Whilst recently conducting some research in the archives of the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum, we came across a peculiar artifact: a small copper coloured membership card, stamped with what looked like blue pilot wings and a shield, and a mysterious sounding inscription. About the size of a regular business card, the legend explained that, ‘the bearer is a member of ye Anciente and Secret Order of QUIET BIRDMEN, founded January 1921.’

©Smithsonian Institution

Even odder was the text underneath the pilots wings, which explained that whoever owned this card ‘has mounted alone into the realms beyond the reach of KEEWEE and MODOCK, and should be accorded all gestures of friendship and aid by fellow QUIET BIRDMEN wherever they may meet.’

Pilot wings of the Quiet Birdmen

Here at the SGE, we’re fairly familiar with many secret societies, the International Order of Oddfellows, the Skull & Bones, the Bohemian Club and the like, but we’d never heard of the Quiet Birdmen. From the pilot wings, and referencing to ‘realms beyond reach’ it seemed as though the Quiet Birdmen was some sort of secret society for pilots. But as to what Keewees and Modocks were, remained a mystery.

©Smithsonian Institution

The card was made out to one J.H. Doolittle, (QB Member 1578), who, for those who know their World War II history needs no introduction, as he led the ‘Doolittle’ bombing raid on Japan four months after Pearl Harbor, before going on to command the US 8th Air Force in Europe. Clearly the Quiet Birdmen included illustrious pilots in their ranks.

J.H. Dolittle (second from left); taken just before the air raid on Tokyo, April 18th, 1942

But further research into J.H. Doolittle showed that before he was a General in the US Air Force, personally decorated with the Medal of Honour by Roosevelt, Doolittle was one of the most famous, and adventurous pilots of the Inter-War period. In 1922 he became the first pilot to fly across continental America, and pioneered the use of navigational instruments such directional gyroscopes, to such a level of expertise that he was able to take off, fly and land completely blindfolded.

J.H. Doolittle, aviation pioneer & member of the Quiet Birdmen

We’d originally been at the Air and Space archives to research another pioneering aviator, Roscoe Turner, the barnstorming, three time winner of the Thompson Air Trophy, who took to the skies with an Errol Flynn moustache and an actual lion cub for a co-pilot. Turner too was a member of these Quiet Birdmen.

Roscoe Turner and his celebrated co-pilot Gilmore the Lion

But scour online and you’ll find hardly a mention of this secret flying society, despite having such prestigious members. There’s no official website, only a brief wikipedia paragraph, and a chat room posting from over a decade ago, from a journalist looking for more information about the society, who was threateningly warned off. On eBay you can find a handful of beer mugs, stamped with the same winged QB emblem, but nothing more recent than the 1970s. 

With the mystery deepening of who these Quiet Birdmen were, we found a small notebook in a catalogue from a private auctioneer based in upstate New York. It was dated 1932, complete with a dashing illustration of speeding planes on the inside cover, and what appeared to be minutes from an actual meeting of the Quiet Birdmen.

Minutes for the NY Hangar chapter of the Quiet Birdmen, 1931

A brief paragraph for Oct. 26th, 1931 recorded how ‘Russell Boardman and Clyde Pangborn are with us tonight. First time since their epoc (sic) making flights. We suggest all NY Hangar Members attend next Monday dinner. IMPORTANT’. The small book was signed by 24 members. 

©Philip Weiss Auctions

Nineteen thirty-one was the year Boardman set the aviation record for longest distance flown without stopping for fuel, flying from Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn to Istanbul. Clyde Pangborn, known in aviation circles as ‘Upside-Down Pangborn’ was a stunt pilot, who was the first to fly non-stop across the Pacific Ocean.

Russell Boardman; the record setting, former stunt pilot for Howard Hughes, died in 1933 competing for the Bendix Trophy

It seemed as though the Quiet Birdmen was comprised of some of the most famous pilots from the golden age of Aviation, which makes the fact that no one seems to have heard of them before all the more intriguing.

