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Black Rock City gets weird, then disappears

The semicircular speck on the desert floor below could be a mirage. From 20 nautical miles, it’s visible one moment, then partially obscured by shifting plumes of wind-driven dust the next. Jarring turbulence over the mountains of northern Nevada and late-afternoon glare don’t make identifying it any easier. At 10 miles, however, the distinctive outline of Black Rock City comes into focus—and our aircraft radio lets us know of charter King Airs, Caravans, and other general aviation aircraft coming and going at an airport that, for this hectic week, is unlike any other on Earth.

Black Rock City Municipal Airport (88NV) exists for one purpose: to support the massive counterculture Burning Man festival, which draws about 70,000 people to this inhospitable dry lake bed for a week of exuberant partying that culminates in the fiery destruction of a series of massive wooden art structures. Then the airport, like Burning Man itself, disappears without a trace—only to reconstitute itself in even greater extravagance the following year.

Making 88NV work for the roughly 120 pilots who fly in and camp during the event, as well as a dozen Part 135 charter operators whose mostly turboprop fleets make about 500 arrivals and departures—and the skydiving crews that drop scores of jumpers—depends on an international crew of volunteer “burners.” Some, such as “Air Commander” Sheila “Avi8rix” McCombe, a Canadian national who works as an air traffic controller in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, are aviation professionals with decades of hands-on experience. Others have no formal aviation training but years of on-the-job experience and a deep devotion to the event.

“This is a real airport that only exists because of the hard work of volunteers who love aviation, art, and self-expression,” said McCombe, 51, who covers the airport’s many acres on an electric scooter. “We’re like-minded people who put in incalculable numbers of volunteer hours throughout the year. Then we come out here, band together, and overcome obstacles.”

  • Like a mirage Black Rock City gets weird, then disappears Photography by Chris Rose
  • The temporary city is carefully and logically laid out in a semi-circle: population 70,000.
  • Outlandish art cars such as the fire-spewing, arm-waving, eye-popping octopus patrol the playa day and night.
  • Admission tickets can be hard to find and are mostly purchased through an annual online lottery (http://tickets.burningman.org).
  • Airport “Interceptors” show lots of skin and smiles, and they let new arrivals know they’ve landed at a place where normal dress codes—and codes of conduct—don’t apply.
  • Plastic sheeting and tape help protect parked airplanes from the harsh elements. But everything you bring in must be carried out in accordance with the event’s “leave no trace” philosophy.
  • The author’s not-so-secret mission was to place a photo of the late John Kounis (left) in the wooden “temple” before it went up in flames on the final night of the event. Ramona “SkyChick” Cox (right) started flying to the festival before it had an airport. Her Cessna 206 is elaborately outfitted with heat, air conditioning, and desert camping gear.
  • The 60-foot-tall wooden man at the center gets torched on the festive and celebratory Saturday night party, along with dozens of other art structures.
  • Bicycles with wide tires are the preferred method of ground transportation. Some loaner bikes are reportedly available, but they are highly coveted and almost impossible to find.

And there are many obstacles.

Extreme heat commonly raises density altitudes at 88NV to more than twice its actual 3,900-foot elevation. Strong winds create dusty whiteouts almost every afternoon. Even small amounts of rain can turn the powdery, talcum-like alkaline surface into pasty, impassible goo. And the airport must comply with myriad regulations from both the FAA and the Bureau of Land Management, the agency that manages the federal land on which the event takes place.

Arrival. Burning Man is all about nonconformity—but flying into 88NV requires agreeing to an eye-glazing 32 pages of airport rules. There’s an online manifest to fill out, a 30-question online test to pass (with a minimum acceptable score of 90 percent), event tickets to buy (starting at $390 each), and $40 cash to hand over upon arrival.

AOPA Photographer Chris Rose and I met all the prearrival requirements, and we also agreed to an incredibly restrictive set of media credential requirements. So, after a 2.5-hour flight from Salt Lake City in a Van’s RV–10, I feel prepared when I check in on the multicom frequency and report our intention to land—along with the added proviso that we have the required “documents on board.”

A gravelly voiced airport “uni-commander” (short for unicom commander) quickly grants that permission.

