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Make a left at the airplane


During my childhood in once-sleepy Penndel, an oddity lay 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.”

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 World War II 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 the likes of Gen. Eisenhower and Gen. MacArthur.

The “Connies” as they were affectionately called eventually were declared surplus by the U.S. Air Force, 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: 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.

When my husband and I realized at the museum that this was the actual plane I would never forget from my childhood, a flood of memories came back.

Penndel was my father’s birthplace — then a rural town. It was where he grew up and where he met my mother in eighth grade. My grandparents also lived there for years, and it was where I was baptized and married.

“The Airplane” was where one of my high school swim team banquets was held, and where celebrities often stopped in, just to experience the novelty of dining in a vintage airliner.

Just how did it land in Penndel?

It all started in 1967 with a veteran WWII reconnaissance Air Force pilot named Jim Flannery, a Penndel native who was then the manager of his family’s landmark restaurant, Flannery’s, in operation since 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. Of course, it was also Flannery’s muse, a nod to his own military service.

Here are the highlights of the airplane’s fascinating story, going from international travel to resting in a quirky small town and finally, to the Air Force’s military museum. How prescient Flannery may have been, keeping the pilot’s control room exactly as it been during her travels. It was off limits to all customers.

• The aircraft was built in 1954, utilized as a passenger airliner by several carriers such as Eastern, Cubana and Irish Airways. Capital Airways sold it to Jim Flannery in 1967.

• The plane was moved from its retirement location in 1967 at New Castle Airport, Del., to Penndel. The wings and tail had to be removed temporarily. A convoy made its way north through Center City Philadelphia, complete with the fanfare of a parade and several police escort vehicles.

• The renovated airplane opened shortly after in the same year. She 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.

• In 1976 during a time of economic struggle, the plane was renamed “Spirit of 1776” in honor of the Bicentennial to catch the patriotism of customers passing through Penndel.

• 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 at re-purposing after the plane sat idle. This time it was a family restaurant, Airplane Family Diner, which closed in 1995.

• The plane sat vacant and closed off due to more deterioration until Amoco donated it to the Air Mobility Command Museum in 1997. Apparently, Penndel’s borough council was thrilled to see the aging attraction go to greener pastures.

• Since 2000, after three years of restoration, it has been open for the public along with the unique fleet of retired aircraft at AMC Museum.

The Air Mobility Command Museum, 1301 Heritage Road, Dover AFB, Del. 19902-5301 ( or is open 9 a.m. until 4 p.m., Wednesday through Sunday.)

This story first appeared in Bridget’s Blog, part of the online publication Bridget FitzPatrick grew up in Langhorne and attended Neshaminy schools, Chestnut Hill College and American University. She lives in Lewes, Delaware.

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