Upside-Down Pangborn (right); fearless pilot, barnstormer and first to fly across the Pacific

It was only after returning to the Smithsonian Archives that we made some headway, with the discovery of a small pocket sized book, (accession number A19890646000). Navy blue, with the same pilot wing QB logo stamped in silver, the book was nothing less than a members only guide book given to new members of the secret society.

©Smithsonian Institution

It belonged to a pilot called Arthur Raymond Brooks (QB No. 00522), a flying ace with the US Air Service in World War One, famed for single handedly engaging eight German aircraft in September 1918, shooting down four.

Arthur Raymond Brooks; the last American flying ace of the Great War ©Smithsonian Institution

Brooks carried on flying incredibly into his 90s, and his SPAD Smith IV aircraft can be seen in the National and Air Space Museum. There is a story told in Smithsonian lore, that an elderly Brooks was visiting the Institution’s restoration hangars in Maryland on a tour in 1974, and was amazed to see his actual plane from World War One being restored. Climbing into the cockpit, and immediately harangued by museum staff, until the eighty year old Brooks not only explained how the plane flew, but what its hidden serial number was. Two years later, Brooks’ SPAD Smith IV went on display in Washington DC, fully restored, the opening ribbon being cut by Brooks himself. 

Brooks reunited with his airplane, fifty six years after the Great War

When Brooks passed away in 1991, he was the last surviving American flying ace from the Great War. But before he died, Brooks also donated his entire collection of papers, correspondence and diaries to the Smithsonian, including the small notebook given to him when he joined the Quiet Birdmen.

©Smithsonian Institution

Although many of the pages are missing, Brooks’ booklet finally unveiled the hidden story of the Quiet Birdmen.“Little is known of its history,” the introduction explained, “because of the penchant for the organisation for secrecy.”

©Smithsonian Institution

It turns out that the Quiet Birdmen was a secret society for American aviators who originally flew in World War One. “QB membership is limited to male aircraft pilots….who soloed prior to 1919, or who have a minimum of 250 certified solo hours and who are over 21 years of age.” Given most of the members have presumably passed away, this perhaps explains why the Society is little heard of today.

©Smithsonian Institution

The Secret Society was originally born out of a casual meeting up of these old pilots. “One Monday in January 1921, Baron Ladislas d’Orcy, then editor of one of the few aviation magazines, telephoned a group of his flyer friends, suggesting they join him at Marta’s, a wine and spaghetti spot at 75, Washington Place, New York City,” records the booklet in the chapter QB Origin & History. 

©Smithsonian Institution

Baron Ladislas d’Orcy was an aristocratic gentleman of the now vanished Austro-Hungarian Empire, who specialised in writing mechanical manuals of the Zeppelins, as well as contributing to the Scientific American and the burgeoning aviation magazine market, for titles such as L’Aero, and the Aviation & Aircraft Journal. 

Seventy-five Washington Place still exists today;  a fine, red brick town house, similar to many you’ll find in Greenwich Village. Today there’s still a restaurant on the ground floor, but we can couldn’t find a mention of the Secret Society of flying aces who used to meet here. 

This Greenwich Village townhouse held the first meetings of the Quiet Birdmen

“While having a few drinks and pleasant meal,” the official history continued, “ they discussed old times in much the same atmosphere as had been enjoyed in France during World War I…the evening proved so successful it was followed by many more of such gatherings.”

From these informal drinking evenings of old flying aces, grew a more organised secret society. The unusual society name adopted at one of the early meetings in 1921, when aviation writer Harold Hersey attended a meeting, “impressed by the general joviality, chatter and noise coined the antithetic term ‘Quiet Birdmen’”. 

Clyde Pangborn of the Quiet Birdmen

The Society soon outgrew its casual meeting place at Marta’s, and entered into an agreement with the Architectural League at 115, East 40th Street, for a more permanent arrangement, securing use of the League’s quarters, dining room and bar for meeting nights, the Quiet Birdmen becoming such a fixture that they were allowed to display flying trophies there. 

