Our final post in celebration of Black History Month comes from Southwest Airlines’ Lou Freeman, the first African American Chief Pilot of a major U.S. carrier. Southwest Airlines is proud to celebrate Black History Month in February and all through the year.
I was born in Austin, Texas and my family moved to Dallas when I was ten years old. My childhood was pretty normal for a middle class black family in a mostly segregated society until Dallas integrated its schools in 1967. That’s the year things really changed in my world. After losing our appeal fighting the new school boundary line that divided our street between Madison, the black high school, and Woodrow Wilson High School (with about 1900 students), we prepared ourselves for something new and intimidating, as there were only about a dozen black students that first year.
My older brother and I played in the band at Madison, so we tried out for the band at Woodrow. The excellent training and private lessons provided to the white kids was legendary, so the tryout was daunting. We were surprised when the band director, impressed with our abilities, asked who trained us. My brother and I were able to compete academically and assimilate socially. My three years at Woodrow taught me a lot about my new world.
I was selected cadet corps commander of our ROTC detachment making me the first black student to command Woodrow’s ROTC Unit. I later learned that Sergeant Major Don E. Bacon, our commandant, fought for that decision because some faculty members didn’t think the other cadets would follow a black student. Not only did they follow, our unit excelled.
I wanted to start work right after high school, but my mother told me my plan to postpone college would lead to indefinite delays. So, I started at East Texas State University, now Texas A&M-Commerce. As a freshman, I joined the Air Force ROTC unit and took the AFOQT exam, an aptitude exam for those planning to stay in ROTC the final two years and become active duty Air Force. I did great on all parts of the exam, except the pilot portion, having never been exposed to aviation. My competitive spirit drove me to study hard and learn about airplanes on my own, even though I still had no plans to join the Air Force. During that year, I fell in love with the idea of flying airplanes. I passed all sections of the exam the next year, and accepted an ROTC scholarship. I was headed to the Air Force, and I didn’t have to sweat finding a job my senior year as my friends did!
After graduation, I arrived at Reese Air Force Base in Lubbock, Texas, with my shiny gold bars and a new car to enter a class of Air Force Academy grads who had spent four years preparing for this program and had studied the manuals. Only about 10 in the class of 60 were ROTC grads who had to hit the ground running to fly with these guys. Some of my closest friends washed out with about a third of the class.
During T-38s training, we filled out our dream sheet as to which aircraft we wanted to fly. I planned my weekend cross-country flight to go to Mather AFB in California, the only place the Air Force had T-43s, the military Boeing 737 used to train navigators. After five years at Mather AFB, I turned down an assignment flying C-141s all over the world; instead I left the Air Force seeking an airline job.
In May 1980, I flew a group of navigators out of Hawaii after a long delay caused by a Mount St. Helens eruption, which spewed volcanic ash all over the skies. We dropped them off in Shreveport, LA and headed back to Mather AFB. As we passed over the Texas panhandle, a voice on the radio said “Lou, is that you?” It was John Crouch, a pilot I flew with in the Air Force, now a Southwest Airlines Pilot. He asked me when I was “coming down” and invited me to tour Southwest during my planned visit to Texas that June. John offered to sponsor me at Southwest when I left the Air Force in August.
John wrote what I later called my “we like Lou” letter, a short recommendation letter which all of the ex-Mather pilots signed. When I came back for my interview, they told me to bring blue pants and black shoes to join a class starting in just ten days. Captain Talbert, the Flight Manager, pulled out John’s “we like Lou” letter and said, “If these guys want you here, so do we.” Shocked, still waiting for the interview to start, I realized my interview started my first day at Mather and continued the entire time I was there. When I started at Southwest on November 10, 1980, I was the first black Pilot Southwest ever hired, and two-and-a-half years later became their first black Captain. The Personnel Manager gave me that letter one day when they cleaned out files.
In 1989, I became Southwest’s Phoenix Base Assistant Chief Pilot, and in August 1992, I became Southwest’s Chief Pilot at our newest Crew Base in Chicago. This was an industry first: no other major airline had ever promoted a black Pilot to Chief Pilot position. In my 15 years as Chicago’s Chief Pilot, it grew to be Southwest’s largest Crew Base and I met three United States Presidents; two Presidential candidates; and a number of Cabinet Members, including three Secretaries of State.
But, my most memorable moment came when I was honored to select and lead the crew that flew Rosa Parks on her final tour before her internment. When we flew into Montgomery, AL, a place that once used high-pressure fire hoses to block African Americans from peaceful protests during the Civil Rights Movement, we were greeted with a water cannon salute to honor Rosa Parks. We even wiggled our wings as Ms. Parks’ final goodbye as we departed Montgomery. The reception she received in Montgomery and Washington, D.C., was heartwarming, and having my family accompany me was priceless.
I have experienced many firsts and faced many challenges. My words to you are be honest, work hard, prepare yourself, treat everyone with kindness and respect, and remember every day is an interview. The most important things you can do are ask questions, ask for assistance, and don’t just wait for things to fall in place—take initiative. Don’t be afraid to face challenges as opportunities to grow and learn.