A Boeing 727 cargo jet embarked on a final journey Thursday night — this time, not in the air or even rolling down a runway, but instead carefully hauled from Anchorage’s Merrill Field airport down the asphalt of the Glenn Highway to Big Lake.
The plane attracted crowds along several parts of the highway as it made the 55-mile trip in just over seven hours, cruising at a top speed of about 20 mph, according to Jon Kotwicki, the Big Lake man with plans to convert the aircraft into housing. An online tracker let people know where it was so they could watch from overpasses.
The plane left around 9:45 p.m. Thursday and reached Big Lake around 5 a.m. Friday, Kotwicki said. The plane was disassembled during the three weeks leading up to the trip — its wings and tail were cut off so it could fit down the highway.
The same jet drew gawkers a decade ago, sticking a tricky landing at Merrill Field on a runway 2,000 feet shorter than is usually required, before being put to use by the University of Alaska Anchorage’s aviation technology program.
Kotwicki and his girlfriend, Stephanie Blanchard, plan to transform the massive jet into a livable space, with plans to rent out rooms on Airbnb and house students taking lessons from the flight school they own and operate at the Big Lake location. The couple transported a Douglas DC-6 and a McDonnell Douglas DC-9 to the property last fall, with plans to renovate those aircraft into housing, too.
Kotwicki said he and Blanchard wanted to open a live-in flight school so students can fully focus on becoming pilots. They flew to 49 states to look at possible locations, but Kotwicki said that each time, they realized they missed Alaska.
About a year and a half ago, they found the perfect location, he said: a 100-acre property in Big Lake with an airstrip. They started constructing cabins, and during that process came up with the far-fetched idea to convert large planes into some of the housing units.
“There’s a big learning opportunity with all of these, the engineering and construction of them, whether it’s on a Cessna or one of these big ones, it’s fairly similar scaled up, so we have the opportunity to design and construct the interiors to expose a lot of that structure and the inner workings of the systems,” he said.
For the next six months, Kotwicki searched for decommissioned planes, finding new leads largely by word of mouth, he said. Eventually he purchased the two planes in Fairbanks and reached an agreement with FedEx and UAA to buy the Boeing 727. FedEx had donated the decommissioned jet to the university in 2013.
Back in 2013, the plane required special permission to land at Merrill Field because the airstrip there is only 4,000 feet long — 2,000 feet less than what is regularly required for that jet’s landing.
Ten years after it touched down at Merrill Field, the plane again got special permission for transport — this time, a state permit so the semi could pull the plane fixed to two trailers to accommodate the massive length.
With the transport complete, Kotwicki said now that the goal is to have the plane converted and ready for guests by midsummer.
Kotwicki estimates the cost at between $600,000 and $800,000 to move the plane and renovate it. He said he plans to charge somewhere in the low $200 range to rent units each night. He said he couldn’t disclose how much he paid for the plane itself, because of his agreement with the university and FedEx.
It’s a relief to be finished with the transport, he said.
“Hundreds of people helped us do this,” Kotwicki said. “So as much as we want to take credit for it, it is very much all due to the fact that other people volunteered their time and knowledge to make this possible.”