As the Quiet Birdmen continued to attract new members, the Society spread nationwide, organised into ‘Hangars’, meeting regularly at such places as the Roosevelt Hotel in St. Louis, Adolph’s Italian Restaurant in Chicago, and the Hotel Allis in Wichita. 

©Smithsonian Institution

Quite what happened in these meetings of old pilots isn’t recorded, but there was a regular newsletter for members, called the Beam. The August 1952 edition recorded that, “we now have as many hangars as Heinz has varieties…Baltimore made up the 57th…Baltimore’s acceptance into the realm registers the steady growth of QBism over the past few years….Carefully chosen so that only the elite groups as well as the elite individuals enter into our midst. 

Whilst many of the pages of Brooks’ welcome booklet to the QB are missing, we were able to find out what the peculiar Keewees and Modocks were: “In QB lingo, a Keewee is a person connected with aviation but not a pilot. A Modock is a person not a pilot, and not even connected with aviation, but given to basking in the reflected glory of pilot acquaintances.” 

Wiley Post, first to fly around the world, and member of the Quiet Birdmen

Occasionally, the Quiet Birdmen made themselves known in public. The New York Times reported on March 3rd, 1932, that ‘noted pilots’ of the Quiet Birdmen took to the skies over Hopewell, New Jersey to hunt for clues for the kidnapping for Charles Lindbergh’s son. “Motors roared yesterday and planes took off from half a dozen airports in New York and New Jersey as pilots flew to search the woods and roads in a wide area about Hopewell, N.J., for clues that might help their fellow-pilot, Colonel Charles A. Lindbergh, to find the kidnappers of his son.” For Lindbergh too was a member of the Quiet Birdmen.

Charles Lindbergh, perhaps the most celebrated pilot of his era, and member of the Quiet Birdmen

Whether this secretive club, born out of the common bond of flying during the Great War, still exists is unknown. As a members-only society ourselves, we’re respectful of their desire for secrecy, but if anyone knows a member, or had a relative who used to be a Quiet Birdmen, we would love to find out more, and don’t hesitate to drop us a line.

One’s imagination is drawn to those early meetings at Marta’s in Greenwich Village, where the horrors and daily dangers of flying over the Western Front must have seemed a lifetime ago.

50th Squadron, US Army Air Service, France, 1918

One of the long standing traditions of the Quiet Birdmen was honouring their fallen members, whether through age or aviation accident, a passing they called “Gone West”, when after a toast, their beer mug are placed back in the cabinet upside down. The Quiet Birdmen had a poem written in honour of their fallen companions, which finished;

So the Quiet Birdmen where’er they be, 

Whether high in the air over land or sea,

Or down to their deaths as they go West,

There’s an emblem pinned high on their breast; 

In the honour place over all other things,

Are those little silvery ‘QB’ wings.

©Smithsonian Institution

36 Comments

  1. Tom Inglima

    I can assure you that QB’s is still alive and now has multiples of Heinz 57 Hangars. Other than to say the requirement to have soloed prior to 1919 has changed we are still a secret society.

    • Very interesting! Dropping you a private email….

    • Jeff Titus

      Tom – good to see your name. You gave me my ATP ride back in ’83. Hope you are well. I’m in the WYN hangar. I’m sending this article to a future Good Fellow.

  2. Ted Tunnicliffe

    Fascinating! Thanks so much. 🙂

    • I’d love to know more. I’ve looked for a hanger around my area and there isn’t one that I can find. How would I go about finding or starting one?

  3. Trae, you cannot find one, or start one. You can only be invited by a member, and asked to be joined by the hangar group, after a lengthy vetting process, with proper credentials.
    Cheers

  4. Excellent article! Thanks!
    QBs today must have at least 500 hours of flight time and be asked by a member to attend meetings and perhaps be invited to join

  5. I can’t remember when my dad wasn’t a member. How do you tell a secret organization of a death of one of its members?

  6. Debbie McGee bowe

    I have a question on who to contact on my fathers passing. He was a member for years. Could someone let me know? Thx so much.

