Just fly your airplane

By Bo Joyner
Headquarters, Air Force Reserve Command Public Affairs

Maj. Gen. Stayce Harris is the first female numbered air force commander in the history of Air Force Reserve Command, but it’s not easy to get her to talk about her groundbreaking career. She would much rather chat about the 15,000 Air Force reservists who keep 22nd Air Force flying and fighting every day in 23 locations.

“The 22nd has some amazing missions,” said Harris, who assumed command in July 2014 over the Reserve’s tactical air mobility operations and other vital mission sets like undergraduate pilot training, flight test operations and a highly mobile civil engineering response force.

Aircrews from the 22nd AF fly a variety of missions to include aerial spray, fire suppression, hurricane hunting and troop transport using the C-130 Hercules.

Gen. Darren W. McDew, Air Mobility Command commander, and Hillard W. Pouncy, an original Tuskegee Airman, pin stars on Harris during her recent promotion ceremony. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Jaclyn McDonald/Released)
Gen. Darren W. McDew, Air Mobility Command commander, and Hillard W. Pouncy, an original Tuskegee Airman, pin stars on Harris during her recent promotion ceremony. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Jaclyn McDonald/Released)


Harris, a command pilot with more than 2,500 hours in military aircraft like the KC-135R, C-141B/C, T-38 and T-37, is excited about getting the chance to learn to fly the venerable C-130 while at Dobbins Air Reserve Base, Georgia. Piloting the Herc will broaden the general’s already-extensive flying experience and help her stay current during a two-year leave of absence she is taking from her civilian job as a commercial airline pilot to serve as 22nd AF commander.

In her civilian career, Harris flies the Boeing 747-400 aircraft with international routes to Asia and Europe. She said she will miss flying for the commercial airline and exploring other parts of the planet half a world away, but is looking forward to “settling down” for the next couple of years. She hasn’t settled down in any one place for very long during a distinguished Air Force career that began soon after she received her commission through the University of Southern California’s Air Force Reserve Officer Training Corps program in 1981.

The daughter of an Air Force noncommissioned officer, the general said she had never even considered a career as a pilot until her ROTC instructor suggested it to her. Harris decided to give it a shot, and the first time she sat down in a cockpit, she was hooked.

“I knew right away this is what I was meant to do,”
she said.

Harris served on active duty until 1990 when she began working for a commercial airline, and the following year made the transition to the Air Force Reserve. As a reservist, she broke down a lot of barriers and served as a trailblazer for women of color. She was the first African-American woman to command a flying squadron, the 729th Airlift Squadron at March Air Reserve Base, California, and the first to lead a flying wing — the 459th Air Refueling Wing at Joint Base Andrews, Maryland.

Harris was also the first black female aviator to attain the rank of general in the Air Force, and the first to command an air expeditionary group — the 494th AEG at Moron Air Base, Spain. Her ability to create an environment where members focus on shared goals and objectives has paid dividends for the Air Force Reserve wherever she has served.

“I never wanted to be one of the guys,” she said. “But I always knew I could be part of the team, so that’s what I strived to do — to be part of the team.”

The general has a wealth of experience in the individual mobilization augmentee world, having served in that role for the deputy assistant secretary of the Air Force, commander of U.S. Africa Command and commander of Air Mobility Command.

22nd Air Force Commander Maj. Gen. Stayce Harris oversees the Reserve’s air mobility operations and other vital mission sets like undergraduate pilot training, flight test operations and a highly mobile civil engineering response force. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Mark Thompson/Released)
22nd Air Force Commander Maj. Gen. Stayce Harris oversees the Air Force Reserve’s air mobility operations and other vital mission sets like undergraduate pilot training, flight test operations and a highly mobile civil engineering response force. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Mark Thompson/Released)

Challenged to lead the men and women of the 22nd AF, Harris said she finds inspiration in her personal heroes, the Tuskegee Airmen — famed black aviators who trained at Tuskegee Army Air Field, Alabama, and helped assure U.S. victory during World War II.

“These were Airmen who were set up to fail,” she said. “But they refused to do so. They were told that they couldn’t do the job, but they responded with a drive and determination to succeed, and they ended up performing their mission better than anyone else had ever done it.”

She took the example set by these American heroes to heart and has made a career of perseverance by demonstrating calm and steady leadership when faced with adversity.

“One of the best pieces of advice I have ever been given was to ‘just fly your airplane,’” she said. “Stay on course. Don’t get distracted by the turbulence of the day – it’s only temporary. Stay focused on where you are going, and you’ll get there.”

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