Magic Airport

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

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)
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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.

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 (, 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.”

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