  7. I found my dad’s Quiet Birdmen card as we cleared out his home in Anchorage. Fighter pilot trainer. He is on Hospice Care now. I would appreciate any contact with a person to notify of his well-being.

  8. Cyndae Maraschino

    My father was a QB. He recently passed. I know he wants his passing to be noted by the QB. Would someone please contact me about this. Thanks

    • Gerald Donovan

      Cyndiae,
      I am a member of the QBs, if you know the Hangar he was a member, I will forward the info to that Hangar. If you don’t know the hangar, then what major city are you near?
      My name is Jerry,and yes we are secretive,
      But we would like to acknowledge the passing of your father, a member .
      Jerry

    • Kathy Parks

      My grandfather, L.E. (Murph) Shedenhelm, was a QB. He passed almost 50 years ago. So glad that I stumbled on this, as it’s always nice to find more information. I still prominently display his QB pin.

  9. I married the daughter of Paul Snick (QB3719) who was sponsored by Lloyd Stearman. Sadly, Paul was killed in 1936 when the Waco he was flying developed aileron flutter which destroyed the wing. Paul didn’t have the altitude to recover. He was only 36 and his little daughter Janet was 2 years old. In 2011, the Wilmington, NC, Hanger of the QB presented Janet with a Memorial to Paul. Although my dear wife has now joined her Dad in Heaven, I continue to honor that gift from the QB’s and have it on display in my apartment. It will be there as long as I live and hope that my family does likewise.

  10. Lanita Stilwell

    My favorite uncle, Earl Lynnwood Medlicott, passed away 7 Oct 1980 in Colorado Springs, CO. In his obituary it said he was a member of Quiet Birdmen. Years later, I am trying to put together a history of his life for my family & wonder if you could tell me anything about his involvement; hanger, when he joined, etc. I have some pictures (with his first plane), articles, letters, etc.; know he flew at a young age; taught the WASP group in Sweetwater, TX; worked for the Air Force Academy, & many other things about his life. He left no children, so any help you can give me would be greatly appreciated.

  11. My first mentor was a quiet birdman. He did so much to get me into aviation, and truly shaped my life. QB’s are good men, and should be remembered as such. I didn’t discover he was a QB until he passed.

  12. Цена куба фундамент

    Создание дома вашей мечты – это оригинальная возможность, спланировать и претворить в жизнь нечто воистину уникальное во всех отношениях. Возведение фундамента – это в целом первоначальная модель ремонта, в процессе которой домик строится. При расчете замена фундамента под старым деревянным домом цена предусматривается весьма много факторов. Средняясумма возведения домов фундамента составляет приблизительно от 10$ за кв.метр . Погреб сможет умножить итоговую стоимость каждого объекта недвижимости, предоставляя необходимое помещение ради организации хранения и порой рабочее пространство. Наша профессиональная команда по конструированию и возведенью фундамент под памятник на кладбище цена может помочь выстроить жилище, о котором вы всегда мечтали. От начала до конца наша специализированная компания в Череповец позаботимся о всех без исключения процессах, чтобы заказчику не довелось тревожиться о деталях. Специализированная международная компания в Киселевск несет юридическую ответственность за проект, а не вы, именно поэтому организация в Борисоглебск имеют интерес в том, затем чтобы довести до конца строительство коттеджа быстрее и эффективнее. Узнайте о сваи винтовые для фундамента цены в вытегре у спспециалистовециалистов корпорации.

