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Above the clouds

Shirley Hawkins | 5/7/2008, 5 p.m.

Life can be full of strange twists and turns.
Just ask Los Angeles native Veronica Harris, who a few years ago had an "epiphany" that radically changed her life. Four years ago, the ambitious Harris went from toiling as a payroll clerk to flying high as a certified commercial pilot.
As a payroll clerk for United Airlines several years ago, Harris eventually realized that she was bored with the job. "I loved the airlines, but being a payroll clerk was just not for me," Harris recalled.
"Someone told me to read a book called The Aladdin Factor," Harris recalls. "Six years ago, I bought the book and it was all about setting goals. One of the exercises in the book was to outline 101 things I would like to accomplish, no matter how outrageous."
As she was writing goals on her wish list one day, Harris peered up at the sky and noticed an airplane flying overhead.
"I had never thought about flying before," said Harris. On the spur of the moment, Harris jotted down what she thought was an impossible goal-to learn how to fly.
It wasn't long before Harris' high-flying dream began to take wings. "A few weeks later while I was driving in my car, I saw a plane flying low overhead, so I followed it," said Harris, who at the time was living in Seattle, Washington. "The plane led me to a small flight school called Spanaflight. I asked the guy behind the counter, 'How much does it cost to fly?' The price was reasonable, so I signed on for an introductory flight."
As a flight school co-pilot manned the small Cessna 152 and they soared above the clouds, Harris knew she had found her calling. "It was love at first flight," said Harris. "I loved the freedom and challenge of flying."
Harris attended the school for two years, juggling her job as a payroll clerk as she took flight lessons. "I would work from 2 p.m. until 10:30 p.m. at night as a payroll clerk, and then I would go home and go to bed. I'd rise at 5 a.m., get to the airport at 6 a.m. and go to flight school until 12 p.m. I kept it up for a couple of years," said Harris.
But Harris said that the grueling schedule was worth it. "The flight instructors taught me how to take off, land, how to navigate the weather, and about aerodynamics. I also learned how to use my gyroscopic instruments, about vertical speed, and how to use my heading indicator, how to use a compass, and how to use flight controls."
"I got my private pilot certificate, my instrument and commercial rating, and my multi-engine and flight instructor rating while at the school."
But Harris didn't stop there. Determined to earn her wings as a commercial airline pilot, Harris traveled to Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, and enrolled in another flight training school, The Gulf Stream Academy.
"The training was intense, because it was Federal Aviation Administration regulated," said Harris, who said she was the first African American female who had ever trained at the school.
After graduating with her commercial pilot certificate, Harris' dream to join the commercial pilot ranks became a reality in 2004. "After I left Gulf Stream Academy, Continental Express hired me. We fly Continental's smaller jets," said Harris, who pilots an Embraer EMB-145, a continental 50 passenger jet. She regularly flies passengers to Canada, Mexico, the Bahamas, and throughout the United States.
The airline pilot got an extra added bonus when she met the love of her life while flying for the airlines.
"I met my fiancé, Jason Brown, at Continental, who's also a pilot," said Harris. "We knew each other, but one day we ran into each other outside of work and the sparks flew."
The two pilots are now planning a September 6 wedding. The wedding theme will include airplanes, of course.
As for being a commercial pilot, Harris said that it is not always smooth sailing. "There's always challenges," said Harris, who said that her home base is now Houston. She said her biggest challenge as a pilot is the weather. "We have to understand that there's turbulence, if we are going to go into a headwind or a tailwind. We're always looking at the weather and constantly making decisions, but we go through mental preparations in our minds," she said.
Harris said that although the ranks of African American pilots has grown, it is still a rarity for most travelers to see an African American female pilot. "They are used to seeing old, white men," Harris affirms, "but the response I get has been very favorable. I have people of all races come up to me who want to talk to me about flying or want to shake my hand."
Harris said that female passengers are particularly proud, and that she often gets the "thumbs up" sign or words of encouragement. "They say things like, 'You go, girl!' or 'Girl power!'" Harris says, nodding.
And Harris, who is currently headquartered near the NASA headquarters in Houston, is already dreaming of another goal: joining the astronaut program.
"The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step," Harris maintains. "Everyone looks at your age, race, and gender, but that's never been a barrier for me. I realized that the only limitations are the ones we recognize." Looking resolute, Harris adds, "I choose not to recognize any limitations."