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“I live in an airplane I converted into a home”

Some of the first matchbox toys I had were airplanes, but the very first airplane I went inside was one my dad rebuilt. He was an aircraft mechanic and flew as a pilot for Pan American World Airways for many years.

On weekends I would help my dad as he worked on a Piper Tri-Pacer that had been wrecked. I must have been 6 or 7 years old; it was cool to be part of that. And when it was finished, it was also the first airplane I flew in.

In 1973, when I was 12, the TV show The Magician started. At the end of each episode Bill Bixby’s character would drive into a plane in a Corvette. I loved airplanes, Bill Bixby was magical and really able to relate to kids, and of course, Corvette’s are really cool. It inspired me, and my goal became to get my pilot’s license while I was still in high school so I could take my school friends flying.

I lived in the Dallas-Fort Worth area and Six Flags and other stadiums were close by. So when I got my pilot’s license at 18—and still in high school—I would fly with my friends from Arlington Municipal Airport and show them the different scenery in the area—it was really cool.

I had dreams to renovate an airplane into a home, but I put them aside, got married and had kids. Building a family and a career was great, I did well and made a lot of money writing software.

But when my wife and I got divorced on April Fools Day in 2011, I decided it was time to do what I wanted to do. I remember a buddy said: “You have your freedom now.” That’s how Project Freedom—my project to create a home in an airplane—started.

I began that day. The first thing I did was look for a piece of property to put an airplane on, because you can’t just one wherever you want. The airport I found had been open for 30 years and the piece of property was on the south-west corner, with roads on each side.

Next, I started looking for airplanes in a junkyard out in Arizona. They wanted more money than I was willing to pay, but more importantly, shipping is very expensive. I started out with the big idea of buying a Boeing 747 and I was able to find one for around $150,000, but the shipping costs would have been around $500,000. I had to find an airplane that would be able to fit beneath underpasses so it could be delivered.

A friend of mine had a friend who knew about a Spirit Airlines DC-9-41 airplane in a mall in Florida. The back had flight simulators but in the cockpit everything was brand new; recreated from 1979. Every single part was there. It’s in beautiful shape. I started the process of buying it in May 2011, and the front half finally arrived in January 2012.

The exterior of Joe Axline’s MD-80 airplane home in Texas.
Joe Axline

In the meantime, I bought half a McDonnell Douglas MD-80 passenger aircraft from Arkansas, it’s 60ft long because that’s the length that I was able to ship on a truck. When the MD-80 arrived in December of 2011, I showed my kids, who were 8 and 10 at the time. My daughter said: “Dad, this is really great. You’re going to love it. I’m living with mom!”

The MD-80 was destroyed inside and at an angle, but once we had moved it onto four support columns, I gutted it, ripped out the carpeting and laid a wooden floor. Then, I put the side panels back in and a few of the original overhead bins.

This airplane has three bedrooms, a bathroom, a living room, a dining room, a kitchen and an office. The cockpit is the same, and below it is the wine room. Behind that is the library and the former cargo hold is now a games room for my kids.

Airplane Home in Texas
Airplane Home in Texas

I created one wall between the first bedroom and the living room, and a second wall behind the shower and the master bedroom. I took the ceiling down because it restricted my height and I used part of it. That’s what I currently have as my kitchen countertop. Because it’s not the full plane, I put a wall up at the end and behind it is a nice patio. I even have a life size chess set there.

I installed LED lights, which give you the ability to change the ambience and I have 5G WiFi in the airplane. My air conditioner and lights are all automated. The water well and sewage system were installed in 2012 and the idea is to put solar power in so I’m completely off grid. That takes a lot of time and is expensive, so right now I’m connected to the local electrical service.

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The overall plan is that I will have a hangar built next to the MD-80 so the plane will look like it’s coming out of a hangar, and that way, it will appear as a full plane to people driving by.

The Spirit Airlines DC-9-41 is going to be moved and I will add the back end on so it will be a full plane with the wings; 120ft long by 10ft wide. It will have a theater, an arts, crafts and music room and a gourmet kitchen where the wings are. You’ll be able to come out of the kitchen onto the wings.

On the other side you’ll be able to look down into the wing, which will be cut out, and I will have model trains and cars there so when you look down, it looks like you’re flying over land far below. The back section will have a sitting area and a master bedroom. I’ve got to have a large closet for my girlfriend’s clothes and shoes.

I moved into the MD-80 the day the water was turned on in January 2012. So I’ve been living in this airplane for 10 years and I’m still working on it every day. For example, I’m going to change up the floor, because it’s starting to look dated.

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Overall it has cost me less than $250,000 to buy both plane halves, the property and do the renovations so far. I guess I paid about $65,000 for each plane including all the shipping costs.

I won’t live here forever, this is just the current phase of my dreams. My next goal is to build a castle on a lake. I have seen a place I like, but I don’t want to jinx it.

Before I started my project, I carried a book around for a year, full of ideas. A lot of my friends told me not to do it because it was a waste of money, they told me to buy a house with cash and be done with it. I could have done that, but what’s the point? Life is about the journey, not the destination.

Joe Axline lives in his renovated airplane home in Brookshire, Texas. You can find out more about him and his airplane home at facebook.com/PlaneHome

All views expressed in this article are the author’s own.

As told to Jenny Haward.

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