Big Jump in Numbers at Black Rock City Airport

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.

Owl helped move lumber during Airport setup operations
Owl helped move lumber during Airport setup operations

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.

Izzy showed us the Customs room
Izzy showed us the Customs room

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:


About the author: John Curley

John Curley (that's me) has been Burning since the relatively late date of 2004, and in 2008 I spent the better part of a month on the playa, documenting the building and burning of Black Rock City in words and pictures. I loved it, and I've been doing it ever since. I was a newspaper person in a previous life, and I spent many years at the San Francisco Chronicle. At the time I left, in 2007, I was the deputy managing editor in charge of Page One and the news sections of the paper. Since then, I've turned a passion for photography into a second career. I shoot for editorial, commercial and private clients. I've also taught a little bit, including two years at UC Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism and a year at San Francisco State University. I live on the San Mateo coast, just south of San Francisco in California.

9 Comments on “Big Jump in Numbers at Black Rock City Airport

  • Jimmy says:

    Hey U guys … I tried to volunteer at the airport.
    Butttt NO! I was unable to buy tickets (for3 years).
    I was even offered the airport manager position.
    Buttt, NO. Even tho I was over qualified.
    Again … NO TICKETS!
    So sorry … Good luck.

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  • Token says:

    Bummer that fancy weather station at the airport isn’t piping data to wunderground.

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  • Jay says:

    Anyone know if the art compendium is still going to get finished this year?

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  • JV says:

    In “exploring alternative ways of getting people to the playa,” the BMORG seems to be willing to dramatically change the nature of the event. I know some of this is beyond its control, mostly dictated by local government agencies and the BLM, in order for the event to continue at Black Rock Desert. But more people able to pay a premium to fly in means less people who can’t afford that luxury. More people willing and able to pay inflated after-market ticket prices means, well, you know. I just find it odd that the BMORG cling to some principles that contribute to scalping (not tying tickets to an ID, for example) while gladly jettisoning others (decommodification, as seen with every increasing tendency to contract out services, like the air shuttle) with the result of discouraging those of modest means from attending. The trend is ever more catering to the wealthy. I know this is not the intent (for the most part) but it is the result.

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    • knobdyspcl says:

      A lot of burners don’t seem to understand that burning man is a Schrödinger’s Cat, it’s state is confirmed with observation or in burning man tradition, it changes with Radical Inclusion. “Anyone may be a part of Burning Man…” nothing ever stays the same from day to day, let alone year to year, no matter how much we may want it to. even if YOU somehow manage to stay the same year after year, burning man will keep evolving around you. embrace the change, it proves that the vision of “…transformative change, whether in the individual or in society, can occur only through the medium of deeply personal participation” is a fundamental building block of society. if the elements that are thought by some to be hurting burning man are not allowed inclusion, then with that act alone, the burning man we love and its principals are destroyed.

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      • JV says:

        “A lot of burners don’t seem to understand that burning man is a Schrödinger’s Cat…”

        So you’re saying that things change? Thanks for that reminder. I was referring to specific policy decisions that nudge the event in a certain direction.

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  • Glen Martin says:

    Damn–you’ve really gone feral, son. You were a well-behaved beastie when they kept you in your glass box at the Chron.

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  • Chowski says:

    What a relief to know that Paris Hilton, Katie Perry and the rest of the White Ocean default world celebutantes will be able to attend the bucket list party in relative comfort. The Sherpas hired by their camps will be able to lug in all the gear needed by the Parasite Class to party for a week without having to contribute or deal with the filthy masses in the traffic below. Phew! I was starting to get seriously concerned that only contributing participants might make their way to our event. Thank you, BMORG, for yet another capitulation to the party crowd, their handlers, and the camps that, with the access and placement you so happily provide to them, continue to usurp the work of the volunteers who actually make burning man happen in a race for the perfect instagram. #parasiteclass #edmtourists

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    • Doug T. says:

      That’s one group of folks. There are others (like me) that are considering it because of real-life time constraints. I typically arrive early in build week and stay until Tues/Wed after the burn to clean up. My wife, however — as much as she’d LOVE to be there for the whole thing — has work constraints that only allow 3-4 days on playa at the most. Flying in would cut travel time significantly (esp. on the way out) and allow her to participate more than she’d otherwise be able to. We’re not spectators. We build art and theme camps, give out thousands of sno-cones, and live for interaction with burners of all stripes. I personally don’t give a flying fuck about the people that live in the plug and play camps. Their existence doesn’t bother me in the least. There’s an off-chance that 1-in-20 will “get it” and learn that there’s more to BM than the parties and blinky lights. And that’s more than would get it than if they stayed home. I’ve personally camped with a billionaire CEO that lived the true BM experience, helping to set up our camp, lived in a tent, end fully embraced the whole dusty existence. Beware of generalizations and judgments.

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