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The Sky is the Limit

February 2, 2015

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.”

  • Carroll Waters at OBAP Convention

  • Portrait, Carroll Waters and Fred W. Smith

  • Carroll Waters, 1970s

  • Carroll Waters, Aviation Exhibit in Atlanta


    Ricky Green says:

    I also worked at Federal Express for many years and I really loved my job and the great benefits such as jump seat, what a great company to work for. I was in line aircraft maintenance.

    Sherry Dennard says:

    nice to know about Carroll Waters history with what is now known as FedX corporation.

    antionettemcgaha says:

    This is a great article i had no idea on this information but very proud to say i work for FedEx express and blessed for the opportunities that I’ve been giving as a employee there thanks mr Walter for ur service and thanks mr smith for believing in giving someone a chance to show their worth.

    Pamela coates says:


    Johnnie Frazier says:

    Great story! First time hearing about him! Thanks for the info!



    Kathy says:

    My husband just retired from FedEx after 36 Yeats of service…

    Arlen Taliaferro says:

    This story gave me chills reading it! What an AWESOME read and wonderful career. This was also my first time reading about Mr. Waters. Well deserved recognition!!!

    Janice Griffin says:

    This is an awsome story . Thank you Mr. Smith for hiring this young man. And to Mr Waters thanks for your many years of service. I am a FedEx employee and am very proud to say that. It’s all about the Purple Promise.

    Sammy P. Robinson says:

    Great story! Thank you for sharing! I am a FedEX Ground Contractor, and I encourage young people to be the very best at what you do. Mr. Waters did that.

    Andrew Jones says:

    Great story, a true inspiration, especially to a black pilot as myself working on my licenses, who’s dream is to fly for the airlines.

    Melisa Jones says:

    This is truly an inspirational story. I did not know he was the very first black pilot to fly for FedEx. Great gentlemen to look up to. Loved the story, thanks for sharing.

    Donna Davis says:

    This is an amazing and inspiring story!

    Jung Park says:

    What a great story. Thank you for sharing.

    Karl Minter says:

    Capt Water’s thank you for your leadership and opening the door for us to follow!!! You are a giant among giants! We stand on your shoulders!

    Capt Karl Minter

    Fraser Smith says:

    WOW!! What a moving and inspring story. To know that Mr. Waters was part of Fedex in its’ infant stage and was part of the team that shaped and helped Fedex to grow into an international company.

    leonard says:

    We grew up together from early childhood school years in Virginia.
    I knew then he would make his mark on the world.

    Greg Dwight says:

    A great pilot and fun to fly with! Rest in Peace Carroll

    Curtis Wilson says:

    I had the great privilege to fly with Carroll as one of his many first officers. He was a true professional and I learned many things from him. One I hope to have achieved is being an easy captain to fly with. Because, Carroll was one of the most pleasant captains I had ever flown with. I was in his right seat on his final flight prior to his retirement. The sun was about to rise while we were inbound that early morning to Boston. As we stared into the morning day break, the Green Flash occurred. Carroll looked over at me and said he had been looking for the Green Flash his entire career. Well, I’m glad to have shared that moment with Capt. Waters. God bless Carroll and all his family.

    Peter Trimarche says:

    A true inspiration and role model. It is pilots like Carroll that inspired me at a very young age. My career at Fed Ex started the year he retired. I have Mr. Smith and all the pilots who worked so hard to make this company such a success. I hope many young pilots read about the life and career of Carroll for inspiration. God Bless, Carroll.

    Harry Monroe says:

    Carroll was an inspiration to us all, but to me, in particular. Before I started flying for Federal Express, I was furloughed from a corporate flying job in Houston. I had to get qualified for new employment by passing several rather difficult written and flight tests in a short period of time. It required many hours of tedious study. I found a photo of Carroll in a magazine, (Ebony, I think) clipped it out, and taped it to the wall above my desk. It was Carroll standing next to a Federal Express Boeing 727. I would look at that photo often, thinking that this is what I want to do, and what I want to be. A Fedex pilot. I can’t tell you how many times I looked at that photo, when I needed motivation and encouragement to keep studying. I also can’t tell you how much of a thrill it was, when after getting hired, to be able to meet Carroll in the crew room, and thank him for setting such a good example for others to follow.
    R.I.P., Captain Waters. Fair skies and tail winds on your flight west.

    Warren Hopson says:

    Capt Waters was a true professional and gentleman and he made time/took his valueable time to encourage others! It was an honor to have met and listened to him speak. Thank you for your impact on the industry Capt Warers! Thank you for seeking professionals regardless of race etc etc and for leading FedEx well Mr Smith. A proud and recent FedEx retiree. Hop

    Craig Taylor says:

    Warren Hopson continued the tradition of encouraging professionalism and excellence among African American Pilots, like me, a current FedEx Captain, who happens to be black.

    Ray Priddy says:

    I too retired from FedEx and loved that company. I also knew his aunt, Ethel Waters the gospel singer. What a great person. Bet she was proud of Carrol !!!!!!!!!

    Mary J. Day says:

    What a great tribute to Carroll Waters. The Wicomico Church, VA community is very proud of his accomplishments. Thank you for sharing his story.

    Reginald Campbell says:

    Totally inspirational then and now! I remember this kind man when I work in the hub in memphis on the off-load crew. I later moved to the AOD side and I saw many times. Truly a blessing to cross paths. RIP Captain Waters.

    Chris Jones says:

    I met Mr. Waters for a short time at OBAP. Within a few moments, I gained a lifetime of encouragement from him as he told me to trust God and let Him guide you through your life and career. As an upcoming pilot, those few moments were truly a blessing!

    fon Geraldine says:

    Wow.. The story this man is very amazing. I hve heard much abt FedEx Bt never worked there. Bt I will love been part of the team someday.

    Thomas cook says:

    RIP capt waters what a great story and a great person, to be at the very beginning of Fedex world and to be have had so much impact on so many, it’s just amazing. I too, have just retired after 33 years. Yes it was challenging at times but FedEx is a great company and the benefits are great

    Lambert Chatman says:

    Wow, what a great story!

    Sharmayne Daye Manning says:

    Now this is Awesome!!! Black History known throughout the world about a great man from Northumberland County, VA who lived his dream…my hometown. Thanks for serving our country in so many ways.

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