Burning Man has welcomed airplanes at the event since 1991. No airport served air traffic in the early days on the playa, and pilots used their own judgment about where to land. In 1999, a notification was filed with the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to create Black Rock City Airport. The airport has two main purposes — to provide facilities for those arriving at the event via air rather than via ground transportation and to provide an opportunity for pilots to share the aviation experience with fellow participants and add another aspect to the art and community of Burning Man. The airport is part of the village called the Port of Entry which also accommodates land sailors and theme camps.
The Port of Entry hosted a pancake breakfast on Thursday morning and served coffee, tea, and pancakes to about 300 village regulars and visitors. This event brought the biggest crowd ever to the airport, and it was great to see many smiling faces, mutant vehicles, poi spinners, and more mingling with pilots and passengers. The breakfast was so much fun and so successful, the organizers plan to make it an annual event.
If driving an art car to Burning Man is more cool than driving a boring, standard automobile, then flying an art plane to the playa must be the ultimate in burning travel. For obvious reasons, structural modifications to the exterior of an aircraft are not advised, but temporary modifications can be made on the ground. For permanent alterations, a lot can be done with paint. The tiedown area at the 2005 BRC Airport featured an Apache with amazing exterior artwork that was much ogled and photographed.
Costumes with aviation and border-protection themes were popular among Customs Agents, pilots, and airport visitors. A first-time participant hoping for a brief sightseeing flight achieved his desire by means of an ingenious costume. What pilot could refuse a flight to a terrorist carrying a bundle of apparent dynamite and proclaiming, “the Man is an infidel and must burn! Only takeoff needed-no landing!”
Rumors and legends thrive at Burning Man. One new rumor surfaced this year that the small, black helicopter flying low over the city was carrying law enforcement officers searching for drug users via high-powered telescope. Have you ever tried using binoculars from a car on a bumpy road? That’s what it’s like using them in the air. It’s impossible to hold steady enough to see any detail. That helicopter was flown by a participant, and yes, he was reprimanded for flying too low over the city.
A minor cable-connector failure left airport staff with limited range on the UNICOM radio for several days. Transmission range from the ground station was reduced, although reception was not seriously affected. The connector was simple and inexpensive but not common, and finding a replacement took some time. Airport planners are reviewing critical systems and arranging for replacement parts or alternates where possible. In the desert, it’s not a trivial matter to run out to the store for new parts.
Goals for 2006 include expanding the Airport manual with details on construction, operations, and procedures. The team also wants to spread the knowledge base and to devise more effective pre-playa training. Trained and knowledgeable volunteers are as important to a smooth-running airport as the equipment. Documentation and more involvement of volunteers in different areas will create a backup for key personnel. Backups for people are just as important as backups for hardware, and sharing the workload helps to share the fun.
Lissa Shoun, aka Tiger Tiger
Airport Manager, Black Rock International