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 “Charlie 21,” and lucky for us, she dubs as our one-of-a-kind kindergarten classroom.

The Birth Of Charlie 21

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 “C-0921” was painted on the tail and we now affectionately call her C-21, Charlie 21 or simply, “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 fights 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…

Filling In The Blanks

The Search for Clarification on Charlie’s Exciting Past

Throughout Iliff Preschool, Kindergarten and School-Age Summer Camp’s 36-year history, many have researched extensively to uncover Charlie’s history in its entirety – beyond the fragmented bits and pieces that was 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 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’ 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!

We consider Filmer’s arrival a pivotal turning point in our investigation of Charlie’s past, and we were so grateful to have finally “landed” successfully on the missing information pertaining to our precious airplane.

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To learn more about what Paul Filmer discovered about Charlie’s exciting past visit:

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The Move That Made History

No one knew exactly what Charlie’s flight path would be from the airport to our school, except for the crane operator at the very last minute. Promptly at midnight on September 21, 1971, the move to Iliff Play School began. The new crew given credit for the flight over the fence was not an FAA pilot, but crane operators George and Richard Frolick. The Frolick Crane Service quietly lifted Charlie over the Stapleton Airport security fence with a new 45-ton twin diesel crane. They then proceeded to tow Charlie like a trailer west on 32nd Ave. (Martin Luther King Boulevard) to Colorado Boulevard then south for several miles to East Iliff Avenue.

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!

An Unexpected Wake Up Call

An Airplane Suspended Above The Neighbor’s Home

Frank Herrman had just come home around 1:00 a.m. on that fateful night from working at the dog track. Herrman had just gone to bed only to be awoken with strange noise and bright lights. Herrman was spotted looking out the window with a shocked, priceless look on his face by George Frolick. It is not everyday that one wakes up to an airplane suspended over his or her house! Frolick explained that it was the only way the plane could have been placed in the school’s back yard. Also, this type of move could never happen again due to the regulations of the city and police.

Herrman’s 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!”

Charlie’s Media Buzz

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.

Over the next 24 hours, the news of Charlie’s arrival had been broadcast on television and radio stations from coast to coast. We were even told that we received approximately $8,000 in free advertising! Newspapers printed the story, but it was a rather a “delicate” subject in the neighborhood. Understandably, the neighbors were up in arms over the rather large plane protruding from the school’s back yard. After several weeks, our neighborly friendship was restored and work commenced to make Charlie the one-and-only kindergarten classroom of its kind.

From Airplane to Classroom

An interesting design feature about Charlie’s resting spot is that she had to be anchored so that the fuselage could expand 1 ¾ inches from the cool nights to the heat of the day. Further, to meet fire requirements, a solid 3/4 inch thick plaster shell was applied over insulation and attached inside the plane so as not to interfere with the expansion and contraction of her aluminum body.

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!

Present Day Charlie

As many as 15 kindergarten students man the aircraft on a daily basis. The long and narrow configuration serves as an asset in keeping student interest and sparking creativity. Every June, Charlie produces graduating kindergarteners with parents and relatives who attend the ceremony. The children sing, profess what they want to grow up to be, walk down the airplane ramp with pomp and circumstance music and most importantly, receive their diplomas.

So in a sense, 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.