A First Timer’s Story, August 16, 2011… little did he know when he wrote this that he was destined to become the Air Operations Manager! Mark Kracjar aka System@burningman.org
Last year was my 1st burn ever and obviously my 1st time flying in. It was an amazing time and I was totally unprepared for the entire experience. I arrived solo not knowing anyone with the intention of camping in the aviation camp, figuring I would meet people of like minds.
What the Burning Man map showed as the “Aviation camp” and what it was were different. There is no “official” aviation campsite or so I was told. Just camp wherever you like. As I started hauling all my stuff in I was stopped and asked if I needed help. Explaining my virgin status and not knowing where to camp my new friend had me leave my stuff where it was and started introducing me to everyone within our area. A lot of people, all aviators and very welcoming. They pointed out several likely camp spots and explained where the better ones were. Yes, there are better ones. You want to be upwind of the portable toilets! My advice to newbies is after check-in, go wander where you see people camping and say hi. Tell them who you are and what you want. Everyone was very nice and helpful, this is an integral part of the BM experience and culture. After you decide where you want to camp then go get your stuff and setup. There were industrial carts we were able to borrow to unload our planes as long as the carts stayed at the airport. If you plan to camp in the main part of BRC you will need to plan accordingly. Afterwards, ask around and volunteer for something. It is worth it. That was when I knew I was in the right place and it helps put you in the right frame of mind for your first burn.
Getting ready to get ready
Before you go though, there are a host of items you need to pre-plan for. The 1st step is to get a ticket. If you have not done so already then you’ll need to do some searching online for them since the event is sold out. The next thing to do is read EVERYTHING, several times over. These guys have been doing this a long while now and really put together all of the essential info in one place. If you have not done so yet, sign-up for the aviators list and get all the airport info. If you intend to fly it is required that you sign-up for the Aviators list. This is where you will find all the relevant, current information you will need to know and that all-important first ATIS which you will print out and keep in the cockpit with you as you fly in the 1st time. Have whatever you need for navigation. Even though I have a GPS I still carry sectionals just in case the GPS fails again, always a power thing.
There are only 2 things you can buy at Burning Man. In Center Camp you can purchase Ice and Coffee. That’s it. So if you forgot something at home, there are no 7-11’s to run to. The nearest store is 60NM away by air so pack what you need to camp with for the time you plan to be there. Everything… including water, lots of it. I buy one gallon and one quart containers so that when one springs a leak I am not leaking out all my water from my single container! I also bring powdered Gatorade to replace the electrolytes and mix it as I go. You also need shade (maybe not, if you are only there for a day or two, but I was there a week and glad I brought it). I looked at the Monkey hut idea on the Burning Man website and modified the design so it fit inside my plane. I will further modify it and post it if people want. Worked extremely well, lightweight, cheap, 100% sunblock and great airflow.
Last year, one person (a professional outdoor chef) bought all the food and cooked for a set fee which was very reasonable. Besides not having to pack food and cook, he is a great chef and you get to eat with lots of new friends. Keeps space in your plane available and less weight to carry. I plan to take the opportunity if it is offered again instead of bringing all that stuff with me. I will still carry my standard emergency rations/survival gear.
Even though it is a very warm/hot (100+ days and 40’s at night) desert it can get chilly at night. My last night on the playa saw my tent zipper and sleeping bag zipper go south on the coldest night. Wasn’t a lot of fun but I had a 3 seasons sleeping bag so it worked out ok. Pack light, layers of clothing.
Do you have a Personal Locator Beacon? The satellite driven variety? I use a SPOT. Cheap insurance when flying over hostile terrain and the desert is indeed hostile. Do you have a ditch bag? I keep a small survival bag in the seat next to me or within easy reach. In it are things like a knife, duct tape, emergency blanket, energy bars, water, water filtration, medical, etc. If something untoward happens, I can set up camp anywhere for a few days without a problem.
