The Sky is the Limit
In Observance of Black History Month, we’re proud to tell the story of Carroll Waters – the first African-American pilot hired at FedEx. This feature was originally posted in February 2015, exactly one month prior to Captain Waters’ passing at the age of 78. Even posthumously, we continue to celebrate this pioneering member of our FedEx family.
As a young boy growing up in Wicomico, Virginia, Carroll Waters always thought the sky was the limit. At that time, Franklin Delano Roosevelt was President of the United States, the Great Depression was still impacting most of the nation and the struggle for civil rights was ongoing. But he credits his humble beginnings for molding him into the young man he needed to be to achieve what turned out to be historic accomplishments.
He joined the US Army in 1958 after graduating from college, and eventually made his way to the Army Aviation Center of Excellence in Fort Rucker, Alabama. One of his teachers was Walter Crenshaw – an original member of the famed Tuskegee Airmen.
“I’ll never forget the experiences that I had with Mr. Crenshaw and all that he taught me,” says Waters.
After more years of training, he went to Viet Nam as a combat pilot, flying a CV2B, a two-engine, short take-off and landing plane. He says that tour of duty was like “stepping into Hell.” But he completed his objective with distinction, honorably discharged in 1966. He was the recipient of a Bronze Star, an Air Medal, and a National Defense Service Medal among other distinctions.
But jobs for pilots were scarce when he returned home to the States, and he changed course to partner with a friend to start a consulting agency working with the government on anti-poverty programs. Things were going fairly well, but he missed flying. Then one day came the phone call from a buddy at an employment agency – a call that changed his life.
“Are you flying?” the buddy asked.
“No,” said Waters. “Just flying on weekends for recreation.”
“No man, I mean flying for a career.”
“Nobody’s flying,” Waters scoffed, wondering why his friend seemed unaware that most of the airlines had no pilot jobs available.
But the buddy persisted. He told Waters about a young businessman who was starting a delivery airline in Little Rock, Arkansas. Waters said although he didn’t know much about Little Rock, the offer sounded too good to pass up. So he called the number his buddy gave him.
Waters says as soon as he heard “hello” he started the conversation with “I’m a Black pilot and I’m looking for a job.” The man on the phone asked “When can you get here?”
That man, of course, was company founder Fred Smith. Soon after that conversation, Waters met Smith in person. It was January 1st, 1973. On that day Waters became employee #373 of what was then known as Federal Express – the third of the fledgling company’s 3 pilots.
“When we hired Carroll Waters, our main focus was getting the most qualified people to work for FedEx and help it grow,“ says Smith.
Waters began flying as a Captain on a DA-20 aircraft, also known as a Falcon. A short time later, the company relocated to Memphis. He recalls that there were only about 20 packages in the plane on the first night. Today, the average number of packages handled throughout the FedEx system is approx. ten million. “Never did I think that I would be part of the team to create such a business.”
When he wasn’t flying, Waters committed himself to help encourage minority students to seek careers in aviation. In 1976, he became one of the founders of OBAP – the Organization of Black Aerospace Professionals (formerly known as the Organization of Black Airline Pilots).
Today, out of approximately 4200 pilots at FedEx, 129 are African American. That includes Albert Glenn who has known Waters since 1975. “He was the first Black airline pilot I had seen. He had that quintessential look of a very professional and strictly business pilot. At the time I didn’t know that first impression would set the tone for my aviation career. Carroll became my mentor and to this day treats me like one of his sons.”
Waters treasures his 23-year FedEx experience. “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.”
Waters retired in 1996, on his 60th birthday having flown as a Captain of the DA-20, the 737, the 727, the DC10 and the DC10-30. His last five years were spent on international flights. Waters and his wife Beverly now live in Seattle, Washington. He’s been the focus of many newspaper and magazine articles over the years.
“Carroll was a great contributor to the development of the corporation, and we are grateful to him for his dedication and 23 years of loyal service. I’m also glad to call Carroll a friend as well as a colleague,” says Smith.
“For twenty three years, I watched as this company grew from this little puttering, homespun idea to this huge enterprise that is the FedEx Corporation,” says Waters. “Twenty-three years of flying around the world, seeing that the sky really wasn’t the limit.”