I don’t like flying.
To me, flying is the hurdle you jump to get somewhere fun. I’ve never had an attraction to planes. Airplanes are inconvenient sky buses accessed only through soul-crushing security lines we have to share with tacky people and business dicks. Airplanes are the journey; I’m more of a destination gal.
That may have changed a few weeks ago when I walked up the dusty wing of a retired 727, through the emergency door, and into a 1,000 square foot home. With a cockpit.
Owner Bruce Campbell has been living in this bird (he calls planes “birds”) in the suburbs of Portland for the better part of 18 years, and hopes his passion project can turn into a movement to salvage what are still functional, weatherproof structures, while providing some cool housing options to boot.
And if you’re thinking this sounds like just the gimmicky style of housing that Portland drools over, you’re right.
I began corresponding with Campbell over a year ago, after I’d heard about his airplane home project and approached him for a story. He’s always happy to meet with press, or just about any other snoopy looky-loo, and not only did he agree, he regularly replied with 1000-word emails. Bruce was overseas, and had a return ticket booked, but hey, maybe I could pick him up from the airport and drive him to Hillsboro?
Of course I could pick up this stranger from the airport and drive him to Hillsboro. After all, I did need a story. Besides, I’d never done plane-to-plane transport before. When else could I pretend I was a big airport monorail?
It was a long drive to Hillsboro, and the big highways turned into suburban boulevards and smaller and smaller country roads until eventually Bruce pointed to a steep dirt “driveway,” telling me we’d need to get some speed to make it up. It would be getting dark soon. There had been damage to the trees during our winter storms, and nothing had been cleared yet. I backed up my Honda and let her fly (not literally) up a muddy hill, dodging branches, at dusk. It was a tense couple of minutes that paid off when the road flattened out and the trees cleared enough to reveal the giant nose of an airplane peeking out of the forest, like a sneaky, huge, aerodynamic wolf. With the setting sun, the drizzle, and the trees, you’d think it was a movie. It was so beautiful.
And weird. Airplanes go in the sky and in hangars, not on some private acreage in the suburbs.
But they can.
According to Bruce, an average of three jetliners are retired on a daily basis. When an old plane gets the boot, the engines are removed, because those stay valuable, but the rest of the plane isn’t so precious. Bruce describes the process as “shredding,” where this giant metal flying tube made by millions of dollars of brain and labor power is reduced to piles of metal and loose wires.
Bruce—and a couple of other ambitious nerds like him—believe that empty planes have much more potential. They are weatherproof, soundproof buildings on wheels that only get junked because that’s what happens. Bruce envisions a future where the planes are driven off a runway or out of a hangar and into a housing park for a quiet second life.
Because get this: Airlines don’t have to sell the planes to scrappers. Anyone can buy one, you just have to put up one more dollar than the scrappers would pay, which can be less than $100,000. A decked-out tiny house can run upwards of $50,000, and those don’t have more than a thousand square feet of living space, multiple bathrooms, a ton of free chairs, and a freakin’ cockpit. Then, all you need is some land that’s zoned residential—which I guess is easy enough. THEN you need to know how to attach plumbing for a septic tank and fresh well water, and run electricity. There have got to be people in this dweeby city who can do that, right? Aren’t we always complaining about all the techies who’ve moved here?
The Boeing 727 is a commercial jetliner that’s been around since the 1960s. It was designed for regional flights and smaller airports, so Boeing gave it its own set of stairs. The stairs fold out of the plane in the back, below the tail, accessed by a door between the two back bathrooms with an “exit” sign over it. It didn’t initially occur to Boeing that people might want to use the exit mid-flight, so they didn’t put in a locking mechanism, which was a design flaw (or feature!) that enabled one D.B. Cooper to parachute out of a 727 with a bag of money in 1971. Boeing later added a locking mechanism called the Cooper vane, so don’t get any ideas.
Besides, not a lot of 727s are still in use. They have three engines, which makes it sound like a noisy bird—say a crow, or a mean goose. Also, the 727 needed a flight engineer, which called for a third person in the cockpit (and another paycheck to write). The engineer sat at his or her own desk in the cockpit (behind where Chewbacca sits), with lots of dials and buttons. Quieter, more self-sufficient jets came onto the scene, and I don’t understand how you could go from needing three engines and three people in the cockpit to only needing two, but it happened, making the 727 less desirable. Bye-bye, airstairs. Bye-bye, flight engineer.
This specific 727 is a castaway from Olympic Air, a Greek airline. A cool claim to fame: It’s the last plane Aristotle Onassis ever rode in! Bruce pointed to the floor, where we could see through some plexiglass and into the cargo hold. “He was down there.” Poor old Ari didn’t appreciate the flight because he was dead and in a casket. However, Jackie Kennedy Onassis and some rich Greeks sat in these very seats, which are now softened and greyed by years of use in the days when people still smoked in planes. (Bruce said the ashtrays were still loaded with butts when he got her. Remember smoking?)
