Stayce Harris



Stayce D. Harris was born June 8, 1959, in Los Angeles, Calif. She graduated from 71st High School in Fayetteville, N.C., in 1977. In 1981, she earned a bachelors degree in Industrial and Systems Engineering from the University of Southern California, earned her Air Force commission from USC’s AFROTC program, and began flight training at Williams AFB near Phoenix. In 1987, she earned a masters degree in Aviation Management from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, and is currently an ERAU adjunct faculty member. While on active duty, she was rated as a C-141 aircraft commander, and logged 2,500 hours in the C-141B.

In 1990, Lieutenant Colonel Harris changed from active duty to reserve status and began flying for United Airlines, where she is a First Officer flying 747-400s to Asia, Australia, and New Zealand. She’s one of eight black women pilots at United, and one of about 20 in the industry. She’s a member of the Organization of Black Airline Pilots, the International Society of Women Airline Pilots (ISA+21), the Rotary Club of Los Angeles, the Tuskegee Airmen Inc., the Reserve Officers’ Association, and serves on the Advisory Board of the Santa Monica Museum of Flying. In 1995 she began a five-year assignment at the Pentagon, where she was a Mobility Force Planner on the HQ Air Force staff and later served on staff of the Assistant Secretary of the Air Force. She has earned a Meritorious Service Medal with oak leaf cluster, and Air Force Commendation Medal, and Air Force Outstanding Unit Award with two oak leaf clusters, a Combat Readiness Medal with three oak leaf clusters, and a National Defense Service Medal. In January, 2001, she became the first black woman to command a flying squadron in the Air Force and is now Commander of the 729th Airlift Squadron of the 452nd Air Mobility Wing at March Air Reserve Base (ARB) in Riverside, Calif.

Tell us about your family and growing up.

My father was in the Air Force, and that’s why I went in the Air Force. I was a military brat and traveled all around the world and really enjoyed it and I knew that’s what I wanted to do when I grew up. In 1977, I was awarded an AFROTC scholarship for engineering which paid for my schooling at USC — and that was also the first year that women in college could apply for Air Force pilot training, so I competed for that scholarship and was accepted. Flying wasn’t something that I grew up wanting to do. I was planning to be an engineer and maybe design aircraft.

I got my initial training at Santa Monica airport, and I had never flown as a private pilot before the Air Force scholarship. I got about 10 hours of instruction there, and when I took my last physical before going to Air Force pilot training, my eyes didn’t pass. I went on active duty and worked as an industrial engineer and a squadron section commander at Hill [AFB] in Utah. I told my boss — who was a civil engineer — that I would do the very best job I could do while there, but that I really wanted to be a pilot.

 Stayce and LA's Tuskegee Airmen
 Tuskegee Airmen from the LA area attended as Lt. Col. Harris became Commander at March ARB; Feb, 2001

I spent a year and a half as a line officer and completed another physical where my eyes were 20/20. I then competed before the Undergraduate Pilot Training (UPT) board again and was accepted into the pilot program. I attended UPT at Williams [AFB] in Arizona and trained in T-37s and T-38s. My greatest thrill was being able to solo the T-38 on my birthday. It doesn’t get much better than that. I loved that jet because it was like strapping a rocket on your body and taking off!

Your father was in the Air Force but not a pilot?

Correct. He was enlisted and worked in the personnel field. After I was accepted into the pilot training program, my father confided in me that he had always wanted to be a pilot, too. I’m an only child, and he didn’t imagine that his daughter would grow up and fulfill one of his dreams for him.

A young black girl who wants to fly can look to you as a role model, butwho were your role models?

Initially I hadn’t dreamt of flying and my parents were my role models. Right before I went into pilot training, I attended a Tuskegee Airman convention in New York, and they quickly became my heroes. I’m a member of the Tuskegee Airmen Inc. — which anyone can join — and attend the annual conventions. They’ve supported me all the way through my training and career and have become my extended family. Younger pilots of color really look up to them, knowing that they’re counting on us to continue their legacy, because we’ve been given opportunities that they never dreamed of. Persistence pays off for anyone who wants to fly. If you’re already focused and driven, skin tone and gender have nothing to do with your persistence and ability in pursuing your goals.

How many other black women are pilots at United?

