Conquistadores del Cielo is a ‘secret club’ of top aviation executives that meets off the record twice a year. It’s a secret society complete with rituals, and several big deals in the industry have been hatched there — and laws have apparently even been broken.
The first meeting of Conquistadores del Cielo was a weekend at an Arizona ranch in 1937 at the invitation of TWA President Jack Frye and Vice President John Walker.
In 1938 the group was formalized as a non-profit corporation. Members included 91 executives from aviation-related companies including airlines, engine manufacturers, and parts suppliers. The range of group members was expanded with the advent of space travel.
Events at the gatherings included knife throwing, shooting, hunting and petanque. The rules are – or were – that the winners one year have to run the event the next, and players can only win a tournament 3 times.
Apparently this is the club’s drinking song:
We’re Conquistadores, gay Conquistadores
We’re birds of a very fine feather!
We’re happy amigos no matter where he goes
The One, Two and Three goes, we’re always together
The ‘overall good sport’ is (or was) designated ‘Best Wrangler’ and awarded The Big Horse. The 1969 ‘big horse’ was awarded to Roy Wendahl and eventually sold on eBay. Here’s the inscription:
The Big Horse, credit: Pancho Barnes Trust Estate Archive
New members who had attended 3 meetings were eligible for initiation into the club, and the initiation ceremony consisted of processions of Conquistadores riding down from the hills with lighted torches. Fireworks ensue.
It is costumed by the workshop which costumes the Royal Spanish Opera in Madrid. Authentic period costumes complete with armor, swords, and full regalia are used.
Much of what we know about Conquistadores del Cielo comes from the group’s papers, 1940-1975, on deposit at Wright State University.
Although we can get a glimpse of its current operations from the organization’s 2013 tax return (.pdf). It’s organized as a 501(c)3 tax exempt non-profit, which seems to me the wrong designation for an organization that primarily benefits its own members. (It seems to me more like a 501(c)7 social or recreational club.)
They describe their mission somewhat more broadly, however:
Once an annual event, they now have both a fall and spring meeting and they produce an annual yearbook (in 2013, at a cost of $81,000).
Most commonly the fall meetings have taken place at the A-Bar-A Ranch in Encampment, Wyoming over Labor Day weekend.
Here’s the 2013 Board of Directors:
Airline executives claim to avoid business discussions at these meetings. There’s natural concern about anti-trust violations. I first read about the group in the Robert Serling books on the early airline industry, and Thomas Petzinger’s Hard Landing (probably the best book ever written on the airline industry) relays a tale of the heads of United and Pan Am working up the sale of Pan Am’s London routes there.
Excerpt: Hard Landing. I have a hard time imagining Bob Crandall in a tutu.
It was also the source of an insider trading scandal.
[Paul] Thayer…was the first pilot to break the sound barrier in a production US Navy fighter, and survivor of seven crashes, four in combat and three as a test pilot.
..[H]e discussed at Conquistadores 1982 a takeover battle for Bendix Corp which was eventually won by Allied Corp, of which he was a director.
Thayer subsequently became former president Ronald Reagan’s No. 2 man in the Pentagon as deputy defense secretary, but was forced to resign in 1984 in advance of a threatened prosecution for insider trading.
In 1985 he began serving 19 months of a four-year sentence negotiated through plea bargaining.
According to the documents, two Conquistadores who attended the 1982 meeting and were members of companies who unsuccessfully tried to buy Bendix were prepared to testify to the insider information given by Thayer.
An American-US Airways merger seemed inevitable when former American CEO Tom Horton told Scott Mayerowitz that the merger was really his idea originally — pitched at Conquistadores del Cielo.
“I said to Doug, standing by the river, I think there could be the potential for value creation in a combination,” Horton recalled. “I made that pitch. We nodded heads to one another.”