Conquistadores del Cielo: the Secret Club for Airline Executives

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:

    Conquistadores del Cielo

Conquistadores del Cielo big horse
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).

They describe their mission somewhat more broadly:

Conquistadores del Cielo mission

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.”

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. Wow it’s like Tailhook and illegal insider traders all rolled into one it sounds like 🙂

  2. No “eyes wide shut” kind of secret clubs? If there aren’t cute women involved then it’s just a group of pompous self important gas bags.

  3. It has become functionally impossible for senior staff in any public or regulated company to socialize with peers and discuss anything beyond the current weather without falling afoul of regulations or laws.

    Something’s wrong with that.

  4. I lived in Saratoga, Wyoming from 1978-1983. Saratoga has the longest runway of all Wyoming airports but no commercial service. Each labor day weekend, the airport would fill with several private jets and limos, whisking the arrivees off to the A-Bar-A Ranch in Encampment. I opened Snowy Range Travel in Saratoga in 1980. I tried to get Frontier to stop in Saratoga on its Denver-Laramie flight but my request was quietly dropped. To my knowledge, that was the first and last time commercial air service was attempted in Saratoga.

  5. I have one of the colt black powder revolvers that was issued on July 11, 1976 to it members. I think there were only about 175 made in all. It’s never been shot and has all the items in ‘ts presentation case with the paperwork, powder flask, bullet mold and the rest. Mine was issued to Johnny Walker, my uncle. I would rather see in in someones hands that can appreciate it’s history.

  6. Hi Karl
    This pistol was owned by Johnny Walker. He was the person that formed the club and was it’s president. The pistol has engraving on the cylinder and on the barrel. It’s in a presentation case with an article, and accessories. If you e-mail me directly I can send a picture. at

  7. Karl
    I have just come into possession of more items of my Uncle, John B Walker. Besides the colt revolver, I now have his “Big Horse” Statue from 1947, a silver valet from 1960 . Both are commemorative of the club and I also have a set of bookends with riding spurs with a Conquistador medallion in it but not the name of the club. I am looking to sell the collection. My e-mail is

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