After 37 years of flying, Capt. Louis Freeman is retiring his stripes. Freeman became Southwest Airlines’ first African-American pilot in 1980, and in 1992 he became the first black chief pilot of a major U.S. airline.
A celebration was held in Chicago Thursday for Freeman after he landed one of his last flights, Flight 412, a 737 from Dallas to Chicago, which was a few days before hitting his 65th birthday, the federal retirement age for airline pilots, ABC7 Chicago reports.
As Freeman’s plane landed, it received a water-cannon salute, and fellow employees from Southwest Airlines praised his work.
“Because of Lou, that’s why I’m able to do what I do, and I hope to pave the way for somebody else in the future,” one of Freeman’s colleagues, Capt. John Addison, said.
Freeman noted that one of his most memorable experiences as a pilot was when his flight was responsible for carrying the body of civil rights legend Rosa Parks after the NAACP requested an African-American crew.
Freeman recognizes that he broke the color barrier for pilots. Even though the percentage of black pilots has risen to 3 percent, according to the Associated Press, he says there’s still a need for changes to be made to attract more black pilots.
“It used to be 1 percent. It has increased, but it’s been awfully slow,” Freeman said. Freeman suggested that the high cost of becoming a pilot deters a lot of people, and if incentives and bonuses were available, as well as cheaper educational options, more black people would be enticed into the career.
As Freeman celebrates his career, his own son plans to walk in his father’s footsteps as he gains his flying hours to become a pilot, too.