AFTERBURN REPORT 2004
Big changes and improvements were implemented for the Black Rock City Airport for 2004. As is typical on the playa, not all the new procedures worked as intended, and some good ideas were dropped in the hectic weeks just prior to the Gate opening. But each year, more good ideas make it past the planning stages, and until next year, we can say that 2004 was the best year ever for the Airport.
One big change was a reorganization that moved the Airport from the Department of Public Works (DPW) to the Community Services department. A lot more effort goes into Airport services than into Airport construction, and this change reflects that reality. Airport staff and volunteers are responsible for providing pilot information in advance, pilot briefings, ticketing, greeting, gate control, airplane parking, UNICOM radio service, answering questions, and other duties unrelated to DPW functions. Of course, the DPW still provided essential services for runway construction, signs, transportation, and other facility needs.
Four key volunteers stepped up this year to take responsibility for essential functions of facilities, volunteer coordinator, air safety, and UNICOM radio. Additional new and experienced volunteers contributed their expertise for various tasks. Spreading the responsibilities around allowed us to get more done than in past years, and in a more organized fashion.
Various constraints force placement of the Airport's runway in what may be the bumpiest part of the playa. The drifts and "whoop-de-doos" in the area last year were a lot of fun to drive over in an off-road vehicle, but most pilots didn't appreciate the extra excitement on take-offs and landings. This year, thanks to DPW effort and some special equipment, we had a great runway. It was wide, perfectly smooth, flat, and quite reasonably firm, considering the extra-soft conditions of the playa for 2004.
For the first time ever, the Airport had an office. Words cannot begin to describe the luxury of handling paperwork without having to worry about that vital slip blowing away toward the horizon. The office also became a refuge for staff on duty during the dust storms. Our mobile office was made from a decrepit 1970s camper trailer. Volunteers gutted the rotted interior and rebuilt walls, ceiling, and floor much stronger than the original. About 600 hours of volunteer labor went into basic construction and to make the trailer safe and legal for towing. More work is planned in 2005 to finish off the interior, seal the roof, and to begin an extensive decorating scheme encompassing the interior and exterior.
Arriving pilots and passengers often must retrieve tickets from will call, which has always been a problem because of the distance from the Airport to the main box office. In 2004, a computer and communications antenna were installed to connect our office directly to the same ticketing database as the computers at the main Gate. A few technical issues early in the week were solved, and our Customs Agents were able to confirm will call tickets from the Airport office during the last half of the event.
Traffic at the Airport was similar to levels in 2003. We had 92 aircraft registered, and at least a dozen more dropped off passengers and departed. We had a big increase in the number of ultralights operating from the Airport, and only one unauthorized takeoff occurred within the city. We had no landsailers, probably due to the unusually soft and bumpy conditions of the playa surface.
The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) required us to submit an Airport operating plan for the first time in 2004. They wanted to see a plan to increase aviation safety and discourage pilots from abusing their in-and-out privileges by visiting the local natural resources. Our 12-page document described plans for the physical layout of the airport, facilities, flight paths, operations, pilot education and briefings, air safety awareness, and enforcement. The process of creating this document and making plans for "what to do if" benefited us beyond just meeting requirements for the necessary approval from the BLM.
The biggest improvement in safety was the implementation of mandatory pilot briefings. Several experienced Burning Man pilots gave briefings that covered operations, safe flight paths, hazards, off-limits areas, and high-desert flying tips. The briefings were very effective at communicating the Airport's "good neighbor" policy. For 2005, we plan to involve more briefers, and we may schedule several briefings each day to accommodate late and early risers. We also need to adapt the briefing for ultralight pilots, who have different operating needs and flight characteristics.
A Safety Inspector from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) visited several times during the week. We were careful not to advertise when he was there and when he was not, and this uncertainty cut down considerably on the risk of show-off flying. No one wanted to push the legal limits when someone might be watching who could do something about it.
Not all pilots in the air over Burning Man are event participants. A helicopter passed dangerously low over the Man when the pyrotechnic crew was loading on Saturday. Despite a quick heads-up via radio and a flight path directly over our heads at less than 300 feet, no one was able to get the aircraft's tail number. The pilot did not respond to radio calls and did not land. Without identification of the aircraft or pilot, we could do nothing except keep an eye out in case he returned.
Another nonparticipant pilot received a citation from the BLM for a violation of the permit by taxiing in the wrong place. That charge doesn't sound so bad, but he landed on the runway, ignored the dozens of parked aircraft and the Port of Entry, and headed out into the open playa. He turned back after awhile and decided to taxi up to the law enforcement camp. After receiving his citation, he was allowed to taxi back to the runway for departure, and we don't expect to see him ever again.
The Airport is home to a variety of theme camps, groups, families, friends, and individuals who make it all happen. We had a pancake breakfast one day, and we hope to expand it next year into a larger event. The Port of Entry wants to share the aviation experience with as many people as possible through aerial photography, sightseeing flights, plane watching, fun and frolicking with the Customs Agents, a drink in the Airport Bar while soaking up the aviation atmosphere, or simply sharing a traditional fly-in pancake breakfast. Come and visit us in 2005.
Lissa Shoun, aka Tiger Tiger
Airport Manager, Black Rock International Airport