My husband recently finished a nonfiction book called “The Goldfish Club” by Danny Danziger. He really enjoyed it and, considering this London club’s interesting and transatlantic focus, suggested it would make a good subject for a column.
Tropical fish? No. Boring household pets? No, again. The Goldfish Club is an exclusive group of aviators and crewmembers who have survived either bailing out of their aircraft over water or a “ditching” of their aircraft, defined as a crash-landing into the sea. The club’s mission is “to keep alive the spirit of comradeship arising from the mutual experience of members surviving ‘coming down in the drink.’”
The history is interesting. A small rubber company called P.B. Cow & Co was established in London in 1826. In the 1930s, the company started manufacturing inflatable products and soon became a world leader in air-sea rescue equipment, including emergency dinghies and the first inflatable life jackets. These new life vests, which could keep a person alive even if they were unconscious, were issued to both U.S. Air Force and British Royal Air Force aircrew. The name American airmen gave these jackets was “Mae Wests,” because when inflated, they gave the appearance of being as physically well-endowed as the actress. This name quickly was adopted by forces from all Allied nations and became common nomenclature.
World War II airmen who crashed or parachuted into rough northern-European seas often credited their Mae Wests with saving their lives. Over time, some of these men went to the company’s London offices to talk about their experiences. The fame of the Mae West grew, and company officials established The Goldfish Club, which quickly grew to over 9,000 members after the war.
The Allied Polymer Group acquired P.B. Cow & Co in 1971, but the Goldfish Club lives on today. I contacted Art Stacey, a member of the club’s managing committee and, of course, a Goldfish himself. His own story is remarkable.
Flight Lt. Stacey was the captain of a Nimrod aircraft May 16, 1995, when his plane suffered a catastrophic engine fire. He made the impossibly difficult decision to ditch in the North Sea just 3 miles short of an RAF airfield. Engineers later calculated that had he postponed his water landing a few more seconds, the aircraft would have lost its wing and exploded. All seven crew members were rescued, and he resumed flying after a few months’ recovery from his injuries.
I asked Stacey about The Goldfish Club.
“Worldwide, we now have about 350 active members … although last year, our overall numbers increased as new members joined, former members rejoined, and close relatives of deceased members joined as associate members,” he said.
He didn’t know how many U.S.-based Goldfish there are, but said “when the great bomber offensives of 1943 and onwards began, the number of new U.S. qualifiers must have equalled those of RAF Bomber Command.”
I also asked him about parachutists versus ditchers.
“Numbers are very difficult to quantify, but from my reading the majority qualified by ditching,” he said, adding that most of those who qualified through unplanned parachute jumps were from fighter planes.
Not all of the members are from military. Sir Richard Branson qualified as a member when he crashed his hot-air balloon while attempting to cross the Pacific Ocean over 20 years ago. The club also is trying to talk President George H.W. Bush into joining since, as a young pilot, he was forced to bail out of his Grumman TBM Avenger in September 1944 after his plane was hit by anti-aircraft guns during the bombing raid at Chichi-jima (Peel Island in the Pacific) during WWII.
While the modern Goldfish Club is fewer in members, perhaps because bailouts and ditchings are thankfully much less-prevalent than in WWII, it is as lively as ever. The spirit and kinship of this unusual group lives on today, thanks in large part to the British-invented but American Mae West.
God bless America!
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