Harold Harris  
  Lt. Harold R. Harris.  


Harold Ross Harris and the World of Aviation: An Unconventional Biography

Airplanes took off, they flew around. They landed - it was an accomplishment.
Harold R. Harris
by Alta Mae Stevens

This book is devoted to detailing the exploits of Harold R. Harris, our father, perhaps the least celebrated and certainly among the most deserving of celebration of all the truly great early pilots and aviation visionaries.

Born in Chicago Dec. 20, 1895, Harold R. Harris played hookey from school to attend the first national aviation meeting at Dominguez Field, Los Angeles, January 10-20, 1910. By the time of his death in 1988 at the age of 92 he was perhaps the only man who, devoting his entire career to both military and civilian aviation over a span of almost 80 years, had personally witnessed and participated in the changes occurring in the field of aviation.

During WW I between March and July, 1918, at Foggia, Italy, Harris was chief instructor of day and night flying in Farmans and Capronis.He helped establish an aerial ferry route from Ilan to Paris for the United States Navy.

On July 25, 1918, Harris (along with his co-pilot, George Lewis) was the commander of the first United States Army flight flying heavy bombers on a reconnaisance mission over the Alps from Italy to France and return.

Put in charge of the flight test section at Dayton’s McCook Field he competed in many aviation meets, by 1926 holding 13 world flying records. He flight tested the first Martin Bomber equipped with Liberty engines to be supercharged. And in June 8, 1921, he was the first pilot to test a pressurized cabin, nearly losing his life in the process.

Harris, Don Bruner, and other military pilots played an active role in setting up and operating the first lighted airway, an 80-mile stretch of land between Columbus and Dayton, Ohio, thus allowing the introduction of regular night service vital for carrying the mail on a 24-hour basis.

August 11, 1921, he flew the first plane designed to pick up air mail sacks from the ground. He became famous as the first pilot willing and able to fly that enormous triplane, the Barling Bomber, the Army’s answer to the ZR-1 (the Navy’s first American-built rigid Dirigible), and on Feb. 23, 1924, was one of the first pilots to fly an Emile Berliner helicopter, one of the earliest prototypes. In 1924 he made the first cross country flight of the Stout plane, a single winged or monoplane.

On October 20, 1922, at McCook field, in what proved to be perhaps his sole lasting legacy, celebrated even in the comics, Harris was the first pilot in the U.S. to save his life using a parachute in an emergency when, his monoplane’s wing disintegrating, he bailed out, landing safely in a grape arbor! Because the parachute canopy was made of silk he became the first member of what ever since has been known as the Caterpillar Club and was awarded the Leo A. Stevens parachute medal “For having made the first emergency parachute jump from a U.S. Army airplane which resulted . . .in the U.S. Army Air Force issuing an order requiring all airmen to wear parachutes on all flights.

Harris became vice president and operations manager of Huff Daland Dusting Company. Although he himself did not fly the dusting planes for actual dusting, he was one of the pilots who developed the specialized flying tecniques that are still in use for crop dusting today, He probably also performed demonstration flights in the duster plane.

In 1924 C.E. Woolman and Harold Harris co-founded Delta Airlines.

James Hoogerwerf, biographer of C.E.Woolman , noted that at a time when aviation was almost the exclusive prerogative of the military, Harris, in his landmark testimony in 1925 before the Morrow Committee assigned to investigate the future of non-military aviation, for the first time laid out commercial aviation’s huge possibilities while also pointing out the safeguards that would be required to assure passenger safety and future airlines’ economic stability.

In 1928, before his inauguration as President, Herbert Hoover [1929-1933] made a trip down the west coast of South America on a U.S. Navy cruiser in order to determine for himself the viability of an airline located there. Thanks to Harris’ help, Hoover was not just convinced; he was enthusiastic. ”He assured me,” Harris wrote, “he would give us full support in our efforts to grow and expand internationally.”

