Black History Month: We Salute Our Pioneering Aviators
February 11, 2019
Three stories, one vision for equality.
In celebration of Black History Month, we’re saluting FedEx aviators through the stories of the first African-American FedEx pilot, the first female African-American FedEx pilot, and an inspiring father-son flying duo.
More Minorities in Aviation Stories:
FedEx Captain Carroll Waters Stood Tall and Blazed a Trail for Minority Pilots Who Followed
February 11, 2019
For those who were fortunate enough to know Captain Carroll Waters, the first African-American pilot for FedEx, they’ll quickly describe a larger than life individual who truly led by example. Raised in eastern Virginia during the tail end of the Great Depression, Captain Waters’ meager beginnings hardly foreshadowed the incredible impact he was going to have on the advancement of minority aviators.
Following college, the young Virginian joined the U.S. Army in 1958 and displayed a clear love and propensity for all things aviation; so much so, he earned a spot at the Aviation Center of Excellence at Fort Rucker (Alabama) where he thrived under the tutelage of Walter Crenshaw, an original member of the famed Tuskegee Airmen, the renowned group of African-American military pilots who flew during War II.
Following the stint at Fort Rucker, Waters continued training for a number of years prior to seeing combat duty in Vietnam. Flying the CV2B, a two-engine, short take-off and landing plane, during the conflict, he was honorably discharged in 1966 and ultimately earned a Bronze Star, an Air Medal, and a National Defense Service Medal among other distinctions.
However, following his military service, Waters immediately realized the prospects of finding a job as a pilot back home were limited, particularly given the volatile state of race relations during the time. As a result, the 30-year-old committed himself to making a difference by forming an agency that helped develop anti-poverty programs. But as he strove to give a voice to those who needed one, he couldn’t help but feel there was something missing in his life. Yes, he missed the cockpit more than words could explain.
His fortune took a huge step in the right direction when a friend who worked at an employment agency informed him that a young businessman, who also had served in Vietnam, had started an airline delivery company in Little Rock, AR. The business model was quite novel, and given Captain Waters was certain no one was ready to hire a black pilot, the war veteran turned consultant could not, at first, bring himself to call this little known company, Federal Express.
But thanks to considerable coaxing by his friend, Captain Waters did pick up the phone, and as is often said about remarkable stories such as this one, the rest is history. Anecdotally, the phone call exchange played out as follows after Waters heard the “hello” on the other end:
Waters: “I’m a black pilot and I’m looking for a job.”
Fred Smith: “When can you get here?”
And on New Year’s Day 1973 following a meeting with Fred Smith, Carroll Waters became employee #373, representing just the third pilot for the start-up. According to Smith, the primary objective at the time was to secure qualified people to get FedEx off the ground and help it grow, and Waters definitely fit the bill.
Waters initially Captained a Falcon aircraft, and shortly thereafter, the company moved to Memphis. Through the years, the Captain remembered fondly the fact that there were only about 20 packages on that initial flight compared to the millions that currently work their way through the FedEx system each night. As many will attest, he was extremely proud of playing a part in building such an amazing business.
But while others may have been content to focus on the job, Waters reflected on his journey to that point, and was called to inspire others to chase their dreams. And in 1976, the trailblazer did it again as one of the founders of OBAP (the Organization of Black Aerospace Professionals). Forty years later, the group is still going strong, encouraging minority youth to explore and actively pursue aviation careers. The recently retired Captain Albert Glenn recalls meeting Waters during the mid-70s and was impressed by his presence and focus on mentoring.
“He was the first black airline pilot I had seen, and he had the quintessential pilot “look” – very professional, and strictly business. At the time, I didn’t realize that first impression would set the tone for my own career. He became my mentor, and until the day he passed, he always treated me like a son.”
When it was all said and done, Captain Waters flew for the Purple & Orange for 23 years until his retirement in 1996 at age 60. By that milestone, he had flown a variety of airplanes, including the 727, the 737, the DC10 and DC10-30. Waters eventually passed in March 2015, and at the request of his family, his ashes were flown back to his birthplace – Wicomico, VA. Fittingly, Albert Glenn was the Captain on that flight.
While Captain Waters is not with us anymore, his legacy flourishes, markedly defined by a true sense of humility that is so perfectly captured in the following attribution.
“Some days, it hardly felt like work. It felt like a privilege. Without the opportunity that Fred Smith gave me, who knows if I would have flown professionally again or, if I had, if I would have been treated so genuinely.”
During this Black History Month and beyond, we shall look to honor Carroll Waters’ life by treating one another genuinely, with the respect and dignity he extended others throughout his career. FedEx is forever indebted to this pioneer for the positive influence he had during his 23 years with the company, and is committed to keeping his story alive so that it may inspire younger generations of aviators to realize (like Waters often said), “the sky is not the limit.”