As we approach the airport, however, I fail to spot the Frog Pond reporting point, or either of the two runways (25 Left for landing, and 25 Right for takeoff). I do see an actual pond to the west and turn in that direction. But based on the pond’s position relative to Black Rock City, I soon realize that it can’t be the Frog Pond.

Just then a departing King Air begins its takeoff roll, kicking up a 100-foot-tall rooster tail on Runway 25 Right. I enter the pattern on a left crosswind and immediately run afoul of authorities who instruct me to meet with “Tazz” after landing.

Rose, who has been reading up on Burning Man and its 10 core principles, chides me for testing the “radical inclusion” concept before we’ve even touched down at the event. “You’re already a pariah,” he says. “That didn’t take long.”

We touch down on the unpaved but surprisingly smooth arrival runway using the soft-field, no-braking technique recommended by the organizers; roll to the end; and call the “Ramp Dog” for a place to tie down and camp. We’re told to pick any open spot among the 80 or so airplanes already tied down.

I’m embarrassed by my arrival blunder, but my priority once we shut down is protecting our airplane from the elements. I brought sheets of plastic to cover the exterior, as well as masking tape for every vent, seam, and fairing—and cowl plugs to block the air intakes.

Welcome to Black Rock City. It takes more than an hour to secure the airplane to my satisfaction, and during that time I imagine Tazz is seething.

Rose and I are just about finished when Michael “Squeeze Box” Kovach-Long, an even higher-ranking “deputy air commander,” pays us a visit. He’s a wiry guy, dressed incongruously in desert camouflage and a high-visibility vest. He’s wearing a floppy desert hat anchored by a nape strap cinched below his salt-and-pepper beard, and his expression is masked by dark sunglasses. I start our talk with a confession.

“Sorry about screwing up the arrival,” I offer. “I misidentified the Frog Pond, and things just went downhill from there.”

Kovach-Long points to a gap in the mountains to the southeast. “The Frog Pond is in line with that saddle,” he says. “Don’t feel bad about missing it. It’s not like this is the first time that’s ever happened. We’re all learning out here, and I know you won’t make that mistake again. No harm done—and have a good burn.”

I had been prepared for a verbal battle, but Kovach-Long’s summation is disarming. Score one for radical inclusion. Then, looking at our RV–10 covered in Saran Wrap, Kovach-Long says he’s impressed. No other airplanes on the dusty ramp are so completely mummified. “Whatever else happens here this week,” he says, “at least you’ll know your airplane isn’t going to pick up any STDs.”

I chuckle at the mental image—but I’ve got another purpose to fulfill here this week that has nothing to do with art or frivolity. There’s a special item tucked safely away in a manila envelope that I’ve kept in my possession all the way from my Maryland home—and I’m determined to deliver it. Now that we’re on the ground at 88NV, I’m within walking distance of its ultimate destination.

Special delivery. Every arriving aircraft is met on the ramp by a pair of “Interceptors.” Colorfully dressed in cowboy boots, bikini bottoms, leather vests, and aviator shades, these female Interceptors are here to prevent unauthorized (meaning unpaid) visitors. They match the names of the new arrivals to the manifest, initial it, and then radio the information to the “Passport Office.”

The Interceptors also, quite helpfully, transport our gear about 300 yards to the airport office in their golf cart.

We walk over to the airport terminal, a brightly painted wood structure, for processing. Step one: Hand over $40 cash. Step two: Show your initialed manifest. Step three: Present your event tickets for scanning. Step four: Get a faux-TSA interrogation. This involves stepping alone into a windowless, dirt-floor room and being asked pointed (and pointless) questions by a pair of outlandishly outfitted greeters. After a minute or two of banter, they invite you to commune with the dirt by rolling on the ground and making a dust angel.

Then each visitor is handed a hammer and told to bang an empty metal cylinder to announce his or her arrival. The hammer strikes start slowly on Monday and accelerate during the week.

Rose and I set up our tents in the airport campground on the outer fringe of Black Rock City just before dark. The place is known as a relatively quiet suburb more than a mile from the rollicking, rave-all-night heart of the packed city. But that’s not to say it’s silent.