It was retired at some point in the mid-’90s, and the airline was willing to unload it for cheap right around the time that Bruce got this twinkle in his eye. He bought it for $100,000 in cash in 1999. It was flown to the Hillsboro airport intact, then driven to the fairgrounds across the street to be stripped.
This is the part of the story where Bruce gets sad. He’d hired scrappers to unload what he didn’t want in his plane, but he very much wanted all the visuals to remain. Unfortunately, due to some miscommunication and rookie mistakes, the plane got torn up pretty good. The cockpit now drips with ends of orphaned wires and is missing more knobs than it’s got. Bruce has had to improvise wiring because what could have been usable was irreparably damaged. The salvage crew is the villain in this story. Stupid salvage jerks.
Bruce got the plane to his property by removing the wings and tail and having it hauled in pieces. (Apparently you can’t just drive a jet through downtown Hillsboro—which is the second villain in this story.) He put it back together on his land, then settled in.
I liked visiting Campbell’s airplane home because I could envision how I’d lay out my furniture if I had the money and time and patience and diligence and technical savvy to buy one of my own. Other people—smarter people—would love to visit the home to see all those knobs and wires. I asked about cable TV (none) and pooping (septic tank).
The carpet inside the cabin has been taken out and the flooring is now clear plexiglass so you can see down into the cargo areas. This also reveals a lot of technology. As a person with only a rudimentary understanding of how planes fly in the first place, I was not surprised to see so many cranks and knobs and wires. “This does ________,” Bruce would say. “Ahhh,” I nodded, as if it made sense.
He has the interior divided into two rooms by a Styrofoam wall. The front area is open, with the plane’s seats lining one wall, and the cockpit in front. Since it was stripped of a lot of the cool stuff by the scrappers, it’s got a post-apocalyptic vibe. Bruce was patient to let me conduct most of my interview up there, beneath the buttons and gears and wires, in front of big windows staring out at the forest.
The back—excuse me, the aft—area is his living space. There he has two working bathrooms in their original orientation. Off to the side, he’s made a small shower enclosure, with a drain on the floor. It’s not super private, but he lives alone, and doesn’t have neighbors peeking through one of his 100 tiny windows. There’s a washing machine, a refrigerator, a tiny sink, and a microwave. He doesn’t have a stove but I couldn’t figure out if that was because he couldn’t have one (ventilation?) or doesn’t want one. Apart from being a metal tube, it was your basic single guy’s studio apartment.
There’s no wood in the plane, and without gasoline and moving parts, it’s pretty much fireproof. However, this also means that humidity is an issue. Boogers must be an issue, too.
Bruce pointed out that in addition to being perfectly insulated, planes are pretty much 100 percent earthquake proof. No earthquake would ever be as powerful as a hard landing, which the plane’s landing gear is made to withstand. Bruce’s plane also has other jostle-proof safety features, as well as hundreds of cans of food. This project didn’t start as survivalism, but it sure could survive a lot.
As it started to get dark, Bruce and I made our way around the outside of the plane while he turned on water and performed other tasks one does when one owns a plane house and returns from overseas. When we got back inside, water was pouring out of the ceiling, back by where the flight attendants used to make coffee. Bruce was completely stress-free as water poured all over the floor and he started pulling things apart. “An easy fix!” he exclaimed. I dumbly offered to help, and when he smartly refused, I let him know it was time for me to go.
Planes have manuals, and houses have Home Depot, but there’s no guide for how to combine the two. There are a couple of other people with airplane home projects in the United States, and they can bounce ideas off one another, but everybody is pretty much winging it. (HA HA, WING.) I asked Bruce how often yahoos with wild dreams ask for advice on how to get their own planes. He said it happens fairly regularly, but people give up when they realize they can’t get housing basics like conventional mortgages or insurance.
On the long drive home, I wondered if I could do it. IF I had the money, IF I had the patience, IF I had the technical savvy, and IF I had the time, could I live in an airplane home? Probably, once there were systems in place for them to be comfortable and not drafty and if we could retrofit the bathroom sinks so I could get my hands all the way under the faucet. Also I’d probably get nervous about falling off the wing while walking in with groceries during a rain.
But this silly city is a smart one, and I wouldn’t be surprised if some nerds exhausted by the tiny home movement didn’t try starting an airplane home movement instead. Bruce would certainly love that. He’d even talk you through some DIY plumbing. And maybe it could become a home where even a flying hater like me could get warm and comfy.