On a Wing and a Prayer

“I could identify any kind of airplane. I could identify all the different space vehicles, all as a young kid.” What began as a child’s interest in airplanes soon became a passion of Major General David Harris (BS ’86). Harris devoted 32 years of active duty service to the US Air Force in pursuit of the thing he loves most: flying.

When his time came to head to college, Harris says, “…it was either BYU, or the Air Force Academy for me. But I found out that, in the Air Force Academy, you can’t be married until you graduate. So, I chose BYU because that’s where my girlfriend, Valene, was.” Harris charged headfirst into the BYU College of Engineering and its Air Force ROTC program before leaving on a mission to Japan, but not before trying to lock down his future wife. “I took her to Temple Square and pulled out a ring box, but instead of an engagement ring, it was my wisdom teeth that had just been extracted, strung on a necklace.” He laughs, “I told her that I was okay if she dated while I was gone, but she had to wear that necklace to every date. She did not wear it.” Two and a half years later, General Harris married his high school sweetheart, Valene, five months after coming home. 

Although Harris had found the woman of his dreams, he had yet to achieve the career of his dreams. Upon graduating flight school, his flight physical test revealed disappointing news: “I could not pass the vision test.” Harris recalls, “I almost changed services… but I was offered a flying position as a navigator—the guy that sits with the pilot and runs the weapon systems.” He did everything in his power to convince the Air Force to waive his eyesight deficiency, but to no avail. “It totally crushed my whole life’s planned trajectory; it just wasn’t going to happen,” relates Harris.

Instead, he went to navigator training in California and pursued excellence in a new field despite his disappointment. In 1990, only a year after Harris became qualified to navigate the EF-111A, Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait and Harris found himself en route to Saudi Arabia. “My wife [had told] me right before that she was pregnant with our third daughter, but I was off to war.”

Early 1991 saw the end of Desert Storm and the arrival of General Harris’ child, who he finally met when she was just two weeks old. Harris continued his military service by enrolling in the Air Force’s test pilot school. “I just loved the heck out of it,” says Harris, “I got to fly all different kinds of airplanes… It was very engineering centric, very math intense, just as cool as can be to be trusted to just take a new airplane up.” Many piloting opportunities presented themselves throughout his time in test pilot school, ranging from the Navy’s F-14 to the Goodyear Blimp.

When the EF-111 was retired, Harris was assigned to modify the B-1B Bomber, which meant installing new GPS systems and guided weapons. Harris recalls “I got to change the B-1 from one role to another. It has been sort of the work horse, close air support asset for all of these Iraq and Afghanistan campaigns that have been going on for the last 20 years or so. I ended up being very useful to the nation in that way.” Like most military assignments, however, this one was temporary as well. 

Harris was offered the opportunity to serve as a legislative fellow for the US Congress, working with the staff of Jim Hansen, the Congressman from the first district of Utah at the time. Soon after his fellowship, he was appointed as a staff officer in the headquarters of US Forces Japan. “Thanks to my missionary experience,” explains Harris, “I was able to be useful in a way that most military officers can’t be.” General Harris reflects on his various leadership opportunities in different offices all around the world, saying “I’m just a kid from American Fork. My experience has been just really fun and exciting. But all good things have to come to an end.”

General Harris retired from the Air Force in 2018 and now works as an adjunct professor at Utah Valley University teaching Business Ethics and National Security Studies. “I’m very grateful to President Tuminez and her department heads at UVU… Now it’s phase three of my life: I get to give back, tell my war stories and hopefully let the students learn through my mistakes, so they don’t have to repeat them.”

When asked for career advice, Harris says, “The best advice I can give is the advice that I was given: ‘do what you think is cool.’ If you think that a job is awesome, you’re going to be engaged, you’re going to want to do it right. You’ll be excited every morning when you get up to go in and do it.” General Harris recalls a time in the Air Force when, flying though the Sawtooth Mountains, he began experiencing jaw pain. After consulting flight surgeons and life support techs to see if it was a problem with his oxygen mask, they discovered that the problem wasn’t with his equipment. “It was my muscles that were sore from smiling. My cheek muscles were exhausted from grinning the whole time under my oxygen mask thinking ‘this is the coolest thing. I can’t believe they’re paying me to do this’. My advice is to find that job, whatever that is for you, and do it.”

Full Name: 
Major General David Harris
Grad Year: 
BS 1986
College: 
Engineering and Technology
Major: 
Mechanical Engineering
Author: 
Kayla Spencer
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