Nearly 60 years ago, a few Air Force pilots got together at the Yale Club in New York City to swap war stories. Their world was an aviation industry in its infancy, and New York, a pilot-filled city that would soon be home to three airline powers, was the center of it all. What their idle chitchat did, however, was form the basis for the Wings Club.
A nonprofit organization based in New York City, the Wings Club “promotes the advancement and development of aeronautics,” according to its website. The group’s membership now boasts 1,200 officials representing airports, airlines, forwarders and other aviation companies.
“There aren’t many places in the U.S. where you have enough of a community to have such a club. New York during the war was one thing, but if there hadn’t been three major airlines in New York in the ’60s, I’m not sure the club would have survived,” said the group’s manager, Harris Herman. “You need some kind of critical mass to be able to do what we do,” he continued. “I’m sure that in many big cities around the United States there’s some kind of talk about doing this, but there just aren’t enough people who are in the industry in a particular location.”
Today, Wings Club members sponsor monthly luncheons featuring some of aviation’s biggest names. James Hogan, CEO of Etihad Airways, is slated to speak at the club’s event on September 22. Jeff Smisek, president and CEO of United Continental Holdings, will visit in November, and Southwest’s Gary Kelly is on the docket for December.
In addition to these monthly talks, the Wings Club gives out university scholarships and organizes a yearly dinner-dance event. Current events are No. 1 on the club’s priority list, but history also plays a big part in the club’s identity.
Members have already produced two volumes of the organization’s history — works that, through the eyes of Wings Club members, tell the story of an evolving industry. Preparations are being made for a third volume, which will cover the years 1992 through 2017. All the records are there — somewhere; the passage of time and a few relocations have spread the club’s history all over New York City.
“All the historical records of the club … were put in storage rather quickly, without archiving them,” Harris said, recalling the haste with which the group moved to its current location. “There’s 150 boxes of files in Brooklyn somewhere; and there are about 75 boxes in storage in Manhattan.”
Herman said it’s an unenviable task to re-create history without first-hand experience (though the video-recorded luncheons, which go back to 2005, will certainly help). But with enough digging and a few clever turns of phrase, officials will no doubt be able to chart the history of aviation through the eyes of Wings Club members.
“It’s really going to be hard to recreate, but people obviously do it,” he said. “Books are written about the 12th century, so I bet one can be written about the last 25 years.”