Ice House

Meet the Man Who Turned an Airplane Into a Home

Two planes, actually

By Marianella Orlando December 30, 2016 Published in the January 2017 issue of Houstonia Magazine

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Not your ordinary home

Image: Troy Fields

In 1973, when he was 11 years old, Joe Axline loved the TV show The Magician. In each episode, protagonist Tony, played by Bill Bixby, would solve a crime using magic. Then, Axline remembers, “at the end of the show, he would drive his car into the back of an airplane and take off. The last thing you saw was the SPIRIT license plate.”

The scene stayed with Axline: through a 20-year career in IT, marriage, kids, buying a house in Katy. For decades, he dreamed of living in a plane, just as he imagined Tony did. Then, in 2011, he got divorced and began the next phase of his life, which he calls Project Freedom.

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Joe Axline

Image: Troy Fields

As part of the project, his first order of business was buying a piece of property in an aviation community in Brookshire. That same year, after a four-month search, Axline finally found his plane—or, rather, two wingless halves of two retired planes: an MD-80 he calls Freedom, which he had shipped to Texas from a guy in Arkansas, and a Spirit Airlines DC-9-41 sourced from a Florida theme park, which recalls his childhood hero’s aircraft. He’s been working on turning them into his home ever since.

Today, Freedom is Axline’s main living quarters. The surprisingly roomy, comfortable living space he’s created includes a master bedroom, two sleeping areas for his teenage son and daughter, a bathroom, a living room/office and a kitchen, plus an outdoor deck equipped with a grill and chairs for guests.

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View from the inside of Freedom

Image: Troy Fields

“That airplane is big enough to live in,” Axline, now 55 and working in sales support, says of the 60-by-10-foot half-craft. “As you get older, your needs change and you realize what matters to you.”

The plane, whose renovations are ongoing, has wood floors, LED lights and insulation to keep things cool for rough Texas summers. But of course, some details from its former purpose remain: the original cockpit, overheard bins, original cabinets and even a Jeppesen manual that the pilots once used. The kids’ beds, installed where the economy seats were once located, sit beneath flight-attendant call buttons, reading lights and air vents.

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Axline's bedroom

Image: Troy Fields

Across the lawn from Freedom is Spirit, a 50-by-10-foot portion of a jet. Axline plans to remodel it in the next couple of years, constructing a movie theater and arts-and-crafts room for his children, plus a bathroom and kitchen. Eventually, he wants to build a bridge connecting the two crafts, as well as a hangar. “When you work on a project like this you’re never finished,” he says, wearing a Project Freedom T-shirt he had printed. “I’m finally adding in the kitchen sink, and I just did the panels not long ago; it takes time, but haste is waste.”

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The cockpit

Image: Troy Fields

The home, of course, attracts passersby, who stop on the side of the road to take pictures, ask for tours and play Pokémon Go (his house is a PokéStop). When he first started building, 50 people might stop by on the weekends. “My daughter was so tired of people coming over that she told me, ‘Dad, don’t let anyone come into our home anymore,’” he laughs. “It was the first time she ever called it her house.”

Axline admits that, at first, his kids and girlfriend weren’t enthusiastic about living in a plane, but they’ve since grown to like it. His daughter even had her 14th-birthday party there. The house, he says, will always be his fresh start. “I’m enjoying my life. It’s my freedom.”

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