Clint Eastwood might belong to many clubs: golf, country, and four-time Oscar winners among them. But there’s one organization he’s entitled to join that’s even more exclusive than any Hollywood cabal. Eastwood was a 21-year-old army private in 1951 when the pilot of a plane he was riding in ditched just off the coast of Point Reyes, California. That long-forgotten involuntary dunking deeds Eastwood the right to join the Goldfish Club, each of whose 400 or so members has either survived a crash landing onto the water or parachuted from a stricken aircraft into the water. He can proudly wear its insignia, a badge that features a goldfish with wings, flying over two blue stripes.

Float-time: crew for the first manned Apollo mission practice water-egress procedures.

George H. W. Bush was an honorary member, after a crash during World War II. Richard Branson has claimed to be a member, which would mean shelling out $14 each year for the privilege after bailing out into the ocean during one of his hot-air-ballooning stunts, although the club has no record of his joining; perhaps he had to re-allocate the cash to his space race. (The club says that, if Branson did join in the past, his annual membership has lapsed. They would love for him to rejoin.) Anyone with a similar story is welcome to petition for membership, too, per Jason Phillips. Phillips is the club’s editor and archivist, and earned his own water wings after enduring a crash landing off the coast of England 20 years ago in a burning helicopter. Likely, though, Phillips will hunt you down before you find him, and tap you to join, Skull and Bones–style. “I keep my eyes on the news now, and go out to contact them,” he tells Air mail. “This is the club with the cheapest dues of any organized club in the country but the hardest joining routine.”

Like Phillips, many of the members are veterans, a legacy of the club’s origins. It started in the U.K. during World War II as a way to celebrate aircrew who ended up in the sea; the first organizer was a staffer at one of the firms that supplied rescue equipment, such as life jackets, known as Mae Wests, in a nod to her ample embonpoint. By the war’s end, more than 9,000 people had joined and held regular reunion suppers to recount their stories; West even sent a message to them one year. Those dinners continue, though the pandemic meant that 2020’s reunion was canceled.

Mae West, who gave her name to the well-appointed life vest used in World War II, with Royal Air Force pilots Eric Bostock (left) and Kenneth Baird, who inducted her into the Mae West Club.

Astonishingly, a dozen or so of those derring-do-filled World War II members still survive, all now in their 90s. Take Keith Quilter, who was shot down off the Japanese coast, survived, and waited to be taken as a prisoner of war. “Then the water started bubbling near him, and up popped an American submarine that had been deliberately waiting there to pick up downed aircrew,” Phillips marvels. More recent members include Kate Burrows, a civilian pilot whose twin-engine aircraft failed en route to the Isle of Man; she is one of just four female members right now.

Clint Eastwood was a 21-year-old army private in 1951 when the pilot of a plane he was riding in ditched just off the coast of Point Reyes, California.

Such scant female membership is partially emblematic of an overall fall. Improved aviation safety has made it harder than ever to join, or, as Phillips puts it: “Aircraft are not dropping out of the sky with the regularity they would have done decades ago.” That’s why the club is keener than ever to bolster its roster—they’d love to reach out to folks such as Eastwood. Phillips would also like to approach Tom Hanks, if the committee approves, to extend him honorary membership, as the actor has played characters who have ditched in water three times on film: Cast Away, Apollo 13, and Sully. Perhaps the greatest hope in boosting the ranks, though, is via that real-life hero, Chesley Sullenberger; not only is the pilot entitled to full membership, per Phillips, but all 155 people on board US Airways Flight 1549 could also sign up. “You don’t have to be at the controls to qualify,” Phillips explains. “If you’ve gone through the experience in any way, it’s pretty daunting.”

Mark Ellwood is a New York–based writer