The newly expanded Black Rock City airport opened for business Wednesday, and workers were bracing for more passengers than they’ve ever had to handle before.
The organization for years has been exploring alternative ways of getting people to the playa, because only so many cars can squeeze onto Route 447. You can come by bus, and you can come by air, and we’re betting that in the not-too-distant future, you’ll be able to take a train, too.
But air service has gotten the big bump this year.
There were about 2,300 people who arrived in Black Rock City via the air last year (and another 1,000 got free tour rides over the city), and because of the success of the Burner Express Air last year, the program was expanded this year. A contractor was brought in to funnel all the charter services through one operation, and now 6,000 to 10,000 people are expected. If you do the math for a six-day event, you can see that things are going to be busy.
Even before the airport opened, the impact of the expected increase in traffic has been dramatic.
The airport now has two runways instead of just one, and the lengths of each of them increased from 5,000 to 7,000 feet. Also, the acreage devoted to ramps and taxi areas was increased, there are four communications pods where there used to be two, and 1,000 airport shifts will be needed to handle the traffic.
Owl took a brief break from setup operations to have a chat with us. He said that planes don’t actually need 7,000 feet to take off, but “planes have to have enough room so that if they get to the point where they are about to take off, and all the red lights come on, they have to have room to stop. … In the real world, if you get to the end of the runway, you’re going to hit things.” The only thing planes would hit here is more playa, but the airport still has to meet the runway requirements.
This is all to accommodate larger planes that will ferry as many as 29 people per plane.
The bigger planes “got us into a whole different regulatory world,” Owl said. “We have to have an FAA-blessed weather station, and an FAA-blessed weather observer,” among other requirements.
One of those other requirements is to make sure the playa is hard enough to support the weight of the bigger planes. For that, DPW crews this year had to water and roll the playa in order to harden it, and then they had to measure that hardness with an instrument called a penetrometer. (We are adolescents at heart, so yes, we had a lot of fun with that name.)
In the long ago, “People just landed where they wanted to,” said Izzy, an engineer and pilot from Israel by way of Silicon Valley. But now things are much more official and regulated.
All Burner Express Air flight bookings are handled by Advantage Flight Solutions, LLC. Passengers can book one-way or round trip, or they can charter a whole plane, if they like. Flights originate from Reno, Oakland, Burbank, San Carlos, Palo Alto, Novato and Sacramento. It’s $650 RT from Reno on a shared plane, and prices go up from there.
The Gate folks have a command center at the airport, to make sure there aren’t any party crashers. Upon disembarking, people have to go through the box office to get their ticketing confirmed, and then they go through “customs,” where they undergo rigorous questioning about the purpose of their visit. You can imagine how those conversations go.
Matt and John Boy were out at the field yesterday, taking a little time away from their duties at the Man Base build. They’d discovered that they needed a particular type of electrical wire that hadn’t arrived, so they decided to take matters into their own hands rather than go through purchasing: the easiest thing to do was make the half-hour flight to Fernley and pick up the wire themselves.
Matt’s plane, a 2000 Super Decathlon American Champion, has been reinforced for aerobatics by its previous owner, Greg Koontz, an exceptional acrobatic flyer. The plane’s fuel tank and other systems have been modified so that the plane can fly upside down for as long as two and a half minutes. “You don’t do that, do you?” we asked. “Oh hell yeah I do,” Matt said.
We’re guessing that Matt didn’t do too many loop-de-loops or barrel rolls on Thursday, though. He was picking up a special passenger in Oakland, and it would have been a lousy to rattle the passenger along the way.
The passenger? Larry Harvey his own self.
Some more pics: