Captain Anthony "Tony" Holder started to dream of flying at age seven. After watching an episode of "Superman" on his family's black and white TV, his imagination took flight. Using a bath towel as his cape, he opened the front window of their first-floor apartment in the Bronx, N.Y. and leaped from the building.
Fortunately, he wasn't hurt and decades later he still remembers that defining moment in the Throggs Neck public housing project.
Today, Holder is a FedEx Captain of the Boeing 777 jumbo jet, the world's largest twinjet, and he has traveled to nearly every corner of the earth. Currently serving his 35th year as a FedEx pilot, Holder has accumulated more than 20,000 hours of flying time and is in the upper echelon of experienced international airline pilots.
Holder's journey into the world of aviation is a story about dreaming big and beating the odds.
"Growing up in my neighborhood, there were no aviation mentors and no one in my family had ever gone to college," says Holder.
As one of six kids in a four-room apartment that housed his parents, along with an aunt, uncle and their two children, Holder learned early how to make ends meet.
"My Dad was from North Carolina and I would spend my summers there walking behind a mule in hot tobacco fields and picking cotton. Before I was 10, I could drive a tractor."
While the lack of money was a drawback, it also ignited Holder's spirit of innovation.
"I would see other kids riding their bikes around the neighborhood, but my folks couldn't afford one for me," he recalls. "I would go to the city dump and find spare parts, then come home and make my own bike."
He also earned extra cash by hanging around neighborhood supermarkets to help people carry groceries to their cars. He saved the dimes and quarters shoppers would give him, then bought materials to make a shoe-shine box. He earned more cash by finding spots along the streets of the Bronx to shine shoes. As a teen, he also worked in a supermarket stocking shelves and maintained a newspaper route.
While attending high school, Holder played basketball and had dreams of someday joining the New York Knicks.
"Deep down within, I had a feeling that a professional basketball career wasn't going to happen but even after reaching my senior year, I still didn't have a career goal. I hadn't even thought about applying for college."
One day, Holder overheard a classmate talking about Howard University.
"I didn't know anything about Howard but when he said the school had pretty girls, I decided to learn more about it. After gathering a few details, I went to the guidance counselor and told her that I was interested in studying engineering, but she discouraged me. She told me that I would do better in something like English."
Holder had never done well in English but through research he learned that Howard also offered an Air Force Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) program.
"I applied to Howard, Hampton University and North Carolina A&T, but I didn't have the money to go to either school," says Holder. "I really didn't know where to go for help so one day I walked into a bank and asked to see the manager. I told him that I wanted to go to college and asked if the bank would give me a loan. The bank manager handed me an application and told me to fill it out and have my parents sign it. I did and to my surprise, the bank approved the loan."
Taking the advice of his high school guidance counselor, Holder applied to Howard University as an English major. When he arrived at campus, he found that one of his roommates was majoring in civil engineering.
"We went to register for classes together and instead of signing up for classes as an English major, I signed up for everything my roommate signed up for, which put me on the engineering track. I also registered for the Air Force ROTC program."
Holder was informed that the Air Force ROTC curriculum required students to take extra exams to become officers and pilots in addition to passing the physical exam. "I had never seen this type of material before, but I passed every exam for officer and pilot training," he recalls. "In fact, I was the only student in the program to pass all of the exams."
He soon encountered an unanticipated hurdle. The instructor in Holder's pre-pilot training program told him that at a height of six feet, four inches he was too tall to be a pilot.
"The flight instructor refused to continue giving me instruction because of my physical limitations while trying to maneuver the flight controls," says Holder. "He suggested I not continue in this profession. But I was determined not to be discouraged and stayed in the Air Force pre-flight instruction program."
In 1971, Holder graduated from Howard with a bachelor of science degree in civil engineering and was commissioned Second Lieutenant through the university's Air Force ROTC. However, he decided to delay pilot training until he completed a one-year masters of business administration program at the University of Pittsburgh. While attending classes in Pittsburgh, Holder noticed that an Air National Guard facility was located near the university.
"I could see planes taking off while I was sitting in business classes. For me, this was a distraction because I really wanted to be a pilot," says Holder.
