Captain Louis Freeman began flying for the airline in 1980.
Southwest Airlines Captain Lou Freeman Retirement
Credit: Courtesy of Southwest Airlines

Captain Louis Freeman made his final flight for Southwest Airlines last Thursday, after piloting for the company for 36 years. Although his last flight is one that many people will remember, it’s nowhere near as historic as his first flight for the airline.

Freeman became the airline’s first African-American pilot when he was hired in 1980. He went on to become Southwest’s chief pilot and the first African-American chief pilot of any American airline.

“It never occurred to me that I was the first African American [at Southwest Airlines], but then I got here, and I was the only pilot of color,” Freeman told local news station WFAA. “It didn't take long to figure out.”

Freeman, who now lives in Chicago, began flying through ROTC programs. He flew in the Air Force for six years before joining Southwest.

Southwest Airlines Captain Lou Freeman Retirement
Credit: Courtesy of Southwest Airlines

Throughout his career, Freeman had many incredible experiences, but he said the most powerful was flying Rosa Parks’ remains to her funeral. The NAACP had asked Southwest to arrange an all-Black flight crew for the occasion. He also served as a pallbearer to bring Parks’ remains off the plane.

The nationwide average of Black pilots and flight engineers is about 3 percent, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. “It used to be 1 percent,” Freeman told Associated Press. “It has increased, but it's been awfully slow.”

Freeman said that one of the biggest impediments to hiring more Black pilots is the high cost of learning and training.

Freeman’s final flight took place just a few days before his 65th birthday, the federally regulated retirement age for airline pilots. The airline held a retirement ceremony for Freeman at Chicago’s Midway airport after the plane, filled with Freeman’s colleagues, friends and family, arrived from Dallas Love Field.

“I can say it's bittersweet, because I know that I'm not going to get a chance to do it anymore,” Freeman said. “But I'm happy that I got a chance to do it.”