The Black Rock City Airport had a busy year, partly thanks to the unusually fine weather during the event. About 70 general aviation aircraft and helicopters spent at least one night at the airport. Many more stopped in to drop off passengers and take off again or to see what was going on down below. No one is allowed onto the event site without a ticket, so the spontaneous arrivals either bought tickets or went away with information and plans to attend next year.
In previous years, runway construction consisted of a simple process: Find a mile-long stretch of smooth playa and mark it with agricultural colorant to designate the runway. This year’s search located no runway locations properly aligned with the prevailing winds that met requirements: no bumps, avoid crossing a desert road, avoid a final approach path right over the city. We had to choose the suitable spot with the fewest bumps and then drag them flat. This tedious work did bring an added bonus of making the runway highly visible from the air without any colorant. Adding a windsock and a helipad for emergency medevac needs completed the minimum physical requirements of the airport.
The simple paperwork to establish the airport consisted of filing a NOTAM (NOtice To AirMen) just before the event. On paper, the airport has been a permanent structure since 1999, but it’s invisible for 51 weeks of the year, and the entire desert is open for aviation activities. The NOTAM alerts pilots that landing traffic near the event is restricted to the runway for the week of the event and that the event will generate an unusual level of activity, including skydivers, helicopters, ultralights, and hot-air balloons as well as more planes than usual. The information is given to pilots when they call Flight Service for pre-flight weather briefings.
Black Rock City Airport is an “uncontrolled field,” which means that no control tower is present, and radio communication is not required. Pilots do use their radios to coordinate with other aircraft and ensure smooth traffic flow. Airport staff members provide Unicom advisories to arriving pilots, telling them about winds, current altimeter setting, and reports of known traffic in the vicinity. Any decent airport must have a bar, and visitors to the Phoenix Bar & Lounge at BRC Airport relaxed in the shade listening to the radio traffic. Hand-held radios sufficed for the ground-based Unicom, but we hope to install a more powerful base station to gain a longer transmission range next year.
A brief mention of an accident that occurred this year may be in order to help dispel some rumors. Early on Wednesday, an arriving pilot couldn’t hear Unicom transmissions because he was tuned to the wrong frequency. He felt the one-mile runway (clearly visible next to the windsock and tiedown area) was too short and decided to land downwind in the walk-in camping area. This decision wouldn’t have been much of a problem, but he also forgot to lower the landing gear, discovering a quick way to create a new art installation. No one was injured in the accident, and the damaged aircraft’s wings were removed so it could be hauled out on a flatbed trailer a few days later.
Customs Agents worked the Airport Gate to provide gate control, ticketing, greeting, and information services. They also performed vital duties related to security and deterrence of contraband smuggling. Random pilots and passengers were selected to have their baggage scanned for illegal substances such as feather boas and pistachio shells. These items must be kept out for the good of the community and to prevent blight in our fair city. Of course, only citizens of Black Rock City are eligible to be Customs Agents.
In addition to the Customs Office and bar, the airport added a few theme camps, some art, a fire barrel, and a message board for 2002. Sprinkle in some ultralights, land sailors, art cars, and skydivers on their way aloft, and we had a fun and lively backcountry airport.
For more information on the Black Rock City Airport.
Lissa Shoun, Airport Manager