Tent with rain-fly. It could rain out there. It was pouring right after I landed last year. So hard they had to shut down all entry into Black Rock City as the mud was too treacherous. Dries really fast so it was only a small annoyance. Ground tarp, sleeping bag, some form of insulating pad between you and the ground, snacks, clothes (pack layers.. be prepared for anything from 40 degrees to 110 degrees), footwear, any special meds, sunglasses, hat, lip balm, sunblock, moisturizer, toiletries, all the usual camping gear is what we are talking about. Flashlights: multiples and batteries. Bicycle and bicycle lock (otherwise your bike may not be where you left it)..more than a luxury if you want to get into to Black Rock City main which is a good 25 minute walk. Hydration pack. Always carry water, any time day or night. Cup with a carabiner/clip attached. About those energy bars. Don’t bring the ones with chocolate as they will be a melted mess in no time. Ice chest? Get a good one, rated for minimum of 5 days. Keep it out of direct sun and off the ground. If you plan to buy ice make sure you bring one of those collapsible coolers to transport your ice back to camp or you will have to buy lots of ice to get a little back home. I bring canned drinks as they squish down nicely after and the ice chest is where the refuse goes when I go home. This year I will tape a layer of Styrofoam around the chest and the ice should last the whole week. Oil for your plane. All relevant paperwork for your plane just in case you get ramp checked on the way to Burning Man. Don’t forget a folding chair or 2. There are community bicycles which IF you can find one, you are welcome to use. I found 1 working one in an entire week. They are very popular.
Gifts and Gifting
About gifts, gifting and costumes. Burning Man is a “gifting” society. That means cash and credit cards do not work there nor does bartering. The reason for the clip-on cup is so when you go to a theme bar and order a drink they have something to put it in. I was amazed at what people gifted. Massage therapists gifted massages, bar owners gifted entire bars for the week. A very nice couple likes chips and salsa and margaritas, guess what they did for 2 hours every day for whoever stopped by? People will hand you jewelry, homemade stuff and who knows what. It is part of the magic of Burning Man. Gifting is not required but if you want to, you are certainly welcome to bring gifts. They don’t have to be expensive and you don’t have to bring 10’s of thousands of them either! If you choose to participate in gifting, bring what you like and share with those you like. You will see a lot of costumes as well. This is part of burning man as well. Look at this year’s theme and if you choose to, come up with a costume. It is not required and as a virgin burner, people just want you to have a great time.
Ok, so you have planned our flight out and have set up and checked over all of your camping equipment. You have a pretty good idea of how you will pack it all in the plane a few days before departure. Before you take off though, how are your flying skills? Your flight will probably take you over the mountains. Are you mountain proficient? If not, better get some instruction beforehand. What about high Density Altitude (DA) flying? How much experience do you have there? This is critical. Your plane operates how it operates at home but unless you live where it is high altitude and hot you may not know how your plane will perform. Much ado is made about landing on the playa. Personally I did not think landing was a big deal at all but my previous flying experience made it this way. I don’t know yours so you need to figure out how to be the responsible PIC we know you are. If you have little or no high DA experience, please do yourself a favor and get some experience. When was the last time you did a soft-field landing for real? Soft-field takeoff? With weight (passengers)? More on this later but for now the important points are these: If you don’t have experience with truly high DA’s then get some instruction. Same for Mountain Flying. Go practice your soft field takeoffs/landings. Keep that yoke all the way back until you are stopped.