There are eight of us — four with a military background and four with a civilian background. The four military pilots are from the Air Force, and two of us are still in the reserves. Theresa Claiborne flies a KC-135 and the rest of us were flying C-141s. The eight of us at United all mentored one another. Theresa was the first military pilot hired, and I came about six months later, and we mentored many of those that came later. There are about 20 black women pilots in the industry, and less than half of those have a military background.

Where are you in terms of seniority?

 United 747 right seat

I’m midway up the pack. There are about 10,000 pilots, and I’m about 4,700, which is great after only 12 years of flying. Even with the recent downsizing, I’m still pretty secure on the 747-400 because of my seniority.

Are there specific employment issues that face black pilots?

No, and I don’t have blinders on. I wake up every day as a black woman. That’s my reality. I think you’re treated the way you expect to be treated and the way you treat your co-workers. I’ve always treated my co-workers as professionals. The negative things that have happened have been few and far between. I know discrimination does exist, but I think it’s a question of how you approach it and what you’re willing to tolerate. I like to “kill them with dignity and kindness”.

Let’s address sexism and racism in the pilot community. When KaraHultgreen crashed, some folks said that she had been promoted beyond her skilllevel, and those folks might say that your career path was made easier becauseyou’re a woman, or maybe because you’re a black woman. And some folks will saythat it’s still a system designed for white males and your achievement is uniqueand a testament to your personal determination. Who’s right? Or is it simply amatter of being able to do the job?

United wouldn’t take the risk of hiring a female or somebody of color to fly their planes, passengers and cargo just so they could say “we have one.” I do think it’s attractive to them to know they’re able to hire qualified people with diverse backgrounds. But it would be unwise to hire somebody who isn’t qualified, so I honestly think it’s a matter of credentials and what you bring to the table.

What does United have to do to survive?

I believe we’ve got to increase the flying schedule. After September 11th, we cut back 20 percent, and I think we’ve got to slowly bring it right back. Right now our planes are full– in some cases oversold — so people are feeling confident about flying, and I think United will survive if we get the airplanes and the furloughed employees in the air again.

Where do you like to fly?

I enjoy trans-Pacific and trans-Atlantic routes. First, it’s what I’m used to because we fly international trips in the C-141. Second, my idea of a good trip is to land where “no one speaks English,” and you can explore the people, the food and the culture. I’m a tourist at heart, and on the longer flights you get almost 48 hours before you fly back, and if you’re flying there 12 times a year, you can get to know a place pretty well.

Back to the Air Force. Did you pick the C-141 or did the Air Force pick itfor you?

It was on my dream sheet. In those days women couldn’t fly fighters, so the closest to that would have been a T-38 assignment. That was a prime assignment, and while I was a good pilot, I wasn’t the best pilot in my class, so — realistically — I wasn’t going to get a T-38. My realistic first choice of plane and base was C-141s at Norton [AFB], and that’s what I got.

But you would have picked a fighter if you had the choice?

Absolutely. Why not be in the game?

What skill set does a good cargo pilot need?

 Stayce & Nia
 About ten years ago, Nia Gilliam met Stayce and told her she wanted to be a pilot. Stayce became Nia’s mentor and she now flies for Atlantic Coast Airlines, a Delta Connection carrier. [read more]

Number one, you’re a team player. You’ve got pilots, flight engineers, loadmasters, and everybody has to be flexible. Sometimes “mother in the sky” may change our destination, cargo or mission. The demands of the military and its mission are such that it’s imperative to be flexible. With aerial refueling we can stay in the air for 24 hours, so jet lag can be a factor. My body knows after a flight when it can rest and I can easily sleep for ten hours and then I seem to bounce back just fine. That’s how I conquer jet lag.

What do you like about the 141?

It’s grossly overpowered, so it’s responds wonderfully to control inputs. I’m hiring pilots from McChord and other places that are losing their 141s, and these pilots would rather stay with C-141 instead of switching to the C-17. At March we fly the 141-C model, which has a glass cockpit, and all the technology for the glass cockpit was developed here at March.

Do you think grounding the whole 141 fleet was the appropriate response tothe accident in Memphis?

Yes. The fleet was only grounded for three days, and to err on the side of safety is never a problem.

Is it hard transitioning from the 141 to the 747-400?

