Watch the Burning Man revelers pull an airport out of the desert...then make it disappear.
- By Chad Slattery
- Air & Space magazine, August 2007
(Page 2 of 4)
And a playful one. “Airports are usually very serious, with rules and searches and security,” says volunteer Heidi Karl, dressed in a bright red tutu, “but here you can be silly and have fun.” Incoming pilots and passengers are asked leeringly if they’d prefer to be patted down by a male or a female. Volunteer Bettina Kahlert laughs, “It’s the only airport left where you can make jokes about bombs.”
Or show up naked. Most of the 150 volunteers who staff the airport are dressed, and their self-expression often takes the form of fishnet body stockings, thongs, and imaginative interpretations of airline uniforms. The only taboo: feather boas and sequins, banned by the federal Bureau of Land Management for environmental reasons.
Like everything else in Brigadoon-like Black Rock City, the airport has evolved.
“The first time I flew to Burning Man was in 1996,” recalls airport manager Lissa Shoun. “There was no airport, just 35 planes scattered across the desert, parked wherever they wanted to be. Cars were driving everywhere, running over tents and people in the dark, throwing dust everywhere.
“It was very interesting back in those days. I was told, ‘Use this frequency, and maybe a pilot on the ground will talk to you.’ A pilot answered; it took me about 10 minutes to find him on the ground. There was no city at that point. ‘Land in between the geodesic dome and the guys on the go-carts.’ ”
With encouragement from Burning Man staff, Shoun returned the next year determined to gather pilots and airplanes into one dedicated camp and establish the semblance of a fixed-base operator. “We found a stretch that was flat and level for the runway,” she remembers. “Then we stuck a windsock on an irrigation pole, pulled out some [hand-held radios], and put a parachute on a pole for shade. That was it. We had our FBO.”
In 1999 Shoun registered with the FAA but did not ask to be included in the agency’s database. This year she will. The airport will be described as a temporary, VFR facility with Class G airspace. Translation: There’s no control tower to direct traffic. Pilots need the awareness required of all pilots operating under visual flight rules. As for the three-letter identifier, Shoun is hoping for “something cool,” like BRI or BRA.
Over the next few years, pilots added amenities that mimic airport facilities in what Burners call the “default” world. A fixed-base operator—vaguely defined but boldly designated the Black Rock Travel Agency—was cobbled together using an abandoned trailer (the galley), movable letters discarded by Reno’s municipal airport, and a sprawling tent (pilot’s lounge). Arriving pilots could receive information about the direction to land in from volunteers with hand-held radios over the same UNICOM frequency pilots use to announce themselves at small, uncontrolled airports anywhere in the country. Shoun organized work parties that rebuilt another trailer into a mobile office, complete with air conditioning. The newest addition, a modular terminal, was designed by Bryan Lang, who paid for it with $15,000 of his own money.