The people who live inside airplanes
(CNN) — 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.
A 727 in the woods
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.
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.”
Jumbo Stay is a hotel in Stockholm’s Arlanda Airport.
Courtesy Jumbo Stay
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.”