We thought we’d peaked at the Airport in 2002, but the 2003 version broke all previous records. Ninety-five aircraft were registered, which means that the pilot and all passengers had tickets or bought them at the gate. In addition, a number of transient aircraft landed to drop off ticketed passengers and depart, or simply because the pilots spotted an airport where none normally exists and landed wondering what in tarnation was going on down there. Transients were not recorded, but a conservative estimate was 20 to 30.
A highly regrettable addition to the aviation traffic this year was a record-setting 22 helicopter medevac flights. Two airplane crashes contributed to the list of distressing events. One occurred during takeoff on Friday. The pilot and one passenger suffered minor injuries; another passenger with serious injuries was flown to a Reno hospital. The second accident happened the next day, while the FAA aviation inspector was reviewing the scene of the first accident. Three passengers were seriously injured, and the pilot died of his injuries 4 days later. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has not yet released a final report for either accident. Both aircraft were severely damaged and were removed via flatbed truck by a salvage company.
The aviator community has been very active in considering ways to increase safety in 2004. Increased emphasis on pilot education in high-altitude operations is highest on the list. Many other suggestions will be implemented to improve safety and create a more smoothly operating Airport.
Most accidents happen on landing or takeoff. The runway at the Black Rock City Airport is placed outside the trash fence, oriented to take advantage of the prevailing winds and to keep landing and departing aircraft away from the city. This site aids noise abatement and increases safety for pilots and pedestrians.
Even with over 100 aircraft passing through, the traffic at Black Rock International does not justify a tower with FAA-sanctioned air traffic controllers. Airport staff provided Unicom radio advisories on request, giving information such as wind speed and direction, altimeter setting, and reports of other traffic known to be in the area, such as ultralights. Unicom does not “clear” planes for takeoff or landing. An air traffic controller might say something like “make a straight-in approach, cleared to land runway 21” during communication with a pilot. A Unicom operator might say “winds are 10 knots out of the southwest, no other traffic known” or something like that. The pilot is responsible to choose a runway and land safely without running into anything. From Black Rock Unicom, you might also have heard “and be advised that landings are clothing optional” along with other locally useful messages.
In previous years, Unicom transmissions made use of a handheld radio with severely limited range. A new antenna made a huge improvement in radio communications this year. Pilots at higher altitudes could hear us from Pyramid Lake. If you wish to tune in during the event, the frequency is always 122.9 MHz.
Initial surveys in June found surface conditions were firm but not smooth anywhere. Runway placement is dictated by many factors: alignment with wind, separating landing and departing traffic from the city, visibility for the Unicom operator, and avoiding desert roads. The only serviceable runway surface was inside the fence in walk-in camping, which of course was not a suitable option. The Burning Man event permit allows for removal of transient dunes for the runway, and that is what we did by towing a drag made of metal mesh weighed down with concrete blocks. This technique was effective for the smaller dunes, and it did an excellent job of smoothing the surface. The largest dunes were spread out and smoothed but not completely eliminated. The resulting wavy spots were rather disconcerting to pilots accustomed to flat, perfectly paved runways. Additional effort will be put into making a smooth and level runway in 2004.
After landing, pilots taxied to the tie-down area (parking for 100, expandable to 1,000). They then faced the task of getting past the port of entry customs agents. Paperwork was filled out, tickets were checked, and feather boas were confiscated. Arrivals at the main gate are greeted; at the Airport gate, new arrivals are briefed or debriefed.
Another innovation this year was the impound procedure. Some pilots arrived very late or early in the morning before customs agents were on duty. In 2002, sad to say, some also arrived in the middle of the day and simply hopped over the fence rather than buy tickets at the airport gate. This year, we checked the tie-down area daily, and any aircraft without paperwork were impounded. We didn’t want to risk damage to the aircraft, so we erected fences fore and aft of the planes so they couldn’t be moved. When the pilots came to Customs to find out why they were fenced in, we checked their tickets and pulled up the fence posts. Only three aircraft were impounded, and all aboard had tickets purchased in advance.
Plans and hopes for 2004 include a better runway, increased safety and awareness in the air, an office trailer, and more art installed along the boulevard between the Airport and the main camp.
Lissa Shoun, aka Tiger Tiger
Airport Manager, Black Rock International Airport