DALLAS -- After nearly 40 years flying the skies for Southwest Airlines, Capt. Lou Freeman took the controls one last time Thursday for his final flight.

Freeman was the first African American pilot hired by Southwest when he joined the company 37 years ago at age 25. He went on to serve as Chief Pilot for Southwest, the first African American chief pilot at any airline.

"It never occurred to me that I was the first African American [at Southwest], but then I got here, and I was the only pilot of color," Freeman recalled. "It didn't take long to figure out."

Capt. Freeman grew up in East Dallas near Fair Park. He got into flying through ROTC programs and then served in the Air Force for six years. When he joined Southwest, he knew he was setting an example.

"I started putting pressure on myself to be perfect," Freeman said. "Because I wanted them to hire more of us."

They did. Today many of the African American pilots he mentored showed up to say thanks to the man who lead the way.

"There's just so many people [he's helped.] So many more people beyond pilots who are appreciative," said Larry 'Jet' Jackson who retired from Southwest as a captain last year and traveled to Dallas Love Field from Phoenix to be aboard Freeman's last flight.

"I'm just here to help him go out in style," he said.

Over the decades, Freeman flew to countless destinations. He said the most meaningful trip he ever made was flying Rosa Parks' remains to her funeral.

"Just the most touching moment that I've had at Southwest Airlines," Freeman said, adding that he served as a pallbearer escorting Parks off his plane.

For his last flight home to Chicago Midway, his 737-800 was full of friends and family, including his own grown children and his wife. In retirement, the couple plans to travel, but in a somewhat different style.

"This time we'll be traveling together, and we'll be sitting in the back," said his wife Stephanie Woodfork, who he met when they were both in the Air Force. "He will miss this. He loves Southwest. He loves flying."

Freeman turns 65 next Monday, the mandatory retirement age for airline pilots. For one last time, he boarded the plane and took the controls, a final flight for a pilot who will always be first.

"I can say it's bittersweet, because I know that I'm not going to get a chance to do it anymore," Freeman said. "But I'm happy that I got a chance to do it."