The Wings Club was born in New York City on May 15, 1942, in the early days of World War II, when a number of America’s aviation leaders decided to band together to find a suitable meeting place where they could gather to help chart the future course of aeronautics.
Specifically, The Wings Club was founded to:
- Maintain a non-profit aviation meeting place in New York City to promote the advancement and development of aeronautics,
- Provide a center for discussion of matters pertaining to aviation and;
- Provide members services and facilities to aid them in their aeronautical activities.
Led by The Wings Club’s first President, Caleb S. Bragg, prominent civil and military aviation leaders - including Eddie Rickenbacker and Juan Trippe - were named to the first board of directors.
To establish the club’s leadership in civil and military aviation, a number of honorary members were elected, including:
- General Hap Arnold, the commander of the U.S. Army Air Forces;
- L. Welch Pogue, chairman of the Civil Aeronautics Board;
- Dr. Jerome Hunsaker, chairman of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, and
- Fiorello LaGuardia, the aviation-minded mayor of New York.
Initially using The Yale Club in midtown Manhattan as its headquarters, The Wings Club soon became a rallying place where aviation-minded people could discuss the latest aircraft and flying techniques.
Within a year, The Wings Club had attracted 500 members. Twelve months later the membership had swelled to nearly 1,000.
Gill Robb Wilson, President of the National Aeronautic Association and a leading aviation publisher, gave the first luncheon addresses at The Wings Club in 1943. The success of that program led to the establishment of monthly luncheon presentations at the club.
The Wings Club’s first Annual Dinner was held on March 22, 1944 at the famous Waldorf Astoria Hotel. Noted military pilot and Eastern Air Lines executive Eddie Rickenbacker was the keynote speaker.
The hotel also was the site of a special meeting of The Wings Club in 1945, when a film showing the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki was aired publicly for the first time during a Wings Club dinner honoring returning U.S. military aviators.
By April 1, 1946, The Wings Club had moved to the Biltmore Hotel, where it remained until relocating to 52 Vanderbilt Avenue on March 15, 1983.
On August 20, 2002 The Wings Club closed that facility and maintained administrative offices in lower Manhattan through most of 2010.
On December 10, 2010, The Wings Club officially moved into its new office space in the former headquarters of Pan Am at 200 Park Avenue in Midtown Manhattan.
Throughout the years, virtually all aviation and aerospace leaders – U.S. and international – have been members or participated in programs at The Wings Club:
- Famous pilots who have visited the club have ranged from Eddie Rickenbacker and Roscoe Turner to Jeana Yeager and Dick Rutan.
- Astronauts from Buzz Aldrin to Frank Borman have been a part of The Wings Club tradition.
- Aeronautical inventors and innovators from Grover Loening and Vincent Bendix to Jerome Lederer and Dr. Wernher von Braun have made presentations at the club.
- Airlines executives have always been active in The Wings Club, beginning with Pan American World Airways founder Juan Trippe, C.R. Smith of American Airlines and Piedmont Airlines’ Tom Davis to Frederick Smith of FedEx, Robert Crandall of American Airlines, Herb Kelleher of Southwest Airlines and Continental's Gordon Bethune.
- Military leaders have been involved in the club since its founding during World War II. Generals Tooey Spaatz, Curtiss LeMay, Dwight Eisenhower (who gave the Annual Dinner address in 1947) and Jimmie Doolittle (who won the first Distinguished Achievement Award from The Wings Club) have been some of the notable military men affiliated with the club.
- General aviation leaders, from William T. Piper Jr., Olive Ann Beech and Dwane Wallace, also have been active.
- Government leaders, from New York City Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, FAA Administrator Allan McArtor and U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Elizabeth Dole to U.S. Senator Barry Goldwater, President George Bush and King Olav V of Norway have appeared at the club.
- International personalities, from Frank Whittle and Claire Chennault to Freddie Laker and Jean Pierson have graced The Wings Club with their presence.
- Aviation editors and publishers, including Gill Robb Wilson, Wayne Parrish and Richard Witkin, also have played a role in the club.
- Consultants and analysts, such as R. Dixon Speas, have made significant contributions to the club.