  13. Carlo Coppo

    My uncle was Pete Leaman and as a young boy my dad and I used to visit him at the Culver City Airport which he owned and operated. He would take me up and fly over the Tarzan sets at MGM studios and he catered to numerous movie stars who kept planes at Uncle Pete’s airport. I don’t know if he flew before 1919 but definitely devoted his life to flying until his death in the 1950’s. He also had something to do with designing the original Aero Commander. I remember being at his funeral and being impressed by a huge wreath in the shape of an aircraft engine cowling with the legend “The Quiet Birdmen of America” written in flowers. I always wondered about the Origind of the “QBs” as I don’t recall uncle Pete ever mentioning them to me or my dad. Any information on the QBs would be appreciated for a family memoir I am writing.

  14. Betsy Nickel

    Today I read in the obituaries of our paper that a local man passed away who had been a member of the QB’s. Thank you for this article!
    As I was a little girl in the 1950’s-60’s, I had a neighbor that told me wonderful stories of WWI. He also gave me his flying googles. I wonder if I could find out more about him as I left that town and lived in Europe for many years after that. I only know that so many of the records were lost in a fire.

  15. Kristin Janson

    My grandfather Eddie LePenske (April 12, 1911 – August 23, 1995) of Seattle, WA was a lifetime member and I remember him holding QB meetings and attending them locally when my family (mom was his daughter) stayed at Gramp’s home for the summers during my youth. My 17-year-old son is now a pilot as well and my uncle’s widow has gifted him a QB item of Gramp’s (given by QB for Gramp’s memorial in 1995) for my son’s completion of his private pilot’s license coming up in July. I can’t find a mechanism on this site for posting images, but I treasure any connection to my family’s long aviation history via QB. Let me know how I can help or if anyone out there remembers my grandfather. Eddie LePenske was an aviation pioneer and I have a lot of memorabilia still to sift through from his lengthy and decorated career.

  16. Jackie Marshall

    I’m researching my dad’s cousin, Ivor Witney, who died in 1955. Anybody have any information? Thank you very much in advance.

  17. https://waterfallmagazine.com
    I am genuinely pleased to glance at this website posts which includes lots of helpful facts, thanks for providing these information.

    • Devon Karcher

      I am looking to find out any information about my great-grandfather, S. Sidney Pike (d 1968). He was a major in the 415th bombardment and president of the Skywriting Corporation of America. Any information would be highly appreciated!

  18. With a very few exceptions most of the QBs I flew with could not fly a kite in a coal mine.

  19. Karen Ouye-Selbe

    Excellent article. My Dad was a QB. I cherish and carry his car.

  20. Suzanne McCotter Hall

    My father was a member of the Quiet Birdmen. I believe his Hangar would have been in Fairbanks, Alaska. Dad flew P-51 Mustangs during WWII flying 80+ reconaissance missions over the European theatre. He also trained pilots during the Korean war and later near Bryan, Texas. In 1957, Dad took a position with the CAA in Anchorage when Alaska was still a territory. In 1959 our family relocated from Washington DC to Alaska shortly after it became a state and the CAA became the FAA. Dad took a position out in “the bush” in the small village of Tanana on the Yukon river where we spent 6 idyllic years. During this time, Dad bought a little Piper Vagabond two seater and I cherish my memories of bush flying with him. In 1965 Dad took a position with FAA flight service in Fairbanks where many of our family still live. Dad knew many long time celebrated Alaskan bush pilots such as Don Sheldon and Sam White, among many others. Our beloved father passed away in 2004 at the age of 86.

  21. Cindy Weigand

    My name is Cindy Weigand and my great uncle, Jack Ashcraft, was a member of the Quiet Birdmen. His number is 1854. I am curious as to who nominated him. I suspect Clyde Pangborn and Ivan Gates, but wonder who else.

  22. Cindy Weigand

    I forgot to add that my great uncle Jack Ashcraft flew for the Gates Flying Circus.

  23. Devon Karcher

    I am looking to find out any information about my great-grandfather, S. Sidney Pike (d 1968). He was a major in the 415th bombardment and president of the Skywriting Corporation of America. Any information would be highly appreciated!!

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *