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 3 of 4)
Then, in 2003, two aircraft—both V-tail Bonanzas—crashed on successive days. One pilot died and four passengers were hospitalized.
“That changed everything,” Ryan remembers. “Real fast, we had to either transform ourselves from a group of pilots in the desert into a real airport, or get shut down.”
Over the next year, Shoun, Ryan, and a cadre of experienced pilots hammered out procedures to increase the safety of operations, culminating in a dense 12-page airport operating plan. The test came during the 2004 event, when FAA inspectors showed up to observe the air operations.
What they found was a triple-tier information system designed to ensure that pilots fully understand traffic patterns, UNICOM radio procedures, and the difficulties of flying in high deserts during summer heat.
The first of the three tiers is the advisory information on the airport’s Web site (www.burningman.com/on_the_playa/airport/), designated “for Whiskey Breath.” “If arriving pilots say they have ‘Whiskey Breath’ when they radio their first position report, it means they’ve done their homework and know the pattern,” explains Ryan. “And I love making them say they have whiskey breath over the UNICOM.”
For the volunteers, Ryan wrote a 21-page Radio Operators’ Handbook. The second tier of safety, it provides a checklist of information to transmit to each pilot, including field elevation (3,905 feet) and wind conditions.
The runway is easy to spot from the air. The mile-long, 50-foot-wide strip was formed by a local contractor who was paid $1,500 to scrape a thin layer of playa with a grader, a process that smoothed out small transient sand dunes and revealed the darker substrate just below the surface. “It’s a 5,000-foot runway with a 137,000-foot overrun,” jokes Ryan.
Once on the ground, first-time arrivals are directed to the tie-down area and asked to report to the terminal. Volunteer “customs officials” register the airplane, collect the tickets ($350—cash only—at the gate; cheaper ones can be purchased in advance), and inform pilots that they will not be allowed to fly back out until receiving the mandatory safety briefing, the third tier of safety guidelines.
The briefings are held each morning at 8 a.m. in the large open tent that serves as a pilot’s lounge. All are delivered by air safety officers, Burning Man veterans with names like Tiger Tiger and Hoot. Halfway between a monologue and a lecture, they focus on landings (“This is a soft field, not a short field. Carry power in to your landings, keep the yoke in your lap and the nose high—the stall horn should be shrieking”), position reports (“Keep it simple. ‘Six o’clock to The Man, red and white Cessna, five thousand feet’ is all we need”) and reminders that the FAA may show up at any time (“Even if I knew in advance, I wouldn’t tell you. They’re friends to the airport”). Airplanes with low service ceilings are cautioned that heat can affect density altitude, severely degrading performance. Briefs conclude with a warning for departing pilots: Although they are flying into uncontrolled airspace from an uncontrolled airport, they remain subject to the same laws of man and physics as anywhere else. That concluded, each is issued a colored wristband that permits unrestricted access to the airfield.