Fancifully decorated “art cars” come by at all hours blaring techno music from massive speakers. Other tunes are blasts from the distant past. Neil Diamond? Donna Summer? The Bangles? An art car that serves as a moving pole-dance stage stops a few feet from my tent while performers act out the Divinyls’ 1990 standard, I Touch Myself. A tricked-out convertible plays the Bob Dylan anthem with the fitting refrain, “Everybody must get stoned.” Foam earplugs are powerless against the high-decibel onslaught.

I’m exhausted from the day’s travels and turn in early. But a violent, tent-shaking wind comes up suddenly that night and threatens to rip the six-inch stakes from the parched ground. The next morning my tent is as filthy inside as out.

Everyone wears goggles and face covers during the windstorms, but many burners (Rose and I included) are afflicted with the same deep cough. And we discover that human ears are an ideal shape for collecting dirt and grime. There are no showers, so baby wipes are the next best thing.

Up early to check on the airplane, I’m relieved to find that the plastic wrap has protected it well from the elements. I wolf down a quick breakfast, and then return to my tent, dust off the manila envelope, and start walking to the city center to hand it over. There is a euphemistically named playa there, a word that in Spanish means beach—but here it’s a vast, open expanse where the most intense partying happens alongside the biggest art structures.

At the far end of the playa is the temple, the grandest structure of all. It will be torched on the last night of the event, and when it burns, it will take with it thousands of letters, pictures, dolls, and other mementos attendees place inside for friends and family members who have passed away. Unlike the rampant cheering, dancing, and yelling that characterizes the other peak moments during the week, the “temple burn” is a somber, reflective time.

I bring a photo of John Kounis, co-founder of Pilot Getaways magazine, who died suddenly in June 2015 at age 51. Kounis was an aviation adventurer, friend, and inspiration. The photo, taken by AOPA Senior Photographer Mike Fizer, shows him smiling wryly next to his favorite airplane, a Cessna 185 Skywagon.

Inside the temple, I staple my friend’s photo to a wall that, among other things, also holds a pair of pink baby booties and a heartbreaking series of messages from two parents to their departed child.

When I step outside, billowing clouds of dust have reduced visibility to about 10 feet. I cover my face with the now-empty envelope and, with the aid of a compass, walk south-southeast across the playa toward the airport. It’s roughly three miles away, but in these conditions, it’s not going to be easy to find.

After about one mile, I come to the Esplanade, the city’s innermost circular street, the place burners go to see and be seen. There, I must wait several minutes to cross because of a seemingly endless procession of naked bicyclists.

Next, I locate the street that leads to the airport. I’m tired and thirsty, and my eyes burn, but at least I know where I’m headed. I pass a camp in which there’s an elevated stage and two bearded men sitting in chairs with microphones. Their purpose, according to a nearby sign, is to dispense compliments.

“You have a really purposeful stride!” one of them tells me.

“Yeah,” the other says. “You look like you’re on a mission!”

Colorful pilots. The airplanes tied down on the ramp at Black Rock City are typical of those at any GA airport. They range from two-seat trainers (a Cessna 152 and a Diamond Katana) to twins (Cessna 310s and one 340) and turboprops (two Pilatus PC–12s, a Quest Kodiak, and a Cessna Caravan). Cessna 182s are the most numerous, followed by Beechcraft Bonanzas and Cirrus SR22s. Backcountry airplanes are well represented with Cessna 170s, 180s, and 185s, a couple Piper Super Cubs, and a Piper Pacer. Experimentals are there, too, with the RV series the most numerous, as well as a Kitfox and two Air Création trikes.

Two jets, a Cessna Citation CJ1 and a Learjet 35, land during the event, drop off passengers, and depart in billowing clouds of dust.

As standard as the airplanes tend to be, the pilots of Burning Man are a conspicuously colorful—and generous—bunch. They enthusiastically embrace the Burning Man ideal of a gifting economy, in which people give things away with no expectation of receiving anything in return. It’s not barter; they just give. And the thing pilots like to give most is airplane rides. There’s a tent at the airport where pilots offering rides are matched with attendees who want to fly. Airport officials have set up a series of routes for scenic flights for pilots to fly (clockwise) around the city. The routes also contain mandatory reporting points and assigned altitudes, and scenic rides seem to be the smoothest running part of the complex air operation.

