David E. Harris was born on December 22, 1934, in Columbus, Ohio. He had private education before attending the Ohio State University. He was passionate about flying planes so he took the opportunity to apply to the Air Force Reserve Officers Training Corps while in college. He however suffered a series of rejections because of the color of his skin.
But, Harris’s persistence finally enabled him to gain admission to the Corps where he later became a cadet colonel, according to Simple Flying. He joined the United States Air Force after completing his bachelor’s degree in education. He later rose to the rank of second lieutenant in the Air Force.
His impressive performance and dedication to duty made his superiors transfer him to Big Spring, Texas to master flying Boeing B-47 Strato jets after coming out successfully in a competition in basic flight training in Orlando, Florida. Harris later went to England where he trained in flying the B-47s and B-52s which were connected with nuclear weapons after considerable discharge of duty at various air bases in the U.S.
He however had another rude shock in his career when he left the Air Force in 1964. No airline will employ him because of the color of his skin. His breakthrough came when he met a pilot chief at American Airlines after being invited for a job interview. He was concerned they were going to reject him once again but the pilot chief indicated to him that at American Airlines, the race of an individual did not matter. The most important quality they looked out for was the ability of the person to fly the plane.
This paved the way for Harris to become the first African American to fly for a major commercial airline in the United States. Harris used the opportunity at American Airlines to break the race barrier by mentoring other African Americans interested in working in the aviation industry. Guion Bluford, Jr., the first African American to go to space, was one of the individuals he trained.
Harris once revealed in an interview with National Public Radio that his interest in flying planes was stoked when he and his brother paid a visit to the Lockbourne Air Force Base. The Lockbourne Air Force Base was where the Tuskegee Airmen were based after their service in World War II.
He recalled how he played across the air base without paying any attention that all the people there were African Americans. Racism was still rife in the Air Force in the mid-1940s even though President Harry Truman had desegregated the armed forces. But, these racial barriers did not limit Harris’ ability to dream, and he eventually became a captain in the U.S. Air Force.
Harris indicated that he was motivated by the calls by Martin Luther King Jr to fight against the racial barriers that the system had imposed on the Black community.