As one of America's foremost test pilots, Harold Harris played a significant role in the development of both civil and military aviation. Born in 1895, he wet his appetite for flying at age 15 when he attended the first American Aviation Meet at Los Angeles in 1910. Harris experienced his first flight in 1916 at the Citizens' Military Training Camp in Monterey, California. A year later he joined the Aviation Section of the Signal Corps as a flying cadet and was sent to Europe with the American Expeditionary Force.
He received flying training in a Maurice Farman biplane in Foggia, Italy, soloing after only 3 hours instruction. Initially assigned to instructor duty, he transferred to 3-engine Caproni bombers and was later named Chief Instructor. He then moved to the Caproni factory to act as test pilot for aircraft being purchased for the US Navy. In August of 1918, he was sent to Dayton, Ohio, as a test pilot, becoming Chief of the Flight Test Branch in October 1920. He tested Caproni and Handley Page bombers, the GAX ground-attack aircraft, and a variety of other fixed-wing and helicopter designs.
Additionally, he piloted the first experimental pressurized aircraft, a US-built D-9-A, and participated in the bombing of surrendered German warships under the direction of General Billy Mitchell. On 20 October 1922, Harris was forced to bail out of his experimental Loening pursuit monoplane when structural damage occurred in a simulated dogfight with an MB-3 piloted by Muir Fairchild. With this first-ever jump from a disabled aircraft with a free-fall parachute, he became the initial member of the "Caterpillar Club."
In 1923, Harris evaluated the largest and most advanced aircraft of the day, the Barling NBL-1 bomber. He set many records for load carrying ability in the 6-engine behemoth before the project was abandoned. Two years later he left the service and entered civil aviation with a crop dusting firm. He then started the first US-flag airline south of the equator and was Vice President and Operations Manager of Pan American Grace Airways, serving from 1928 until the outset of World War II. Harris returned to uniform and was instrumental in developing plans for long-range transport and aircraft ferrying across the Atlantic.
After the war, he served as President of Northwest Airlines and President of Aviation Financial Services until his retirement in 1965. Brigadier General Harris is a fellow of the American Institute of Astronautics and Aeronautics and of the Society of Experimental Test Pilots.
On 25 July 1918, a Caproni Ca.5 bomber with three officers aboard became the first American-crewed aircraft to fly across the Alps from Italy to France. Lieutenant Harold R. Harris was first pilot, with Lieutenant George Lewis and Ensign R. S. Hudson alternating as second pilot and observer. After taking off from Turin, they used a hand-held barograph to record altitude and a railway tourist map for navigation. Averaging 60 mph, they plodded over and around the snow-covered peaks in the open cockpit, experiencing frigid temperatures that left ice on their face coverings. After 2 hours and 40 minutes, the trio landed safely in Lyon, France, where they were met by a group of French and Italian aviators, including Signor Gianni Caproni, the aircraft's inventor.