I’ve been coming to Burning Man for a while now, and I’d always heard rumors of participants making their way out to the airport, hanging out a while, and eventually hooking up with a pilot who took them flying over Black Rock City. I’d also heard it helped to know someone aviation inclined, so this year my friend Jane Eric, who knows some of the pilots out here, arranged a “maybe” flight for she and I and we made our way out past Laffing Sal near the Fire Depot to see what the airport is all about.
Upon our arrival there was coffee and bacon and chocolate chip pancakes with some rather sleepy types milling about. Pilots are an eclectic bunch. A British woman asked, “Is there a schedule?” and was answered with,”Sorta. There’s Sunrise, Cocktail hour, Dark Thirty and Sunset.”
Meg, aka Disaster, is the pilot who is the Logistics Manager for Black Rock City Airport. She said, “Yep, we built this.” Her friend Hank built a two seater plane, perfect for taking photographers over the city that he was quite proud of. He told me, “You can open the doors while in flight to get the perfect shot.” They discussed meeting pre-playa to co-ordinate the construction and remarked that pilots are a far-flung crowd and it’s hard to get them all to meet to plan, so you’re using Skype to connect people in the UK, Dubai, Japan, North America and other places. They represent all the time zones. They’re pretty mobile people.
Meg told us it took seven days to build the airport and introduced me to Dog Pilot who used to fly for the UN. He told me that the FAA and Nevada Department of Transportation came to inspect and he said “they thought it would be a freak show but we explained that the airport was built by two professionals and after they inspected it they said it was absolutely amazing. They were super pleased.”
Dog Pilot is Deputy Air Controller of the Airport and a Geologist with “11 million dollars worth of pilot training” who speaks fluent Italian. He was a Navy Test Pilot and he told me he rescued people from the Somalian Embassy during the coup there by flying them out in his small UN plane, starting mid-field, going into a downwind and being chased by a tank. He’s flown all over the world on humanitarian missions.
Pilots remind me of surgeons. They’re a bit nuts but smart and a lot of fun. If you can befriend one, you’re probably going to have experiences most people don’t have.
Black Rock City Airport has an elegant and simple setup. Water trucks wet the runway and there are large rollers to make it solid. There is a parking lot filled with small planes and a tower or two. They’ve constructed a terminal area tent complete with art and chairs. When you first come through the gate you see a large art piece called “Pork Chop Nebula”. Since the Airport is a Gate, there is an ingress and exodus structure and while I was there a group of two women and a man flew in. The women were dressed in slender black dresses and were very clean. Someone wearing a tie unloaded their bags. As they checked in, the airport staff discovered the two women were Burning Man virgins and had them roll around in the dust and hit an empty acetylene tank named “The Gong” that hangs from a steel tripod..
I found watching those folks lose their virginity rolling around in the dust pretty entertaining to watch and kind of sweet. Welcome to Black Rock City everyone.
Dog Pilot told me about the time he met Larry. It was late in the day and Larry arrived on an old 1940s Cessna. He stepped off the plane, lit up a cigarette and said, “Hi I’m Larry. Where’s my ride? I need to find Joe the Builder. I need to go see the Man. ” Dog Pilot called on the radio, but his radio died so they shot the shit for a while. He’d been pulling the roller with his Range Rover to flatten the runway and he unhooked it, then gave Larry a ride to the Man. When they arrived there, Dog Pilot said there were “like 300 people all saying ‘Hi Laaa-rrr-eee'”. He drove Larry to three other places after the Man visit and told me, “Everyone wants to talk to Larry. It looks like it could be exhausting. So I told him sometimes I take my lawn chair out to the other side of the runway and tell everyone I’m going to calibrate the windsocks. Just to get away.”
A few days later evidently Larry showed up to calibrate the windsocks and they sat out there, looking towards Frog Pond, smoking cigarettes with Black Rock City and all its insanity behind them and Larry told him, “This is how Burning Man used to be.”
Our pilot, Purple Haze arrived and we were up in a matter of minutes in his 1959, 230 HP Cessna 182 for a God’s Eye view of the City. He’s been coming out here since 1995 and flies Will Roger over the city for his weekly Saturday Sunrise shot as well as Sidney Erthal and Scott London. With the window open you can kind of hang out the cabin a little and see the full beauty of Black Rock City, complete with the large camps, huge art and people moving about. The trash fence clearly defines our five points.
Purple Haze is a force of nature and he took us up around the city three times and way out past Trego. I asked him if it was good flying out here and he told me “You really can’t find a better place to have to land if something went wrong. All open and flat.” He waved to our friends in walk-in with his wing. He swooped up the train tracks and over cows. He had a blast. We had a blast. He’s Batman.
Once you’ve flown over the city, you tend to notice those little planes buzzing overhead when you’re walking or riding around and imagine the fun people are having up there checking out our fabulous city.
I asked Purple Haze if people coming to the airport to catch a ride was a secret and he said hell no. For the most part pilots love it when people come out for rides. The airport isn’t Disneyland. It is a functioning real airport and there’s a certain respect you need to maintain regarding drinking or being stupid. Medi-vacs, if any, always take precedence. It may take a while to get on a plane and you may not get one at all. Mornings are typically the best time to try and they don’t fly when we’re having dust storms. Find a flight wrangler, be nice, gift and be respectful. If you can get up there you’ll have the time of your life seeing something you can’t see anywhere but here in Black Rock City.