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Even when scalawags shuffle airport letters, it's hard to miss the spot on the empty Nevada desert where the Burning Man arts festival happens. (Chad Slattery)

Magic Airport

Watch the Burning Man revelers pull an airport out of the desert...then make it disappear.

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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.

The airport’s self-policing worked: Since the multi-layered safety structure was introduced, Black Rock City has had a perfect safety record.

The FAA is satisfied; the agency did not bother to send observers in 2006.

In recent years the airport began integrating itself with the larger festival. Burning Man operates as a gift economy, not a consumer event. There are no T-shirts-and-souvenirs tents and no food vendors; the only things available to buy are coffee and ice. Sightseeing flights out are the pilot community’s gift, and each day several dozen Burners make their way from the main encampment hoping for an aerial look at the city. A knowing few discreetly ask for a private mile-high flight in back of a four-seater; veteran Roger Plowe is happy to accommodate them and grins, “One is immediately impressed at how much kinetic energy can be transferred to a small aircraft during those flights.”

“In 2005 I gave 77 rides to 75 people,” says a compact, 50-ish pilot who goes by the single name Berk. “A lot of them said it was the highlight of their time here.” Roger Ryan reflects, “Buddha says the true gift is the one that goes unheralded. We’re all quiet about it. We don’t need to tell them we just gave them a $150 gift.”

Whether pilots do it for fun or as a gift, flying at Black Rock City offers them the same freedom they enjoy back home. Burners arriving by land must park their vehicles; to mitigate dust and encourage interaction, only specially permitted art cars may drive on the playa. Aircraft, by contrast, are free to come and go at will. Last year, one couple flew their Cessna Caravan into nearby Winnemucca to buy cold beer and check their Blackberries; pilots commonly fly to Reno to pick up friends at the airport. Ray Arceneaux, whose float-equipped Cessna 185 drew double takes taxiing in, favors Alvord Hot Springs across the Oregon border: “I like to take the scantily clad ladies more than anything else. They have a way of convincing me that they really need an airplane ride.”

In 2006 Black Rock City Airport began shutting down the day after Labor Day. “I was relieved,” said Lissa Shoun. “There were no crashes, no near-misses, no troubles at all.” For the next five days volunteers dismantled the terminal and scoured the playa for trash. At night they discussed plans for the 2007 airport. “We need more public art,” Shoun decided, “and we want to train the volunteers better.”

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