Out of the Wide Blue Yonder
Trailblazing Naperville pilot who broke racial barriers comes in for a landing
As a college freshman in the early 1970s, Louis Freeman passed all but one part of the Air Force officers’ qualifying test — the pilot section.
“I wasn’t used to not passing,” he recalls. “But I didn’t know beans about airplanes.”
Realizing the test had measured familiarity, not aptitude, Freeman spent the next year reading. Decades after passing that pesky test on the next try, the newly retired pilot who had a 37-year career at Southwest Airlines loves to tell that story.
“People hide the fact that they fail stuff,” says Freeman. “I don’t have a problem saying I flunked a test. Because of that, I ended up being a pilot. Maybe I would have developed a love of flying otherwise, but I developed it during that year, studying about planes and flying. I thought, ‘This would be cool! Maybe I can do this!’”
Freeman’s trailblazing started when he and his brother became two of the first black students at his newly-integrated Dallas high school. He’d go on to be one of the first black pilot trainees — and Squadron Pilot of the Year — at Mather Air Force Base, and the first black pilot at Southwest Airlines.
He got the job in 1980, after Southwest received a letter from a former squadron-mate, covered with the signatures of fellow officers from Sacramento, where Freeman had first fallen in love with the new T-43, the military Boeing 737 — and with his future wife.
“If these guys want you, we want you,” the interviewer told Freeman that day.
Did he know he’d be the company’s first black pilot? “Not beforehand, but it wouldn’t have been surprising. There were 186 guys (no women) and I was number 187. None of them looked like me.”
Everyone was friendly with everyone at the small company. He was no exception.
“I never felt different,” recalls Freeman. “I did feel like I needed to be perfect, though, because I wanted them to hire more black pilots. I worked as hard as I could . . . to make sure I represented my race. Fortunately it worked out.”
An understatement from a humble man who enthusiastically loved working at the one-time little airline that could.
"The first time I had my uniform on and went through security, a black security worker yelled, ‘Oh my God, they have a black one!’ I went up to her and introduced myself. It was funny,” says Freeman.
He handled some admittedly less-amusing slights with the same professionalism and easy-going personality.
“Whenever I had a female first officer, passengers walking in would see her, then they’d peek into the cockpit looking for some older, white-haired, white guy. And there I’d be. They’d get that deer-in-the-headlights look. It was too late, they couldn’t get off. It was so much fun for me, just the look on their faces. Ah, well, there weren’t that many of us.”
Transferred to Phoenix, Freeman was very happy as the assistant chief pilot. But his bosses wanted him to move to Chicago to head up Southwest’s new pilot base after Midway Airlines’ demise. He didn’t want the job, but was tempted by the idea of leading a kind of start-up. He promised his reluctant California-native wife, Stephanie, they’d stay two years at the most. They rented a home in Downers Grove, sure the assignment was temporary.
There were others who didn’t want him to take the job, as Freeman heard at a pilot’s dinner a couple of years ago.
“A guy stood up and said, ‘I’d like to toast Lou. You know, when Lou first came, none of us wanted him to be chief pilot …”
Did Freeman know at the time? “Oh, I knew. There were also people who said, ‘You only got the job because you were black.’ But the bottom line is Southwest wouldn’t have kept me in the job for all that time if I wasn’t doing the job.”
Freeman didn’t know he was the first black chief pilot of any major airline until he walked into a meeting of Black Aerospace Professionals. “They were like, ‘We never had one like you!’ What made a difference to me is not that I was the first — I wanted to be the best.”
That’s what drove him through the next 25 years. “We fell in love with it here. So we did move west — to Naperville.”
This column is not near long enough to detail all Freeman did here, the dignitaries he met and how his colleagues valued him. Before his mandatory-age retirement in June, an administrator found that old recommendation letter.
What Freeman fondly refers to as the “We LUV Lou” letter was just the start of his high-flying career at the airline with a heart — a match made literally in the sky.
Enjoy retirement’s wide blue yonder, neighbor.Edit Module