineGeeks.com back in February 2013 and has amassed considerable experience in the aviation sector. His work has been featured in several publications and news outlets, including CNN, WJLA, CNET, and Business Insider. During his time in the industry, he's worked in roles pertaining to airport/airline operations while holding a B.S. in Air Transportation Management from Arizona State University along with an MBA. Ryan has experience in several facets of the industry from behind the yoke of a Cessna 172 to interviewing airline industry executives. Ryan works for AirlineGeeks' owner FLYING Media, spearheading coverage in the commercial aviation space.

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