Nobody at Southwest told Louis Freeman he would be the first black 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.”
Freeman went on to become the first black chief pilot — a management job — at a major U.S. airline. His most memorable flight carried the body of civil rights icon Rosa Parks to her final resting place. The NAACP had asked the airline to put together an African-American crew.
Freeman made his last flight as a Southwest Airlines captain on Thursday, a few days before turning 65, the federal retirement age for airline pilots.
As he strode toward the gate at Dallas Love Field, Freeman donned his captain’s cap for the last time and reminisced about joining Southwest after six years flying for the Air Force.
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.
“I put a whole lot of pressure on myself because I had to get it right,” Freeman says. “I had to be perfect because I wanted them to hire more of us.”
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.
Southwest didn’t immediately say how many of its current pilots are black. Nationally, it’s 3 percent, according to the Labor Department. Blacks make up 13 percent of the U.S. population.
“It used to be 1 percent. It has increased, but it’s been awfully slow,” Freeman says. Part of the problem, he says, is the high cost of learning and gaining the required 1,500 hours of flight experience to qualify as a co-pilot for a small regional airline.
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.
Maybe Christopher Goods of Frisco, Texas, will be one of them. As Freeman talked to a reporter at Love Field, the 10-year-old stopped to shake his hand. Freeman chatted briefly with the boy and waved to his parents.
“That kind of thing happens all the time,” Freeman said, “because young black kids, they don’t see black pilots very often.”
Freeman said he never had problems with white pilots, but some passengers seemed surprised to see him.
Particularly if the co-pilot was a woman, Freeman liked to position her where passengers boarding the plane would see her, and he would hang back near the cockpit door.
“They’re looking for some older white guy to make sure he’s keeping her out of trouble,” Freeman said. “When they turned to look, there’s big old me standing there, grinning. You should have seen the looks. To me it was a game.”
In 1992, Southwest named Freeman its chief pilot in Chicago — the first black to hold that job at any major U.S. airline. It’s a management job that meant fewer flights for Freeman, “but I got to use my brain for other stuff.”
In 2005, Freeman flew the plane that carried the body of Parks, the black woman who in 1955 refused an order to give up her seat on a public bus in Montgomery, Alabama, to a white passenger, an act that became a touchstone of the civil rights movement. He took his daughter and son on the trip to impress upon them the importance of Parks’ act.
Freeman’s son may keep up the family’s aviation tradition — he is a flight instructor gaining flight hours until he can apply for an airline job.