Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Hangar Flying Through History From a Wing Chair

The actor Jimmy Stewart with Gen. Jimmy Doolittle at the Wings Club

Airplanes had been around nearly forty years when New York’s Wings Club was formed in 1942. And over the years the club has charted a course that parallels the highs and lows of the industry itself as I wrote in this article published in The New York Times. The occasion for writing about the Wings Club is its move into new digs after 8 plus years of not having a place to call “home”. 

In the course of working on the story,  I spent some time looking through the two volume history of the club.  I can’t decide what was more fun, reading the year-by-year account or seeing the doings in the old photos. (Click here to view historic photos courtesy of the Wings Club.)

This is not the first time that I’ve longed to be part of aviation’s yesteryear (certain to get worse when ABC-TV starts its fall series, Pan Am) How can one not yearn for the time when each new day brought exciting advances? I see a photo of John Borger, the Pan Am exec who in the 1930s helped the airline hopscotch across the Pacific by building airfields and refueling stops on tiny islands along the way. 

Mayor LaGuardia only looks like he's kissing Gen. Hap Arnold
I see the astronauts, Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Kathryn Sullivan recounting their exploits in space. There are photographs of people in the book who’s names I’d previously seen on buildings, CR Smith, former chief of American Airlines, and the man after whom is named the CR Smith Museum located at American’s base city in Dallas. LaGuardia? Sure, we know the airport, but how about Fiorello LaGuardia, the New York City mayor from 1934-1945?

Jacqueline Cochran at a Wings Club lunch in New York
I liked seeing Jacqueline Cochran surrounded by all those men just dazzled to be hangin’ with the “speed queen” as she was known, for being the first woman pilot to break the sound barrier. She was also the first director of the WASPS - Women’s Airforce Service Pilots.  

Retired United Airlines Captain and Wings Club member John Kent bragged to me last week that Jackie once invited him to dinner and cooked him fried chicken and buttermilk. “She was quite a lady,” he recalled.

Buttermilk chicken dinners with people who were making history, breaking records, opening air routes,  and flying into space. Who doesn’t get wistful about living in times like those? Especially now when aviation news can be unrelentingly grim; consisting of budget crises, labor unrest, security hassles and overall grumpiness in the skies.

Then, like a sliver of sunlight piercing the clouds, someone like Richard Branson of Virgin walks into a club dinner on the arms of two of his airline's flight attendants, or the tough-as-nails former boss of American Airlines Bob Crandall shows his softer, funnier side in a musical spoof for Herb Kelleher, the imaginative founder of Southwest Airlines (standby, I'll post the video shortly) and I think to myself, "Hey, these times in aviation ain't too shabby either."  And I almost can't wait to see what photos will make it into the next volume of the history book.

Click here to view photos from Wings Club history.


gumbyk said...

Too many people forget that for many of us, these are 'the good old days'

John Robben said...

Christine: Accidentally deleted your blog this morning, then when I realized what I'd done I recaptured it and am glad I did. It made for a very exciting and rewarding read.

I became increasingly aware of airplanes during World War II when I volunteered to be an Air Raid Warden Messenger and accompanied my father on his nightly rounds. He learned to identify planes not only by their shape but also their sounds.

We lived in the Bronx then, on the shores of Long Island Sound. During the day PT-boats practiced their performance levels zooming loudly up and down that stretch of water between Long Island and the Bronx. Their powerful-sounding engines put an end to that peaceful body of water. Freighters carrying war supplies to Great Britain filled our horizon
delaying their confrontations with the lurking German submarines waiting for them to emerge in the Atlantic.

Listening for the planes at night, trying to determine whether they were "ours" or "theirs" was very exciting for a 12-year old boy. One evening I was out walking with friends when we watched an American fighter plane suddenly go into a nose dive and plunge into the water off City Island. Everything was being kept secret in those days, but we learned several days later that the pilot, though injured, had survived. We never did learn what caused him to crash.

In 1937 I also saw the German dirigible, HINDENBURG, pass directly over our community of small waterfront bungalows heading for its New Jersey destination which ended so abruptly and tragically less than an hour later.

In 1953 I flew for the first time in my life as a passenger from Norfolk, Virginia to LaGuardia Airport. I was 23, in the Navy, and my ship, an aircraft carrier, was soon to be deployed to the Korean War. I managed to get a 72-hour weekend pass just before departing for the War and flew home to spend a few final days with my fiancee.

Then I spent the next 21 months living on a "floating airport" when we went off to war.

Airplanes have been a significant part of my life and even now, as they pass directly over my home in Old Greenwich, CT en route one of the local airports, I see them and hear them and continue to be amazed by them.

It's no wonder an adventurous soul like yours is so engaged by them.


Christine Negroni said...

That's a great story John. Thanks for sharing it. Please chime in often.