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Brown and McMahon found a "Connie" stashed at an airport in Mesa, Arizona. Prior to its sun-baked retirement, it had hauled racehorses and sprayed pesticides. A Phoenix businessman bought it for $4,000 and then donated it to Save-a-Connie Inc., a nonprofit that the men organized in 1986.
Save-a-Connie grew quickly, drawing dues-paying members from pilots, mechanics and flight attendants who had worked at TWA during its Kansas City glory years. To get the Connie fit enough to fly, a dozen TWA mechanics spent nine weeks in Mesa. The plane touched down at the downtown airport 3,600 man-hours later. The crew, wearing powder-blue jumpsuits, beamed as they descended the stairs. The aviation buffs and ex-TWA workers who watched the landing formed a circle around the plane, as if it were a religious artifact.
The overhaul of the Connie continued on a ramp on the east side of the airport, and the plane appeared at its first air show in 1989. The Save-a-Connie museum opened a year later, stocked with old TWA "hostess" uniforms and other artifacts culled from members' closets.
Over the next decade, the organization expanded its fleet, acquiring a DC-3 that flew for TWA in the 1940s. And in 2000, Save-a-Connie became known as the Airline History Museum. Today, the museum and its main attractions — the Connie, the DC-3 and a Martin 404 — reside in Hangar No. 9 at Charles B. Wheeler Downtown Airport.
The museum has always been a member-driven organization — a club, more or less. The yearly dues are $110, but some members have paid 100 times that in labor, whether with a wrench or as a tour guide. "I was so happy to go down there," says John Comley, who put his woodworking skills to use at the museum. "I felt like I was accomplishing things."
Few members were as accomplished as Foe Geldersma, who had worked his way up at TWA from flight engineer to captain. He joined the museum in 1996 and became president in 2000. But things really accelerated three years later, in 2003.
Geldersma was at an air show in Dayton, Ohio. As he sat on the stairs of the Constellation, a van pulled up. A man emerged and called to Geldersma. John Travolta wants a tour, the man said.
Travolta, a noted plane geek who once owned a Constellation, climbed into the airline museum's Connie and reclined in a sleeping berth. His stay, if fleeting, left an impression. Later that year, Geldersma received a call from Travolta's wife, actress Kelly Preston. She wanted to know if the Connie could chauffeur Travolta to his 50th birthday party in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico.
Under rules of the Federal Aviation Administration, the museum couldn't operate as a charter service. So the museum's leaders decided that the Connie would appear at an "air show" in Cabo and give Travolta a ride on its way. Actor Dan Aykroyd paid the cash deposit.
On February 6, 2004, Travolta and his three-man entourage arrived at the downtown airport in a Gulfstream. He took a quick tour of the museum, then boarded the Connie. The plane took off at 11:35 a.m. and landed in Cabo six and a half hours later.
A few days after the Connie returned to Kansas City, officials at the FAA received an anonymous complaint: The Cabo air show wasn't legitimate, the tipster alleged, and the weather that day wasn't suitable for takeoff.
Though he says he didn't tip off the FAA, an ex-cop named Jim Dickerson was troubled by the Cabo trip. A licensed pilot, Dickerson volunteered as the museum's PR man. He'd left the Kansas City, Missouri, Police Department in 2004 to work in development for a local law firm.