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.’
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.’
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
“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’”.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.