If you’ve driven south down Ash Street past Iliff Preschool,
Kindergarten and School-Age Summer Camp, you’ve probably seen
her, proudly peering over the playground fence, as if keeping watch
over the clean, quiet Denver neighborhood. A bit misplaced, you bet.
Mysterious? Sure. A safe place for children to discover and grow through
a fun and imaginative learning environment? Exactly! She’s “21Charlie
,” and lucky for us, she dubs as our one-of-a-kind kindergarten
In 1954, United Airlines purchased a new DC-7 airplane from Douglas Aircraft. This was no ordinary plane; in fact, she looked special enough to be christened the Mainliner Detroit (United Airlines named their planes after their destination cities). Besides being given that name, the identifying number “N6321C” was painted on the tail and we now affectionately call her 21 Charlie.
Until recently, all we knew about Charlie’s history was after many overseas flights and overhauls; Charlie was sold to Dooley Aircraft Company of Phoenix, Arizona. She was refitted, somewhat, and apparently flew charter flights for some time after that.
Eventually, old age set in and Charlie was destined for scrap, but with some fancy dodging of the dreaded scrap pile, Charlie ended up traveling to Denver and became a member of the Ports of Call Travel Club. She was not to be flown, but to become a spare parts plane. For Charlie, that was certainly better than going to the “melting pot” but technically, she would quickly loose all of her character and identity.
As time passed and spare parts were used, old Charlie didn’t look so great. Inside, her seats, rug and ceiling fabric were gone. Outside, her engines and a wheel were missing, but in some way, Charlie was still special and was holding out for a better, more productive life.
Before long, Charlie had a chance to be useful again, provided it was possible to transport her to what was then referred to as “Iliff Play School” – the current Iliff Preschool, Kindergarten and School-Age Summer Camp. But what a move it was to be! Imagine how Charlie could have felt when she learned that in order to travel to her new home, her wings and tail had to be removed so that the fuselage would clear the traffic signal lights when towed over Denver’s city streets.
A true adventure lied in her mist…
Throughout the years since Charlie's arrival in 1971 at Iliff Preschool, Kindergarten and School-Age Summer Camp, many have researched extensively to uncover Charlie’s history in its entirety – beyond the fragmented bits and pieces that were already known. Who were her pilots? What were her routes? Any noteworthy destinations? Did she haul any famous or important passengers?
To our dismay, we uncovered no flight log. We had no special stories to share about her journeys. Until…
In September of 2006, Paul Filmer, an aviation historian and photographer, originally from England and currently residing in Denver, surfaced with the answers we’ve been searching for. He heard from a friend, John Mulvey, airplane collector and restorer, that we owned a DC-7. Filmer quickly scheduled a visit that proved to be extremely fascinating, as he determined that Charlie had two names barely visible on the aluminum under her cockpit windows.
Filmer placed Charlie’s information on an Internet aircraft message board and received a reply from Doug Jackson in Wichita, Kansas. To our amazement, Doug remembered the identification numbers of the plane that his father, Bob Jackson, flew while with Dooley Land Sales Company. What’s more, Filmer set up a four-way conversation with Captain Frank Lang and Flight Engineer Bob Jackson. The exciting, reminiscent, 90-minute discussion covered Lang and Jackson’s flight experiences before, during and after the 1960’s era when they worked together for Dooley Land Sales. Slowly, the timeline of Charlie’s travels that had so frustratingly remained blank was starting to emerge into a tangible, workable form. We had our answers!
We were fortunate to finally prove that Charlie was certainly remarkable. We learned that she proudly carried Ronald Reagan during his bid for California governor. She transported the Los Angeles Lakers during the summer exhibition season. She also carried The Oakland Raiders to Super Bowl II, and finally, she made multiple trips transporting Native American fire fighters to National forest fires. Extraordinary? We think so!
If you think it would have been strange to see a DC-7 airplane going south on Colorado Boulevard at 2:00 a.m., you should have seen some of the late bar hoppers widen their eyes at Charlie as they made their way home. Also, the distance of Charlie’s wings and wheels were just about the width of the street, so no cars could pass on either side. The street was 37 feet wide and the distance of the outside of the wheels was 32 feet. There was quite a procession of non-believers following the airplane that night!
wife, Mae, was out of town and missed out on the fun. When she talked
with Herrman the next day, he said, “Well Mae, we’ll never
have to go to the airport again. A new airport had just moved in across
the street – overnight!”
By the time Charlie arrived at her new and final destination, Iliff
Play School, it was about 2:30 a.m. In order to park Charlie within
the school grounds, it was necessary for the crane to hoist the plane
about 50 feet above the ground. About this time, with television spotlights
shining on the fuselage, Charlie looked much like a dirigible hanging
over the Herrman’s house, and also, the noise of the two-diesel
engines from the crane had awakened everyone who was peering from
their bedroom windows in total disbelief.
With an interior 85 feet long, a 10-foot width and a height of 8 feet, a most unusual classroom with a stage in the tail was finished one year after arriving at Iliff Play School for the September, 1972, opening of the kindergarten. She is self-contained with her own heating and cooling systems, plumbing for her sinks and lavatories, smoke and fire alarm system and the original cockpit with missile instrumentation. Truly distinctive – a wonderland for eager-to-learn kindergarteners!
So in a sense, 21 Charlie is still flying. She flies with the ever-important make-believe help of the children. And that certainly adds a fabulous dimension to our school that simply can’t be compared to any other school around.
We are pleased and proud to be the only school with the “airplane classroom.”
All photos courtesy of Paul Filmer