“It would have been simple and easy to shut down the rides as the airport grew—but rides are an important part of the spirit of this place,” said Avi8rix, the air commander. “For many of the riders, rides are the highlight of their Burning Man experience. They’re also important to the pilots. A lot of them are serial gifters.”

One of the trike pilots, Jake McGuire, planned to give 100 rides at the event. That meant flying his aircraft over the Sierra Nevada from his home airport in Lodi, California, and arranging to have fuel brought to Burning Man. Tall, lanky, and dark-haired—with mutton-chop sideburns reminiscent of a young Burt Rutan— McGuire said providing rides allows him to contribute to the event.

“I can’t think of any other gift that I can give here that’s more meaningful or more personal,” he said. “I put a lot into it, and I get just as much out of it. Maybe more.”

Dave “Purple Haze” Barrett flies passengers all day long in a purple, former Civil Air Patrol 182 that he keeps especially for Burning Man. “I own another 182 that I use for business and personal transportation,” said Barrett, who lives in Reno, Nevada. “This one is my playa plane. It’s perfect for gifting rides—and leaving it outside doesn’t bother me. I’ll give it a thorough cleaning when it gets home.”

Ramona “SkyChick” Cox was among the first pilots to fly to Burning Man, in 1996. At that time, 88NV didn’t exist, so she simply landed her Cessna 206 in the desert by a group of tents. All she knew about the event at the time was that it was “a costume party in the desert,” as well as its approximate latitude and longitude.

Now, after 19 visits, she’s nearly perfected desert airplane camping. Her gear is stored neatly in plastic bins, daily costumes are laid out in sequence, and her 206 is an apartment. She even brings a pair of bicycles, an inflatable mattress, and a portable generator for heating and cooling. “It takes me three full days to organize and pack the airplane for Burning Man,” she said. “You can’t just throw it all together at the last minute.”

The event has changed dramatically as it’s grown, but Cox said the things that keep her coming back are the friendships she renews with fellow pilots, and the astonishing creativity on display.

“There’s no greater concentration of creativity anywhere in the world than right here,” she said.

Dawn departure. My favorite time of each day is just before dawn. The pandemonium has settled down, the air is brisk and still, and the desert is silent. The sky lights up as I drink a cup of coffee and plan for departure.

Peeling back the plastic wrap that covers the airplane’s skin goes quickly, and in 15 minutes I’ve collected it all into a beach ball-size wad. I brought a box of 30 heavy-duty garbage bags, and everything that goes into the airplane, trash included, gets stuffed into one. Backpacks, tents, boots, water jugs—everything. I even put garbage bags over the seats to protect them.

Rose makes use of this last bit of golden morning light for photography as I perform a detailed preflight inspection. A soft-field takeoff gets us off the ground in a little more than 1,200 feet, and the airplane accelerates smoothly in ground effect. The published departure procedure requires staying below 500 feet agl for three miles, and that’s fine with me. It feels good to be moving quickly again after days as a pedestrian.

The air is cool and smooth, and I turn toward Winnemucca, Nevada, where we’ll fill the fuel tanks and give the airplane a proper cleaning. On the way out, I see Frog Pond. It’s a brown blotch right where Squeeze Box said it would be, and it’s so prominent I cringe at having missed it on the way in. We climb to 9,500 feet and check in with ATC for flight following. We’ve reentered the real world.

“Some guy this morning was saying how this place just speaks to his soul.” Rose said. “All I could think was this guy’s soul is in a completely different place than mine. I’m ready for a long shower—and air conditioning.”

Cox, who has flown to and from Burning Man more than anyone, said she tires of people who think they know all about the event but have never attended.

“They’ll tell you it’s a hippie convention,” she said. “They’ll tell you it’s a celebrity hangout. The truth is they really don’t know, and they can’t know without actually being here. Everyone who does come here has a different experience. What people tell you about this place is more of a reflection on them than a window into what really goes on here. It’s a mirror.”

Or a mirage.

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Dave Hirschman

Dave Hirschman

AOPA Pilot Editor at Large
AOPA Pilot Editor at Large Dave Hirschman joined AOPA in 2008. He has an airline transport pilot certificate and instrument and multiengine flight instructor certificates. Dave flies vintage, historical, and Experimental airplanes and specializes in tailwheel and aerobatic instruction.

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