Captain Louis Freeman made his last flight as a Southwest Airlines pilot on Thursday, ending a 36-year career in which he became the nation’s first African-American chief pilot at a major airlines, The Washington Post reports.
CBS News Dallas said family, friends and colleagues gathered at the gate to celebrate Freeman, who is turning 65, the federal retirement age for airline pilots.
“You paved the way for so many of us, and I’m just thankful,” a flight attendant told Freeman, as her tears fell, CBS Dallas reported.
Freeman, a former Air Force pilot, joined Southwest in 1980, becoming the airline’s first Black pilot. In 1992, the airlines named him chief pilot in Chicago, making Freeman the first African-American to hold the prestigious management position at a major U.S. airline.
Only 3 percent of commercial pilots are African American, The Post noted.
Despite advances, flight decks of U.S. airlines remains the domain of White men, according to The Hill. In 2016, a group of 18 Black United Airlines pilots urged federal officials to investigate an alleged pattern of hiring discrimination at the airlines, CBS News reported.
Freeman recalled the stress of being Southwest’s first Black pilot. “I put a whole lot of pressure on myself because I had to get it right,” he told The Post. “I had to be perfect because I wanted them to hire more of us.”
During his distinguished career, Freeman had the honor of serving as one of the all-Black pilot crew that flew Rosa Park’s body to her final resting place, at the request of the NAACP.
Freeman has a quiet determination and humble spirit, nurtured from childhood.
“I was raised to think that I was as good as anybody; but, better than nobody… and that’s how I still feel. I can do anything that I put my mind to, that I put my heart into,” he told CBS Dallas.
That’s a message he shared with Christopher Goods, a 10-year-old African-American boy, who saluted him before his last flight.