First African-American Pilot at a Major Airline Retires

First African-American Pilot at a Major Airline Retires

Nobody at Southwest told Louis Freeman he would be the first African-American pilot in the airline's history when he was hired in 1980.

"It never occurred to me," Freeman says, "but when I got here I was the only pilot of color – it didn't take long to figure out."

Capt. Freeman grew up in East Dallas near Fair Park.  He got into flying through ROTC programs and then served in the Air Force for six years. When he joined Southwest, he knew he was setting an example. "I started putting pressure on myself to be perfect," Freeman said. "Because I wanted them to hire more of us." They did. Many of the African American pilots he mentored showed up to say thanks to the man who lead the way.

First African-American Pilot Louis Freeman

On Freeman's first flight as co-pilot, he had a moment of panic when the captain gave him a routine command. The weight of being an airline pilot had suddenly hit him. It went beyond that first flight.

The color barrier in airline cockpits wasn't broken until the mid-1960s. Southwest was less than a decade old when Freeman joined and had just 20 planes and fewer than 200 pilots.

 First African-American Pilot Louis Freeman

Freeman believes that signing bonuses, better pay and help with training costs will address the pilot shortage and help raise the number of black pilots. He said he never had problems with white pilots, but some passengers seemed surprised to see him.

First African-American Pilot Louis Freeman

On Thursday, Freeman wheeled his suitcase down a jet bridge at Love Field for the last time as a Southwest pilot, capping off a 36-year career that included being the first black chief pilot of any major U.S. airline, leading the crew that flew Rosa Parks’ remains around the country before her interment and serving as a lasting ambassador to future pilots of all races.

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