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Stayce D. Harris Class of '81

Stayce D. Harris Class of '81

Flying High

In August 2009, the annual convention for the Tuskegee Airmen featured a special guest. Stayce D. Harris ’81 was already a frequent attendee to these conventions, but this time was different: She had general stars on her shoulders, having recently become the first African-American female pilot to achieve the rank of general in the armed services.

Born in Los Angeles, Harris grew up a military brat - her father was career Air Force - and she traveled the world with her family. She won an Air Force ROTC engineering scholarship and transferred to USC in her sophomore year. Yet despite the Air Force in her blood, it was not until college that she took up flying. She had been focused on engineering until an ROTC instructor pulled her aside to ask if she’d considered becoming a pilot.

“That’s why I’m a firm believer in exposing youth to different opportunities,” says Harris. “It was that exposure to that opportunity that whetted my desire to fly.”

Attracted by its formidable reputation, Harris studied industrial and systems engineering at USC and started flight training at Santa Monica Airport. She also relished learning from the university’s many diverse cultures and populations. Looking back, she calls USC “a golden institution” embodying a tradition of “loyalty and devotion and commitment” - much like the Air Force.

Selected to attend pilot training after graduation, Harris veered off course when her eyes failed to pass the commissioning physical. It was a devastating blow, but one that Harris took in stride. Set on becoming a pilot, she went on active duty as an Air Force civil engineer and focused on improving her eyesight. “It sounds corny, but I did eye exercises. I ate carrots.” A year later, she passed the physical, competed for and was selected again for the Air Force Pilot Training Program.

Since she became a pilot, Harris’ career has taken her all over the world, from Djibouti to Antarctica. She has had two jobs since 1990: one with United Airlines and one with the Air Force Reserves. Recently, she was appointed the mobilization reserve assistant to the commander of the U.S. Africa Command.

No matter where her career has taken her, one constant has been the inspiration Harris draws from the Tuskegee Airmen, the legendary unit whose distinctive record in World War II helped racially integrate the armed forces. Though she officially became a brigadier general in April 2009, as a tribute to the Tuskegee Airmen legacy, Harris delayed the pin-on ceremony until their August convention, where the airmen pinned the stars on her shoulders.

“For me, everything has always been a tribute to the Tuskegee Airmen and to the Women Airforce Service Pilots,” Harris says. “It is really life-changing to go to a convention and see hundreds of your heroes that you can reach out and touch and talk to, and thank them for the barriers they tore down in order for me to even go to flight training as a black female.”

Today, she is trying to pass on the inspiration to a younger generation. The Los Angeles chapter of the Tuskegee Airmen established the annual Tuskegee Airmen-Stayce Harris Award, given to a top Air Force ROTC cadet at USC. She hopes soon to start a financial scholarship as well.

With her new position at the Pentagon and a full schedule flying the Dubai and Beijing routes for United, she has little free time. But to Harris, it doesn’t feel like work. She still revels in the exhilaration of flying. “It really takes your breath away, every takeoff, every flight,” she says. “It’s a dream come true.”

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