During his second semester in the MBA program, he decided to leave Pittsburgh and begin Air Force pilot training in a one-year program at Reese Air Force base in Lubbock, Texas. He was one of two African-Americans enrolled in a class of 60 pilot trainees.
"Many of these guys had come to the Air Force base with more experience than I had; some had even graduated from Air Force Academy," says Holder. Yet, he advanced in the program and became one of 37 of the 60 trainees to graduate.
Holder flew such military training aircraft as the T-33, T-34, T-41A, T-37, and the T-38. After completing U.S. Air Force pilot training, he was stationed at March Air Force Base in California. While there, he acquired top security clearance and was assigned as a jet bomber pilot flying the B-52 worldwide with nuclear weapons. The B-52s are a part of the Strategic Air Command and stand on alert awaiting orders from the President of the United States in the event of a surprise nuclear attack.
While stationed in California, Holder also returned to graduate school and completed a master of science degree in systems management at the University of Southern California. He was later transferred to Andersen Air Force Base in Guam flying the B-52 bombers. In May 1978, he was honorably discharged from the Air Force with the military rank of Captain.
Despite his exceptional accomplishments in aviation, Holder still felt the need to have a mentor in his field. One day, while reading Jet magazine, he came across a story about Lt. Colonel Spann Watson, one of the original Tuskegee Airmen.
"I was impressed with his story and wanted to get to know him, but I didn't know how to make the connection," Holder recalls. "I decided to write a letter to Johnson Publishing Company to inquire about him."
Johnson Publishing forwarded Holder's letter to Colonel Watson.
"Before you knew it, we were talking to each other on the phone. He became my mentor. About a year later, Colonel Watson called to tell me about a new company in Memphis called Federal Express and asked if I would be interested in talking with them. I was 28 at the time. I told the Colonel that I was interested and he assisted in arranging a job interview."
Holder went to the library to learn as much as he could about the company. In 1979, FedEx offered him the position as pilot, making him the fourth African-American aviator out of the first cadre of seven pilots to be brought on board in the late 70s.
"FedEx has always been proactive in providing equal opportunity for minorities, which has always impressed me," says Holder. The first African-American pilot hired at FedEx was Carroll Waters, followed by Calvin Jones, Ty Lewis, Holder, Joe Holly, Bruce Taylor and James Walker.
In addition to currently serving as Captain on the B-777 jumbo jet, Holder has flown such FedEx aircraft as the B-727, DC-10, MD-10, and MD-11.
"I was most fortunate to have an original Tuskegee Airman as a mentor," says Holder. "In addition to career guidance, one of the things he told me was to help others to succeed, and that's what I've tried to do."
One evening, Holder stopped at a Memphis supermarket on Winchester Road and while walking down an aisle, saw an African-American teenager stocking the shelves.
"His name was Jacques Rogers and he was kneeling down, wearing an apron," says Holder. "I suddenly saw myself in that young man because I used to stock grocery shelves wearing an apron. I decided to stop and say something to him. 'Young man, what are your plans for your life?' I asked. He looked around and stood up. Then he said to me, 'I want to graduate from high school, go to college, major in engineering, and become a pilot.'"
Holder was stunned. He told young Rogers that he was a FedEx pilot, but he didn't stop there. He became a mentor to the young man. Rogers completed his degree in engineering at the University of Memphis, was accepted in a pilot training program in Pensacola, Fla., and earned his wings. Rogers is now a pilot with the rank of Major in the U.S. Marine Corps.
Holder has also mentored other teens aspiring to become pilots.
In 1987, Holder also became one of the first African-Americans to participate in the Memphis In May Triathlon – a multiple-stage competition involving swimming, bicycling and running. He currently serves as president of the Sigma Pi Phi Fraternity, Memphis Chapter (The Boule'); and is active in the NAACP, Omega Psi Phi Fraternity; the Organization of Black Aerospace Professionals (OBAP); Black Pilots of America (BPA), and Tuskegee Airmen (Memphis Chapter). He is a member of Mississippi Boulevard Christian Church.
"Throughout history, African-Americans have continued to prove themselves in so many ways," says Holder.
"I am inspired by the accomplishments of past generations but I am also proud of the young people who are distinguishing themselves in various fields throughout our nation and world. Black History is a daily awareness that we must continue to pass along to our young people."