Tracing Tracy Territory: Pioneer pilot retires from cockpit
by Sam Matthews
Jun 21, 2013 | 6098 views | 0 0 comments | 379 379 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Jean Haley Harper sits in the cabin of a 757 United Airline jetliner on her last flight from Los Angeles to Denver on June 10.  Courtesy photo
Jean Haley Harper sits in the cabin of a 757 United Airline jetliner on her last flight from Los Angeles to Denver on June 10. Courtesy photo
As a girl growing up in Tracy, Jean Haley Harper always wanted to fly. Hanging out at Tracy Municipal Airport with her father intensified that desire.

Through determination and a willingness to undergo aviation training, she realized her dream as one of the first women to pilot a United Airlines plane.

And now Jean has retired as a United captain, ending a 35-year career with the airline.

Her last flight was June 10 between Los Angeles and her home base of Denver.

Among the passengers in the plane were her husband, Victor Harper, also a United captain; their two children, Annie and Sam Harper; and her mother, Dorothy Haley of Tracy.

When the United 757 rolled up to the gate at Denver International Airport, it was greeted by a water bridge formed by pumps on two airport fire engines.

“It was great having members of my family in the plane, and the water salute was really something,” she said.

Jean, 63, was among four women who broke the airline-pilot gender barrier at United by earning their wings in 1978 — fulfilling a dream she had since she learned to fly as a teenager at Tracy Municipal Airport in the 1960s.

Her instructor was her father, the late Frank Haley, who was managing the airport and flying as a crop-duster at the time. He died in a 1976 crop-duster crash.

Jean, a 1968 graduate of Tracy High School, continued down the path to become a commercial pilot by attending San Joaquin Delta College for two years and enrolling in the aviation program at the University of North Dakota, where she received a bachelor’s degree in aviation administration in 1975.

She flew cargo planes for two years before being selected to begin United Airlines pilot training in Denver.

She received her wings in April 1978 and served as a 737 flight engineer and was on furlough for several years before becoming a co-pilot in 1986. She was promoted to captain in 1992. Her husband followed her as a United captain two years later and is still flying.

During her career with United, Jean flew only domestic routes, preferring not to fly overseas so she could return regularly to Denver to be with her family.

Her daughter, Annie, is employed by Intel in San Jose, and her son, Sam, is a student at California State University, Humboldt, majoring in marine biology and fisheries.

In retirement, Jean plans to do more writing — she has authored magazine articles and book segments. And she has a good feeling about being one of the pioneer female airline pilots.

“I feel delighted to have had a job that has allowed me to realize my dreams,” she said. “When I started, a woman in the cockpit was a big deal. Now it’s normal, and that’s just wonderful.”

• Sam Matthews, Tracy Press publisher emeritus, can be reached at 830-4234 or by email at

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