20 October 1922: 1st Lieutenant Harold Ross Harris, Air Service, United States Army, the Chief, Flight Test Branch, Engineering Division, at McCook Field, Dayton, Ohio, was test flying a Loening Aeronautical Engineering Company PW-2A monoplane, a single-engine, single-seat fighter. The PW-2A, serial number A.S. 64388, had experimental balance-type ailerons. During this flight, Lieutenant Harris engaged in simulated air combat with Lieutenant Muir Fairchild (future Vice Chief of Staff, United States Air Force) who was flying a Thomas-Morse MB-3.
While banking the PW-2A into a right turn, Harris’ control stick began to vibrate violently from side to side and the airplane’s wings were “torn apart.” With the Loening diving uncontrollably, Harris jumped from the cockpit at approximately 2,500 feet (762 meters). After free-falling about 2,000 feet (610 meters), he pulled the lanyard on his parachute which immediately deployed. Harris then descended with his parachute providing aerodynamic deceleration, coming safely to earth in the back yard of a home at 335 Troy Street. He suffered minor bruises when he landed on a trellis in the garden.
Harris’ PW-2A crashed into a yard at 403 Valley Street, three blocks away. It was completely destroyed.
This was the very first time a free-fall parachute had been used in an actual inflight emergency. Lieutenant Harris became the first member of the Irvin Air Chute Company’s “Caterpillar Club.”
The Pittsburgh Post reported:
Flyer Quits Plane in Parachute, Saves Life; Unique Case
Dayton, O., Oct. 20.—Leaping from his Loenig [sic] monoplace in a parachute when the plane became uncontrollable over North Dayton today, Lieutenant Harold R. Harris, chief of the flying section of McCook Field, escaped death when his plane crashed to earth.
Technical data, officials at McCook Field said, show that Lieutenant Harris’ escape is the first time an air pilot has ever actually saved himself by use of a parachute. A mail plane flyer leaped in a parachute over Chicago several years ago, but the necessity of his leaving the plane was questioned.
Harris won the commercial plane event in the Pulitzer races in Detroit last week, flying the “Honeymoon Express” plane.
—The Pittsburgh Post, Saturday, 21 October 1922, Vol. 80, No. 303, Page 1, Column 1
Harold R. Harris was born at Chicago, Illinois, 20 December 1895, the first of four children of Ross Allen Harris, M.D., and Mae Ermine Plumb Harris. He enlisted as a private in the Aviation Section, Signal Enlisted Reserve Corps (E.R.C.), 2 May 1917. He was commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant, Aviation Section, Signal Officers Reserve Corps (O.R.C.) on 15 December 1917. Harris was promoted to the rank of 1st Lieutenant on 19 January 1918. His commission was vacated 18 September 1920 and commissioned as a 1st Lieutenant, Air Service, United States Army, effective 1 July 1920.
Married Grace C. Harris, circa 1920. They had two children.
Ross attended the Air Service Engineering School, graduating in 1922. He also earned a Bachelor of Science degree (B.S.) from the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, California (“Caltech”).
Harris left the Air Service in 1926. He founded the world’s first aerial crop dusting business, the Huff Daland Company. Next he became a vice president and chief of operations for Grace Airways, a joint venture of Grace Shipping and Pan American World Airways, providing passenger service between South America and the West Coast of the United States.
During World War II, Harris, using his airline experience, helped to establish the Air Transport Command. In 1942, he was commissioned as a colonel in the U.S. Army Air Corps. By 1945, he was Chief, Air Transport Command, with the rank of Brigadier General.
Following World War II, Harris joined American Overseas Airlines, which soon was absorbed by Pan American. Harris was once again a vice president for Pan Am.
In 1955, Harris became president of Northwest Airlines.
Brigadier General Harold Ross Harris, United States Army Air Corps (Retired) died 28 July 1988 at the age of 92 years.
© 2016, Bryan R. Swopesby