The people who live inside airplanes

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After losing her house to a fire, Jo Ann Ussery had a peculiar idea: to live in an airplane.

She bought an old Boeing 727 that was destined for the scrapyard, had it shipped to a plot of land she already owned, and spent six months renovating, doing most of the work by herself. By the end, she had a fully functional home, with over 1,500 square feet of living space, three bedrooms, two bathrooms and even a hot tub – where the cockpit used to be. All for less than $30,000, or about $60,000 in today’s money.

Ussery – a beautician from Benoit, Mississippi – had no professional connection to aviation, and was following the offbeat suggestion of her brother-in-law, an air traffic controller. She lived in the plane from 1995 to 1999, when it was irreparably damaged after falling off the truck that was moving it to a different location nearby, where it would have been open for public display.

Although she wasn’t the first person to ever live in an airplane, her flawless execution of the project had an inspirational effect. In the late 1990s, Bruce Campbell, an electrical engineer with a private pilot license, was awestruck by her story: “I was driving home and listening to [the radio,] and they had Jo Ann’s story, and it was amazing I didn’t drive off the road because my focus turned entirely to it. And the next morning I was placing phone calls,” he says.

Campbell has now been living in his own plane – also a Boeing 727 – for over 20 years, in the woods of Hillsboro, Oregon: “I still stand on Jo Ann’s shoulder and I’m grateful for the proof of concept.” He has no regrets: “I would never live in a conventional home. No chance. If Scotty beamed me to inner Mongolia, erased my fingerprints and forced me to live in a conventional structure, I’d do what I have to do to survive – but otherwise, it’s a jetliner for me anytime.”

That’s not to say he wouldn’t do anything differently: “I made a lot of mistakes, including the whopper-class one: partnering with a salvage firm. Avoiding that and using superior transport logistics renders the costs much lower,” he explains.

His project cost $220,000 in total (about $380,000 in today’s money), of which roughly half was for the purchase of the plane. He says the plane belonged to Olympic Airways in Greece and was even used to transport the remains of the airline’s magnate owner, Aristotle Onassis, in 1975: “I didn’t know the plane’s history at the time. And I didn’t know that it had an old, 707-style interior. It was really, really awful compared to modern standards. It was functional but it just looked old and crude. Maybe the worst choice for a home.”

As a result, Campbell had to work on the plane for a couple of years before being able to live in it. The interiors are no-frills, with a primitive shower made out of a plastic cylinder and a futon sofa for a bed. During the harshest part of winter Campbell traditionally retreats to Miyazaki, a city in southern Japan with subtropical weather where he owns a small apartment. But the pandemic has made this difficult, and for the past three years he’s been living in the 727 year-round.

Intending to set up an airplane home in Japan as well, in 2018 he says he almost bought a second aircraft – a 747-400 – but the deal fell out at the last minute, because the airline (which Campbell won’t reveal) decided to keep the aircraft in service for longer than expected: “We had to put the project on hold and it stands that way to this day,” he says.

Campbell frequently gets visitors and even offers lodging in the aircraft free of charge, while in the summer he hosts larger public events with funfair attractions: “Artists perform on the right wing, guests dance in front or behind the wing in the forest, which for the big concerts becomes filled with all sorts of recreational venues. They’re not Disneyland class – just portable booths with different curiosities and little recreations, but they’re fun.”

Joe Axline's two planes: One to live in, one to renovate.

If you think living in an airplane is extravagant enough, how about living in two? That’s the plan for Joe Axline, who owns an MD-80 and DC-9, sitting next to each other in a plot of land in Brookshire, Texas. Axline has lived in the MD-80 for over a decade – after getting divorced on April Fool’s Day in 2011 – and is planning to renovate the DC-8 and equip it with recreational areas such as a movie theater and a music room. He calls his grand plan “Project Freedom.”

“I’ve got less than a quarter of a million dollars in the whole project,” says Axline, who has very few running expenses because he owns the land and has built his own water well and sewer system: “The only thing that I have still left is electricity,” he adds.

For years, he even shared the plane with his children: “The kids are gone now, so it’s just me. Living in a house, you have a lot of space, but it’s all wasted space. My master bedroom is 10 feet by 18, which is not a bad size for a bedroom. I’ve got two TVs in it, plenty of space to walk around. My living room is good-sized, the dining room seats four, I can cook enough food for a whole bunch of people if they come over. I also have a shower and a toilet, so I don’t have to get out of the airplane to go to the restroom. The only thing that I don’t have here that I would have in a house is windows that open,” he explains, adding that he just opens the plane’s doors to let fresh air in.

The planes are visible from nearby roads, and Axline says that many drivers – their curiosity piqued – end up stopping by: “I have three or four people every single day. I call them my turistas,” he says. “They drive by and think, it’s so cool. Most of the time I wave them all over. I’ll say, if you got some time, I’ll give you a tour. And if I didn’t make the bed that day, who cares? Let’s see how real people live.”

Axline too was interested in a Boeing 747 – living in the “Queen of the Skies” is the airplane homeowner’s ultimate dream – but he gave up when he was confronted with the shipping costs: “The airplane itself was about $300,000, but the shipping cost was $500,000. Half a million dollars to move it. That’s because you can’t drive it through the roads, you’d have to tear it apart, cut it up, slice it and dice it and then put it back together.”

Jumbo Stay is a hotel in Stockholm's Arlanda Airport.

There are other notable examples of airplanes converted to homes. One of the earliest is a Boeing 307 Stratoliner once owned by billionaire and film director Howard Hughes, who spent a fortune remodeling the interior to turn it into a “Flying Penthouse.” After being damaged by a hurricane, it was turned into an extravagant motoryacht and eventually purchased in the 1980s by Florida resident Dave Drimmer, who extensively renovated it and renamed it “The Cosmic Muffin.” He lived in the plane-boat hybrid for 20 years, before eventually donating it to the Florida Air Museum in 2018.

American country singer and Nashville Hall of Famer Red Lane, who had a past as a plane mechanic, lived for decades in a converted DC-8 that he saved from the scrapyard in the late 1970s. Lane, who passed away in 2015, also had no regrets: “I have never, ever woke up in this place wishing I was somewhere else,” he revealed in a 2006 TV interview.

Those who want to experience a night or two in an airplane home have a few options in the form of hotels; in Costa Rica, the Costa Verde hotel boasts a fully refurbished Boeing 727 – complete with two bedrooms and an ocean view terrace; in Sweden, Jumbo Stay is a hotel built entirely inside a Boeing 747, sitting on the grounds of Stockholm’s Arlanda Airport. And if you’re just looking to party, there’s another Boeing 747 that can be hired for events with up to 220 people, at Cotswold Airport in England, about 100 miles west of London.

If you want to leave transitional housing behind and fully take to life inside a fuselage, however, you must be ready for challenges: “You’ve got to have a passion for wanting to do this, because there’ll be so many problems that you’ll need to address that it can become overwhelming,” says Joe Axline, who lists sourcing the right airframe and finding a suitable location for it among the biggest hurdles.

That is perhaps why several of Bruce Campbell’s visitors over the years expressed interest in adopting this lifestyle, but none ever turned the dream into reality: “I think it’s pretty difficult for people: a few of my guests left convinced they wanted to do it and I sent them articulated instructions to help them along step by step, but none have established momentum,” he says.

But don’t let that discourage you, Campbell adds: “My primary advice is do it. Don’t let anybody shake your confidence. Work out all the logistics, and just do it.”

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