Two of the most important features of an airport are the runway (where the airplanes land) and the ramp (where airplanes park). In 2010, the surface was so poor that we had to shift the runway and move the entire ramp around a corner for a completely different layout. The setup crew coped well with the last minute changes. Extensive watering made an acceptable ramp and taxiway, though far from ideal.
What is a NOTAM and why did we have so much trouble with it? A NOTAM (Notice to Airmen) is vital for aviation safety and is the preferred way to notify pilots of current information such as skydiving activity or that the runway is a mile from where it was last year. Pilots get the information when they receive a pre-flight weather briefing.
In the old days, NOTAMs were easily filed. A few years ago, changes to the system allowed us to file NOTAMs with local briefers, but not nationally. After subsequent consolidation we could no longer file with local briefers and the only way to distribute the information officially was to get an FAA designator for Black Rock City Airport. We received the designator (88NV) in 2009 as a private airport and looked forward to filing the 2010 NOTAM without a hitch.
It’s always a last minute task because NOTAMs cannot be filed more than three days prior to an event. Consequently, at the last minute, we learned NOTAMs are not accepted for private airports unless a “special event” is filed with the FAA which must be done a month or more before the event. The workaround was that the national FAA office faxed a copy of our pilot handout to briefers on the west coast and instructed them to read the handout to any pilot mentioning Burning Man or the Black Rock Desert as their destination.
The Burning Man Earth Project arranged for a satellite photo on Thursday, September 2 at exactly 11:41 a.m. A giant outline of the FAA designator “88NV” was drawn using the biodegradable agricultural colorant that is used for runway marking. As the deadline approached, airport enthusiasts laid down within the outline, and chatted while waiting for the invisible camera in outer space to snap our communal portrait.
Our busiest day was Friday with 309 operations between sunrise and sunset which averaged 22 takeoffs or landings per hour. We had 118 Burner-flown airplanes arrive during the event, plus chartered aircraft, and private pilots dropping off friends.
Significant improvements in 2010 included accounting and box office functions. The Airport Box Office had a dedicated liaison who provided on-playa training, support for technical issues, and made the daily run to the main gate transferring tickets, cash, and ticket stubs. Fewer, more experienced volunteers doing multiple shifts also contributed to a smoother running Box Office with fewer mistakes.
Two accounting systems were consolidated into one. Burning Man headquarters now handles all airport accounting, including donations and Airport fees which have been processed separately since 1999. One budget is easier to manage than two and pilots can look forward to pre-paying their Airport Fee online in 2011.
Additional improvements were radios for interceptors, and a headset and equipment so the UNICOM radio operator could plug directly into the base station.
The San Francisco-based Exploratorium museum sent a crew to the airport to learn about density altitude and flying in hot, thin air. You can learn too, by watching the video.
Terminal One was pink in 2010. It wasn’t planned, just an accident that inspired art. Early in the summer, a weekend work crew needed to put down a base coat of white paint, but didn’t have quite enough. A volunteer was dispatched to get more paint and returned with red. You know what you get when you mix red and white. The crew looked at each other, shrugged, and agreed; why not? The pink structure ignited the idea for an art theme. Burners enjoyed a gallery of photographs and historical information set against the pink walls. The topic was famous women in aviation.