Joe Axline got the idea to turn an airplane into a house when, as a kid in the ’70s, he watched a TV show starring Bill Bixby called “The Magician.” The show’s main character travels from city to city in a plane solving crimes.
“I thought that was pretty awesome,” Axline told Insider.
Axline trained as a recreational pilot throughout his teens, achieving his instrument rating, an advanced aviation certificate, at 26. Shortly after that, he gave up flying to focus on his career in IT, marriage, and family life.
Twenty-three years later, in April 2011, Axline and his wife divorced. Axline told Insider he had about $250,000 in savings he was willing to spend on what he dubbed “Project Freedom.”
Axline bought a plot of land from a privately owned airport called Sport Flyers in Brookshire, Texas, near where he was living.
He said most properties had homeowners associations that would have blocked his plane plans. But Axline told Insider he’d found a loophole with the private airport property restrictions: “I can’t put a train or put an RV. I can’t put a mobile home,” he said. “But there’s nothing about my airplane.”
Axline began investigating how to buy a plane to renovate.
Axline bought a plane that was being used as a display in a Florida mall.
Axline contacted Tom Bennington, an airplane-renovation contractor. He told Bennington his plan, and the two began to look for a plane.
Bennington found a McDonnell Douglas DC-9 Spirit Airlines fuselage — a plane body without wings — for auction. It was an attraction in Sawgrass Mills’ indoor amusement park for kids, called Wannado City, which went out of business in 2011.
The McDonnell Douglas DC-9 had a fully restored cockpit to reflect the plane’s original 1970s interior.
The cockpit was complete with fiber optics, original chairs, phones, oxygen masks, and life vests.
He bought the DC-9 in the spring, but it took nearly a year to get it removed from the mall. “In the meantime,” he said, “I bought another airplane.”
He purchased a 60-foot front fuselage of a McDonnell Douglas MD-80 from Arkansas in November 2011.
Axline told Insider both plane structures were 60 feet or under because that was the maximum size to transport by truck, the cheapest way to transport retired planes. Keeping the planes under that length decreased transport costs to $5,750 from $10,000, according to Axline.
Axline said he had to build steel foundations for his planes.
The support for the MD-80 structure required 25 cubic yards of cement. He described the project as “two steps forward, one step back,” adding that there was “nothing that is small or easy.”
Once the foundations were built, the planes could arrive.
The MD-80 was delivered in December 2011.
Axline said that while hiring cranes and trucks to transport airplane fuselages had cost thousands of dollars, it was worth it to “get to live the dream.”
The MD-80, which was full of parts that needed to be removed, is the main structure Axline lives in.
The interior of Axline’s McDonnell Douglas MD-80 needed extensive work.
Axline said he learned to do these renovations “on the fly” using YouTube videos and help from his brother, an electrical engineer.
Axline removed the ceilings and overhead bins so his height wouldn’t be restricted. He added two walls: one between the master bedroom and the shower, and one between the first bedroom and the living room. He said was easy for him to do.
In January 2012, the DC-9 arrived and was installed next to the first plane.
With all his attention focused on making the MD-80 livable, Axline didn’t have time to start renovations on the DC-9.
It remains gutted and empty apart from the cockpit, though it’s been used as storage for parts from the other plane. Axline said he plans to turn it into a cinema and entertainment center.
Axline had to install sewage and water systems, electrical wiring, LED lighting, and insulation in the MD-80.
He told Insider it took over a year to make the plane livable. He was staying in an apartment nearby and moved into the plane in August 2012.
Axline stripped the carpeting and replaced it with vinyl flooring. He added insulation to keep the plane cool in the hot Texas summers.
He added a wall in the back of the plane and built a deck and a life-sized chess set outside it.
Axline said he enjoyed having the original door at the front of the plane and the doors at the back, as he can “get a breeze through” on hot days.
Axline has a bedroom plus two other beds for his children when they come to stay.
He maintained some features of the plane’s interior — like the shutters, windows, and some overhead bins.
Axline also kept the plane’s original sink and bathroom features.
The bathroom has the original warning lights, though they’re no longer operational.
Axline said he loves his plane home because his living room, dining table, kitchen, and office space are all within a few feet of each other.
He said that after moving into the plane, he discovered he didn’t need a lot of space.
“I’ve lived in a 5,000-square-foot house, and the airplane is head and shoulders above that,” he said. “It’s 600 square feet of fantastical.”
Axline told Insider he’s paid off all the costs of purchasing the planes and building them.
He told Insider the monthly operating costs are around $200 for electricity, water, and land taxes.
He doesn’t see the plane properties as an investment.
“I don’t care if it goes up in value or goes down — doesn’t matter to me,” he said. “I will live here until the day I die.”