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washington – lt. gen. stacye harris doesn’t like to dwell on the obstacles she faced on her path to become the highest-ranking african-american woman in the u.s. air force.

“although they weren’t pleasant experiences, i am better for them now,” said harris, who serves as director of the air staff.

during a wide-ranging interview in her spacious office in the outermost “e” ring of the pentagon, harris, a pilot with more than 2,500 flight hours in military aircraft, described her groundbreaking rise through the ranks.

harris was born in los angeles and grew up in an air force family. “i just wanted to be just like my dad, not that i knew what he did,” harris said.

her dad retired as a tech sergeant and the family moved around a lot, living in new jersey, new york, vermont and even london for a couple of years.

“what i loved was that every two years we would travel to what i thought was a new and exciting place around the world,” she said. harris' love for adventure and relentless optimism is what helped catapult her to the top ranks of the military as well as into a successful career as a commercial pilot for united airlines.

she is on active duty now, but much of her career was spent in the air force reserves.

when harris' dad retired, her family settled into a less mobile life in the fayetteville, n.c., area, to be near relatives. it was her first prolonged encounter with racism. while her dad was in the air force, the family was largely insulated from the prejudices and provincial attitudes that characterized parts of the country.

lt. gen. stayce harris speaks about the challenges

lt. gen. stayce harris speaks about the challenges she faced while coming up through the ranks of the air force in the '70s and '80s at her office in the pentagon in washington, d.c. on thursday, jan. 19, 2017. harris is one of the most senior african american military officers and an air force pilot.

 (photo: jarrad henderson, usa today)

moving to the south was a shock. harris recalled that when she discovered a restaurant she wanted to try, her cousins warned her that blacks weren’t welcome there. “i said, ‘guess what? we’re going.’”

“i just could not comprehend that in my day and age i wouldn’t be welcomed somewhere,” she said.

they went to the restaurant and didn't have any confrontations. still, harris figured it was time to leave the area. she had enrolled in north carolina state after high school and an air force rotc scholarship allowed her to transfer to the university of southern california after her freshman year.

she didn't considered flying when she entered college in the late 1970s. the air force had just begun allowing women to enter pilot training in 1976. an rotc instructor -- ironically from north carolina -- suggested she consider it.

the idea appealed to her. “why be a passenger when i can fly the plane all around the world?” she said.

flight training then was a mostly male world. there were few women or minorities. but that didn't bother harris.

“being in a male-dominated field really didn’t frazzle me at all,” harris said. she had been a top student of math and sciences in high school and college. “you’re used to being one of the few females in those classes,” she said.

and being isolated from some of the swaggering, towel-snapping male culture didn't bother her either.

“when you’re in those types of environments you choose how you want to react,” she said. “you can … choose to feel sorry for yourself and say, ‘why i am not as accepted as much as everybody else?'”

instead, harris focused on studying, determined to become a great pilot. the stories of the tuskegee airmen, black pilots who fought during world war ii, were her inspiration.

she wasn’t oblivious to subtle biases, however. after failing a checkride during pilot training, she shared her disappointment with colleagues afterwards. she told them she was failed by the flight instructor because she didn't reset her altimeter when passing through 18,000 feet.

her colleagues expressed surprise, saying it was a common mistake that rarely resulted in a failure.

harris chose not to focus on whether she was the victim of bias. “it made me a better pilot,” she said.

after she received her wings in 1984, she began flying c-141 transport planes. at the time women weren’t allowed to fly fighters, which harris said she would have preferred.

but she’s not complaining. “i was living the dream and traveling around the world,” harris said.

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