The stick and rudder stuff is the same, but the landing picture is very different. On my last 141 mission I told my crew “Just humor me, and when we get to 50 feet, remind me not to flare.” And when we got to 50 feet, they all gathered and shouted “Don’t flare!” It was great.

The 747-400 obviously has more gee-whiz stuff in the cockpit, but the 141 is overpowered. The 141 reminds me of the 757 — it’s like a long, sleek sports car, and the 747-400 is like a luxury car. The missions are very similar. For instance, instead of flying to Yakota AFB in Japan, I’m flying to Narita, and instead of flying to Osan AB in Korea, I’m flying to Seoul. I work 12 days a month for United, usually four three-day trips a month, and I’m at March about 10 to 12 days a month.

What’s the most common erosion of skill that reserve pilots face?

Because we’re doing local proficiency flights every month, there’s probably less erosion than you might think. I landed the 141 many more times than the 747 last year. If I were flying a 737, I’d be up and down all the time. But in the 747, we’re carrying two pilots and one or two relief pilots per trip, so I might average one landing per trip. I can get four or five 141 landings a month at March, so the program is designed to keep our skills up.

How about reserve pilots who don’t fly for a living?

Sometimes they have more flexible schedules than those of us with airline jobs. My executive officer works for a high-tech consulting firm, and he can take time off from the company during the week to stay proficient.

How did you wind up spending five years at the Pentagon?

When Norton [AFB] closed, I went to the reserves at March [ARB] and heard about a job in Washington as an individual mobilization augmentee — you’re a reservist supporting the active-duty force. The theory is when the active duty goes to war, the reservists can stay in the Pentagon and keep things going. Had I stayed on active duty, my career path would have eventually taken me to the Pentagon. I got on the website and found a job planning and coordinating deployments as a mobility force planner. A general would call and ask for instance, how many 141s can we put in Mogadishu on a certain date and want to know the all servicing requirements needed. I did that for two and a half years, then I spent two and a half years on the Assistant Secretary of the Air Force’s staff working manpower issues. That was good training for my current job, because I learned how to take care of people, how to make sure their needs are being met.

 C-141 Operation Deep Freeze
 C-141s from March support the National Science Foundation’s Operation Deep Freeze at the south pole

The job I have now is similar to what I imagine to be the president of a small airline, with 110 people, 18 aircraft, and a worldwide mission. I’m responsible for every facet of it — the safety, the training, the flying operations, the financing, the personnel issues, the military discipline issues, and the one-on-one issues where you’re trying to help somebody make a nice bridge between civilian and military life. Sometimes they don’t all connect well. You need a good ear, a willingness to help and a passion for the job … and I love this job.

The Pentagon is the “big picture.” You’re working with some of the country’s brilliant minds, and as a Lieutenant Colonel I was soaking it all in.

How did you get from the Pentagon back to March?

My mentors said “It’s time for you to get back to flying.” and common sense told me to go back home. I interviewed with the Ops Group Commander and said “I’ve got five years of Pentagon experience as well as a flying background, and if you have enough confidence in me I feel ready to take command of a squadron.” It didn’t really matter what kind of squadron it was, the skill sets are the same. Being a squadron commander is the only command job that a traditional reservist can get. The Ops Group Commander, the Wing Commander, and the Numbered Air Force Commander are all Air Reserve Technicians — full-timers. So this is the one chance a traditional reservist can have to be a commander.

How is March ARB contributing to the war effort?

Our efforts have been in Homeland defense. We are stepping up to the plate on a lot of projects, and one very interesting one is we’re supporting the National Science Foundation’s Operation Deep Freeze in Antarctica. It’s a year-round three-phase mission to pre-position, re-supply and de-position people and equipment. The amount of people we’ve taken in and out is phenomenal. March was the first reserve base participating, and now we’re training other reserve wings, too. The C-141s stage out of Christchurch, New Zealand, there’s a point of no return in the flight, the weather can change in an instant, and we’re landing on grooved ice at the south pole, in a white-out situation. It’s a challenging mission.

Will you get to fly the mission?

The training’s intense — there’s a lot of training time involved and the demands of the commander’s position don’t allow me to have that much time to train. But I look forward to going in the future as an observer and hopefully I’ll get to see some penguins.