The people who live inside planes
After losing her house in a fire, Jo Ann Ussery had a special idea: to live in an airplane.
She bought an old Boeing 727 destined for the scrap yard, had it shipped to a piece of land she already owned, and spent six months refurbishing it, doing most of the work by herself In 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 rooster used to be. All for less than $30,000, or about $60,000 in today’s money.
Ussery – a beauty from Benoit, Mississippi – had no professional connection to aviation, and was following the ill-advised advice of her brother-in-law, an air traffic controller. She lived on the plane from 1995 to 1999, when it was irreparably damaged after it fell off the truck that was moving it to another location nearby, where it would be open for public display.
Although she was not the first person to ever live in an airplane, her tireless execution of the project had an inspiring effect. In the late 1990s, Bruce Campbell, an electrical engineer with a private pilot’s license, was captivated by her story: “I was driving home and listening to [the radio,] and they had Jo Ann’s story, and it was amazing that I didn’t drive off the road because my focus turned completely on him. And the next morning I was making phone calls,” he says.
Campbell has now lived in his own plane – also a Boeing 727 – for more than 20 years, in the woods of Hillsboro, Oregon: “I’m still standing on Jo Ann’s shoulder and I’m grateful for the confirmation of concept.” He has no regrets: “I would never live in a normal home. No chance. If Scotty transported me to Inner Mongolia, erased my fingerprints and forced me to live in a normal structure, I would do what I have to do to survive – but on otherwise, it’s a jetliner for me anytime.”
That’s not to say that he wouldn’t do anything differently: “I made a lot of mistakes, including the first class: partnering with a savings company. By avoiding that and using better transport logistics the costs are significantly lower,” he explained.
His project cost a total of $220,000 (about $380,000 in today’s money), about half of which was to buy the plane. He says the plane was owned by Olympic Airways in Greece and was even used to transport the remains of the airline’s magnate, Aristotle Onassis, in 1975: “I didn’t know about it the history of aviation at the time. And I didn’t know there was an old interior in the style of a 707. It was awful, awful compared to today’s standards. It was functional but just looked old and crude. This is probably the worst choice for a home. ”
As a result, Campbell had to work on the plane for a year or two before he could live there. The interior is bare, with a primitive shower made out of a plastic cylinder and a futon couch for a bed. During the harshest part of the winter, Campbell traditionally returns to Miyazaki, a city in southern Japan with a subtropical climate where he owns a small apartment. But the pandemic has made this difficult, and for the past three years he has lived throughout the year 727.
Intending to establish an aircraft home in Japan as well, in 2018 he says he almost bought a second aircraft – a 747-400 – but the deal fell through at the last minute, as his the airline (which Campbell will not reveal) to keep the plane in service longer than expected: “We had to put the project on hold and it is like that to this day,” he said.
Campbell often receives visitors and even offers accommodation in the plane for free, and in the summer it hosts larger public events with sports facilities: “Artists play on on the right side, guests dance in front of or behind a wing in the forest, which is why the big concerts are full of all kinds of entertainment. They are not Disneyland class – just portable cabins with various curiosities and a few activities, but they are fun. ”
If you think living in a plane is unusual enough, how about living in two? That’s the plan for Joe Axline, who owns an MD-80 and a DC-9 sitting next to each other in a plot of land in Brookshire, Texas. Axline has lived in the MD-80 for more than a decade – after breaking up on April Fool’s Day 2011 – and plans to refurbish the DC-8 and equip it with recreational areas such as a house – drawing and music room. He calls his grand plan “Project Freedom”.
“I’m under a quarter of a million dollars in the whole project,” said Axline, who has minimal running costs because he owns the land and is on the water well and the to build his own sewage system: “The same thing I’m doing. there is still electricity left,” he said.
For years, he even shared the plane with his children: “The children are gone now, so it’s just me. Living in a house, you have a lot of space, but waste is space. My master bedroom is 10 feet by 18, which is not a bad size for a bedroom. I have two TVs in there, plenty of room to walk around. My living room is a good size, the dining room seats four, I can cook enough food for several people if they come over. I also have a shower and a toilet, so I don’t have to get off the plane to go to the restroom. The only thing I don’t have here that I would have in a house are windows that open,” he says, adding that he simply opens the plane’s doors to let in fresh air.
The planes are visible from nearby roads, and Axline says that many drivers – their curiosity piqued – stop by: “I have three or four a day. I call them mine turistas“, he says. “They drive by and think, it’s so cool. Most of the time I shake them all over. I’ll go, if you got a while, 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 was also interested in a Boeing 747 – living in the “Queen of the Skies” is the ultimate dream of the aircraft’s home owner – but gave up when faced with the shipping costs: “The The plane 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, drag it and dice it and then put it back together.”
There are other notable examples of airplanes converted into 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, she was converted into an unusual motor yacht and was eventually purchased in the 1980s by Florida resident Dave Drimmer, who extensively renovated her and made her named “The Cosmic Muffin.” He lived in the airship hybrid for 20 years, before finally donating it to the Florida Air Museum in 2018.
American country singer and Nashville Hall of Famer Red Lane, who had a past as an airplane mechanic, lived for decades in a converted DC-8 he rescued from a scrap yard in the late 1970s . Lane, who died in 2015, had no regrets: “I’ve never woken up in this place wishing I was somewhere else,” he said 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 is a fully refurbished Boeing 727 – with two bedrooms and a sea 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 take full life inside a fuselage, however, you have to be prepared for challenges: “You have to have passion to want to do this, because there are so many problems you have to deal with it can be overwhelming,” says Joe Axline, who cites finding the right airfield and finding a suitable location for it among the biggest obstacles.
Perhaps that is why several of Bruce Campbell’s visitors over the years expressed interest in adopting this lifestyle, but none ever turned their dream into: “I thinking that it is very difficult for people: some of my guests left sure that they wanted to do it and I sent them clear instructions to help them step by step, but none of them have moved set up,” he said.
But don’t let that discourage you, Campbell said: “My main advice is do it. Don’t let anyone shake your confidence. Figure out all the logistics, and just do it. ”