Is it a Bird? Is it a Plane?

If you take a trip down to Dungeness, that shingle peninsula that juts out from the Kent coast into the Channel, you will find a windswept landscape, with wide open spaces punctuated here and there by single-storey (and the occasional two-storey) dwellings. Many of these are black, wrapped in roofing felt, painted with tar, for there is no other protection from the winter storms, no hills or valleys, or even trees. Some of these homes have unusual-shaped roofs, and it is possible to make out that they started life as railway carriages. Some time back, perhaps in the 1920s, these carriages were brought to Dungeness and adapted for a new use, as a ready-made house.

The modern equivalent of the railway carriage would be to adapt an aeroplane for living in. An end-of-flying-career aeroplane comes already weatherproof, windows and doors in place, insulated, and its light weight means no need for foundations. Indeed, there is a jet liner in use as a hotel suite on a tropical island in the Caribbean, and it looks very nice. A primary school in Stoke-on-Trent uses a Short 360 fuselage as a Geography classroom; many other fuselages have found uses around the world as bars, nightclubs, fast food outlets and so on. An old fuselage is suitable for storage, a garage…and perhaps you can think of more uses.

I like the philosophy of adaptive re-use; it is a kind of re-cycling without the need to break up the item and melt it down. (indeed, some people call it upcycling). It harks back to the war-time attitude of waste not, want not, make do and mend. It just requires a little imagination, something that seems to be in short supply these days. I also suspect that I have inherited a dislike of throwing things away; perhaps this also originates in my parents’ experiences in the war.

This story starts a few years ago, when I would have loved to build a house with a jetliner, but permission would be problematic where I live, and funds even more so. But it did occur to me that to build a caravan from a fuselage might be more practical for me; the fuselage is light and aerodynamic, with windows and doors in place, and insulated. So the seed of an idea was born. The shape of a fuselage is not ideal of course, being long and thin; to get a caravan big enough to stand up in you would need a fuselage that was much too long, and would have to cut it in half and use just one end of it. I experimented with models of fuselages made from plastic kits, and made a card model of the car to the same scale to see how the combination would look. Of course to use a small passenger plane fuselage complete, say one with 4 seats, would be possible, but it would be a bit like camping inside a Morris Minor. But then there are miniature caravans, of course, teardrop-shaped and egg-shaped vans, so the lack of space need not be insurmountable.

I began to look for a suitable fuselage, but where do you get such a thing? A Flying Club in Yorkshire was advertising one for sale, minus windows and doors, but wanted £6000 for it. I had no idea where to get one, but did the thing that anybody would do: started a search on eBay. Every day I would get emails from eBay telling me of several fuselages for sale…but of course they were all models! I began to look on the internet at pictures of aircraft scrapyards in America, but the whole scheme seemed more and more preposterous, and I began to resign myself to never getting anything. And then one day in January of 2007 up popped an advert on eBay for a Piper fuselage, just like one of my plastic models, but this was the real thing! In fact even better; being from a twin-engined plane, with the engines mounted on the wings, this fuselage came with a nice pointed nose.

Friends helped with the recovery of the stripped-out fuselage from Guildford, not too far from my home in N Kent. G-LADI is a 1964 Piper PA30 Comanche, taken out of flying service by its owner and broken up, because the cost of renewing its Certificate of Airworthiness, overhauling the engines, and a repaint, was prohibitive. I had bought just the bare fuselage, minus wings, tailplane, wheels, seats, instruments etc. As spring arrived I started measuring, planning and designing. The first installation was the axle, 40Kg of steel channel to give plenty of low-down weight, bolted in the place where the wing main spar went across inside the fuselage. Trailing arms and wheels followed, then the towbar which was made from a length of scaffold pipe. To make it look more like the real thing I constructed the two stub-wings, and purchased a suitable tailplane which had to be shortened. The trailer board was made to look like the elevator, dropped down through ninety degrees, and a lot of time was spent on the wiring not only for the trailer board but also for running lights on the wings and the flashing amber beacon on top of the fin.

Work then transferred to the interior, with the construction of the floor in 9mm plywood. I started at the back and worked my way forward. I had to make a foam mattress for the bed which is about a metre wide at the head but tapers as it goes up towards the tail; and also gets thinner towards the tail since the floor slopes upwards! Interior lighting and power sockets were installed, as well as mains sockets. Also a water spigot so I can make a cup of tea in the morning without getting out of bed! Overhead lockers, under-bed spaces and two small cupboards provide storage; the instrument panel was fitted with dummy instruments and the space behind it turned into more useful storage. The table and two chairs are made to single-handedly fold up against the wall to provide more turning space when needed. Lots of time was spent on trimming, with wall panels, carpet, curtains, etc, to be made; the old Singer machine was in constant use.

I did not fancy being in such a confined space with a naked flame, so the cooking facilities were installed in the nose of the fuselage, along with water tank, battery, gas bottles, sink, kitchen storage, spare wheel and jack. The camping stove sits on a table which can be tilted up to gain better access to things beneath it, and an large umbrella provides protection should it rain.

This all took time and it was spring of 2010 before I was nearing completion, having had great fun going through all the creative processes. I had taken the aeroplane out a few times in 2009, before it was completed, and it caused quite a stir at the village fetes and car shows I visited. Now I was ready to actually camp in it; first outing was to the Citroen Car Club’s National Rally in Warwickshire. I was delighted to complete the long journey there and back without incident. But that was only for one night, and I thought it was about time to give it a proper trial, so I joined the Camping and Caravanning Club and booked a pitch on the Canterbury site. All turned out well; the weather at the beginning of September was mild, and the caravan / aeroplane functioned as expected in every way. And of course created some interest on site; I had a number of visitors, starting with the Dutch and German campers, asking me all about it. Albeit the idea started as a philosophy, it really came down to having fun!

So what do you call a caravan made from an aeroplane? Caraplane? Aerovan? The answer is, an AEROCAMPER. You can see the car and aerocamper on YouTube; you will need to search for “Citroen CX Six-wheeler”. Alternatively, look out for it on a site somewhere in the South of England in 2011!