During my childhood in once-sleepy Penndel, PA lay an oddity in the center of town, supported by stilts: a genuine 50+ passenger airplane-turned-cocktail-lounge. It was the town’s iconic behemoth that was good for giving driving directions long before the convenience of GPS. “Turn left at the airplane,” etc.
This wasn’t just any airplane. It was a retired Lockheed C-121 Constellation. To the locals, it was just “the airplane,” although it had several monikers throughout its civilian service days.
Although it is now meticulously restored and available for public view at the American Mobility Command Museum (AMC) at Dover Air Force Base, it has a colorful history. The C-121 aircraft were used for military purposes in WWII and were interestingly designed and developed in part under the auspices of Howard Hughes. The craft is said to have been one of the favorite transport planes used by people such as Ike Eisenhower and General MacArthur.
The “Connies” as they were affectionately called eventually were declared surplus by the USAF, and rapidly became popular commercial airliners for several years. The Connie that resides now at the AMC Museum is in fact the one from Penndel, generously donated by Amoco when in 1997, the long abandoned restaurant was being replaced by a gas station.
Rather than sell the now deteriorating airliner for scrap metal, the AMC received the donation willingly, particularly because its original cockpit controls (roped off but adjacent to a dance floor for years) were fortunately and completely intact. The AMC spent three years, 1997 to 2000 diligently restoring the craft as the Constellations were originally designed: as military transport vehicles for troops and top ranking officers, and sometimes used to transport cargo. From 1948 through the 1960s, the Air Force and Navy used the C-121 for electronic reconnaissance.
So just how did The Airplane end up in the small town of Penndel? When my husband and I realized at the museum that this was the actual plane of my childhood, a flood of memories came back about the town where my father grew up, my grandparents lived, and where I was baptized and married. “The Airplane” was where my high school swim team banquets were held, and where celebrities often stopped in, just to experience the novelty of dining in a historic airplane.
It all started in 1967 with a veteran WWII reconnaissance Air Force pilot named Jim Flannery who was then the manager of his family’s restaurant “Flannery’s. It was also a Penndel landmark established by his mother in 1928. Jim, ever the entrepreneur, saw a classified ad in the paper for the sale of the airplane and figured it would draw new and loyal customers.
Here, I highlight the airplane’s fascinating story, going from international travel to a quirky small town and finally, to a military museum that restored it to the C-121 as used by the USAF.
- Aircraft built in 1954, utilized as a passenger airliner by several sources such as Eastern, Cubana and Irish Airways. Sold by Capital Airways to Jim Flannery in 1967.
- Moved from its retirement location in 1967 at New Castle Airport, DE to Penndel after temporary removal of its wings and tail. A convoy made its way north on I-95 and through center city Philadelphia, complete with the fanfare of a parade and several police vehicles, arriving in Penndel, Bucks County PA.
- Opened shortly after in the same year, it was named Jim Flannery’s Constellation Lounge and featured live entertainment.
- A new Flannery’s Restaurant was completed in 1968, adjoining the Constellation. Tragedy occurred in September at the restaurant’s open house, when two balloonists hired for the occasion went off course in the wind, striking a power line. Both occupants were electrocuted and fell 40 feet to their deaths. Friends of Flannery say it haunted him for the rest of his life, though he never publicly spoke of it.
- In 1976 during a time of economic struggle, she was named “Spirit of 1776” in honor of the Bicentennial in hopes to catch the patriotism of customers.
- Flannery sold the restaurant and the plane in 1982. It was renamed “Amelia’s,” and operated until 1987.
- Another family of entrepreneurs tried their hand, this time as a family restaurant, “Airplane Family Diner,” which closed in 1995.
- The plane sat vacant and closed off due to deterioration until Amoco donated it to the Air Mobility Command Museum in 1997 to make way for a bustling gas station. Apparently, Penndel’s borough council was thrilled to see the aging attraction go to greener pastures.
- In 2000 after three years of restoration, it is now open for the public to visit amongst the unique fleet of retired aircraft at AMC Museum.
The Constellation C-121, tail # 4557 is only one of many aircraft and displays of Air Force history at the museum. Spend an afternoon, or even a day learning the stories of each plane, the magnificent engineering, and the role each aircraft played in protecting our nation in times of war and of peace. And say hello to Penndel’s controversial resident while you’re there.
The Air Mobility Command Museum, 1301 Heritage Road, Dover AFB, DE 19902-5301 (email@example.com or amcmuseum.org) is open 9 am until 4 pm, Wednesday through Sunday.)