Harris presented a proposal for an airline connecting the west coast of South America with the U.S.that led in 1929 to the establishment of Pan American Grace Airways, a joint venture between Pan American World Airways and Grace Shipping. In order to get the mail concession, Peruvian Airways Corporation was created with Juan Trippe, president of Pan American Airways, listed as president and Harold Harris as vice president.

At Harris’s insistence, the four passenger Fairchild plane ordered for the new airline contained a toilet, the first in any U.S. commercial airplane. This historic plane is now in the Smithsonian Museum. It was the first U.S. flag airplane to make schedule anywhere in the world south of the equator.

In the decade between 1929 and 1939, Harris, in Peru., held the position of Vice- President and Chief Operations Officer of Panagra with New York-based John MacGregor, acting as Vice President and General Manager. Juan Trippe, president of Pan American, had insisted that there be no president. This situation lasted until 1941 when Harold Roig of Grace was elected president of Panagra. ) Through careful negotiation with warring governments, the recruitment of skilled air crews, and helped by both Pan American and Grace in the acquisition of aircraft and landing sites, Harris and MacGregor were able to oversee the rapid development of the infant airline.

A fragment of Panagra’s submission to the Civil Aeronautics Board Docket No’s 623 and 716, originally submitted to CAB, October 15, 1941, illustrates the value of Harris’ contribution.

“From the time Captain Harris took charge of Peruvian Airways Corporation and later Pan American-Grace Airways as Vice President and Operations Manager, he was in personal charge of the pioneering and development of the Panagra operations from Cristobal to Buenos Aires. Until 1939 he resided permanently in South America and spent his entire time on the line. His ten years devoted to the development and one may even say the creation of the line, has, of course given him the most intimate knowledge of every detail of the operation and every phase of the business. In 1942 Harris accepted a commission as Colonel in the Air Transport Command, resigning his position with Pan American Grace Airways to do so. During World War II Harris served as Assistant Chief of Staff, Plans; Assistant Chief of Staff, Operations; Commanding Officer of Domestic Transportation Division; and was Acting Chief of Staff of the Air Transport Command with the rank of Brigadier General when he left the service in 1945 to join American Overseas Airlines.

Harris was Vice-President and General Manager of American Overseas Airlines until 1950 when the airline was incorporated into Pan American Airways. Working for Pan American Airways, Harris became Vice-President in charge of the Atlantic Division.

Between 1954 and 1955 he was President and Chief Executive Officer of Northwest Airlines, resigning because of ill health and irreconcilable differences between himself and the Northwest Airlines Board of Directors.

For the next decade he was President of Aviation Financial Services, Inc., a company dedicated to helping infant airlines acquire adequate capitalization. He retired in 1965 at age 70. Aged 92, he died in his home at Falmouth, MA. in 1988.

Decorations which Harris received are the Distinguished Service Medal, the Legion of Merit, and the Air Medal (U.S.), Commander of the British Empire (Great Britian), Corona di Italia, Fatiche de Guerra ( (Italy), Abdon Caldern (Ecuador), and Orden del Sol (Peru).

These are not the achievements of an ordinary man!

Justin H. Libby, known for documenting the exploits of early aviators, observed, “Your dad [HRH], for many reasons I find impossible to fathom, is truly invisible; if you check my bibliography of your father's life and times, he is omitted from many biographies, dictionaries, almanacs, bibliographies as if he did not exist and indeed for those editors he did not exist---truly strange when others like Eaker, Spaatz, Doolittle, Rickenbacker, Lindbergh, and other notables all with better PR representations throughout the years--captured the imagination not of all Americans who have no interest in such matters, but at least of those interested in aviation--not even Muir Fairchild gets much ado as well and Macready gets a mention here and there.”

Libby continued, “ . . . he [Harris] was man of action and masterful technical- engineering skills, not of self promotion without a corps of reporters and photographers following him around to record his achievements. Perhaps his personality and character were more confident or introspective or even passive (although that is a strange term given all that he accomplished) than those who need constant adulation and admiration. Thus, he becomes easier to ignore and forget. Historical amnesia is I believe become a hallmark of the American character.”
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