Later this summer, nearly 70,000 people from all over the world will converge in one of Earth’s most inhospitable places: Black Rock City, Nevada. Most will drive, waiting hours in line to enter the Burning Man festival, but a few will fly, adding an extra element of adventure to their almost otherworldly experience in the desert.
Burning Man, which will open this year on August 30th and run until September 7th, is a destination like no other. An event that defies categorization, it attracts different people for different reasons. Some make the journey to experience art and music, while others attend for the party of a lifetime. It certainly isn’t for everyone—a bumper sticker belonging to a Burner reads, “My vacation is your worst nightmare.”
While Burning Man is the name of the event itself, the infrastructure and assembled community are known as Black Rock City, a name derived from the Black Rock Desert on which the event takes place. Pilots flying to Burning Man will surely have a good story to tell because the harsh environment presents so many unique challenges not just to the aviator but to their aircraft as well.
I know that Burning Man is a crazy place because I went for the first time in 2013. I haven’t flown there (yet) but those who have tell me that it is an experience unlike any other. Going for a ride in a small aircraft at Burning Man has been described as nothing short of “insane,” according to my friend Joshua Levine, who will be attending the event for the 15th time this year:
“You have to be a really good pilot. Taking off isn’t as scary as landing—when you land in the desert, it’s usually super bumpy and there’s a lot of turbulence. Some planes have even flipped on landing because the bounces are so heavy!”
The Black Rock City Municipal Airport is spartan, and for good reason; it simply doesn’t exist for most of the year.
The Bureau of Land Management (the official law enforcement body at Burning Man) is the airport’s official operator and refers to it as “probably the only one of its kind.” The Federal Aviation Administration officially recognizes the airport with the identifier 88NV. It is non-towered, so pilots communicate via a Common Traffic Advisory Frequency for safety information as well as critical details about the landing pattern. A pair of mile-long runways are roughly outlined in the desert during the event, one strictly for takeoffs and the other strictly for landings.
To cultivate community and promote interaction, Burning Man is made up of many smaller theme camps, each with a unique visual identity and purpose. In 2014, Black Rock Travel Agency (the airport’s semi-official theme camp) constructed the Starport Pavilion, a structure that serves as a place for flight crews to obtain services for their aircraft (somewhat like a Fixed Base Operator at a normal airport), a pilot’s lounge, event and exhibition space as well as a “beacon for incoming aircraft.” In 2015, the Starport Pavilion will return along with a new observation deck.
In the past, Burning Man has had aviation-related art cars, such as a miniature F-15 and an assortment of inspired extraterrestrial saucer-shaped craft, but in 2015 the fuselage of an actual Boeing 747 will be roaming the desert lakebed (called the playa by Burners).
A camp of over 100 people calling themselves the Big Imagination Foundation procured the retired airliner from a boneyard in the Mojave Desert and has modified it to contain a dance floor as well as other amenities designed specifically for the enjoyment of the Burning Man community.
Among other community principles such as radical self-reliance, communal effort and leaving no trace behind, Burning Man is known for a gifting economy that encourages attendees to eschew monetary exchanges in favor of bringing gifts (in the form of food, water, jewelry, clothing, experiences, etc.) to exchange with others as they see fit. This principle applies even at the airport.
Experiencing Burning Man from the air can be totally exhilarating, and complimentary “firefly” flights are available via a lottery system for those interested. This allows anyone attending to visit the airport and enter their name in a contest to have the opportunity to go for a ride around the playa and witness the spectacular scale of the event from above. Skydiving is another popular activity facilitated by the airport’s dedicated volunteers, and there are even “pyro jumps” in which skydivers jump out of planes at night and illuminate the sky with their glowing figures and pyro.
Hundreds of aircraft will utilize the airport at the event this year, with flight operations numbering in the thousands. Due to the austerity of the airfield as well as the propensity for extremely inclement weather, Burning Man’s infamous “Safety Third” adage isn’t applied to anything flying-related at the event.
Indeed, pilots need to be well-aware of the mountainous terrain, high winds, frequent dust storms, possibility for torrential rain, blinding sun and alkaline playa dust that pervades absolutely everything. In 2003, two aircraft were destroyed in separate crashes at the very temporary Black Rock City airport, causing one very tragic death.
A wide variety of aircraft fly in to Burning Man, ranging from various ultralights to a Yak-52 to turbine powered helicopters. Some pilots use their aircraft as shelter throughout the week, camping beneath the wings in the tie-down area. Pilots adopt various forms of dust abatement strategies to protect their aircraft from the ever pervasive playa dust, including sealing all hatches and doors with tape and covering aircraft with tarps.
An album of great shots of Black Rock City Municipal Airport and its runways can be seen here.
Just like the broad spectrum of aircraft that fly in to Black Rock City at the end of every summer, people from diverse backgrounds make the pilgrimage as well. Despite the price of a single ticket (pre-sale tickets were $800 this year), let alone all other costs associated with attending (transportation, shelter, food, water, miscellaneous, etc.) some people manage to arrive by hitchhiking with while others (captains of industry such as Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos and Eric Schmidt have all attended) arrive in a luxury bus or private twin-engine aircraft and pay untold sums for “turnkey” experiences. These can resemble boutique chalets in which practically everything is provided.
This luxury safari-like option is just one way Burning Man has gentrified over the years. Even at Black Rock City Municipal Airport, executive jets and turboprop aircraft have begun popping up.
What does the playa have in store for revelers this year? Only time will tell, but surely it will be a week unlike any other regardless of how one manages to get there. There is so much granular detail at Burning Man, it is impossible to experience everything in just one week. The amount of energy needed to transport and construct an entire city on a barren, hostile lakebed, only to tear it all down just days later is difficult to appreciate without an aerial perspective to provide a sense of scale and vastness. Plus, let’s be honest, flying your own airplane, over the endless vehicular traffic, and right into Burning Man is just downright cool.
Are you planning to attend Burning Man in 2015? Will you be flying in or out of 88NV? Let us know in the comments!
Special thanks to Joshua Levine and Revrun Tutu for their assistance in researching this post.
Photo credits: Top shot via AP, Aerial shot - Blaze, 747 shot - Big Imagination Foundation, Aerial shot - AP, Headshot - Joshua Levine, Dust shot - AP, Promenade shot - AP, Bottom shot of planes in desert via YouTube video embedded above.