Before you leave home plan your arrival to be as early in the morning as practicable. Make sure you have all your paperwork. Paperwork for your plane, Burning Man ticket and that copy of the ATIS you printed the night before. Make sure it is the most current version, just like you would going into any towered airport. Things to be thinking about now is your final gas stop before Black Rock City and your first arrival. Gas is easy. If you are not gifting rides or going to the legal hot springs you only have a 60NM flight after Burning Man to get gas. If you are going to gift rides or fly to the Hot springs then fill up before you get there. Check with www.airnav.com or whoever you use and figure out where you plan to buy gas. If you have not had any problems so far then you are probably ready to make the final leg of your flight. If you have GPS just type in 88NV and the Black Rock City airport will pop up. You can fly the direct course or if you’d like a more scenic route, head over to Lake Pyramid and then work your way over. Once you are away from Reno start listening-in to BRC’s radio frequency. You want to get an idea of who’s in the air and how things are looking before you get there. Something you probably do anyway but depending on when you arrive, short of Oshkosh or Sun ‘n Fun, you may never have flown into such a congested airspace before. When arriving from the South (Reno) you will see some railroad tracks. Follow the tracks staying on the EAST side. You will see Black Rock City on your left. The runway (also on your left) threshold will be marked by black Geotech fabric. Those are your runway end identifiers. Once you have spotted the runway, you can make your calls and set up for landing. Please respect other aviators and fly the entire pattern. Straight in approaches are frowned upon for safety reasons. When inbound or just flying around please remember nobody cares about your tail number. Just like at home, I don’t care what your tail number is, I want to know what kind of plane you are, where you are and what you are planning to do. At 88NV we need to be even simpler (strange as it may sound) to avoid radio congestion. So, to make things clear and easy just describe your plane. Mine is “Green and White high wing”. Simple huh? The tricky part is remembering to do it that way! After your pilot briefing you will understand how and when to give position reports when touring around.
Landing on the playa. If you have never done it you will probably be nervous. A lot of people have made it seem like a big deal but at the end of the day, it’s really just another landing with a couple caveats so don’t worry so much about it.
You are in the pattern, making your calls (“Green and White high wing!”). Make sure you have gotten the latest altimeter setting and have adjusted your altimeter to reflect the numbers given to you. This is very important because if you have not landed out here before, your usual visual cues of where the ground is are non-existent. There are no lights, no grass, and no pavement. To you it may all look the same and that can be disorienting. There are in fact lots of visual cues, just not the ones you are used to so until you learn them keep one eye on the runway and your other eye glued to your altimeter. You don’t want to flare 10’ off the runway. I always keep an eye on the altimeter even though I can see the visuals with ease now. Another big difference out here is the temperature. It can be much hotter on the ground than even just 15’ above the ground. This is important because this is when DA can raise its ugly head to bite you. You are flying your nice stabilized approach, everything is going well and all of a sudden you “land” with a huge thump having just dropped out of the sky. What happened? You didn’t flare yet, so what gives? What gives is that it can be so much hotter near the ground that you have less air molecules holding you up, and you just stopped flying.
When landing remember this one thing. Your runway is a mile long! The overrun is another SEVERAL miles long! In other words, forget about landing on the numbers with full flaps, waste of time and can get you into all kinds of trouble. The numbers don’t exist anyway, just the Geotech fabric runway threshold markers! When landing remember soft-field technique and keep that yoke in your lap until you have stopped the plane. With a mile long runway and several miles of overrun I don’t bother with flaps at all, either on landing or takeoff. That is my preference, yours may be different. I fly a tricycle gear plane which has different ground characteristics than a conventional plane does. The next important thing about landing is to take your time. You have no reason to force it down, not with a long runway and a ridiculously long overrun. Just let the plane come down on it’s own. If you run out of runway don’t worry about it. You have miles of useable overrun before you might hit something! Take your time.
You have just made your first landing, congratulations. Now taxi over to where a volunteer in a golf cart will assist you in finding you a parking spot. Wherever you choose, is where you will be for your entire visit. Changing parking places is frowned upon so be clear with the volunteers about where you’d like to park. Do you want to fly during the event? Camp under the wing? Depending what you want to do is where you want to park. I like to park away from the campers as they probably don’t need additional dust storms every time I go fly. When you park, please be courteous and shut down your engine while still in the taxiway, then pull your plane into your parking spot. We try to keep the airplane dust storms away from each other’s planes and campsites.
Cover or not cover
Cover for your plane?? I didn’t use one. I used the interior ones to block out sunlight. The playa dust is so fine that even during the big winds etc… it wasn’t an issue as far as damage to the windscreen was concerned. I was nervous about this but had been assured that using a cover would probably get me into more trouble than not using one. The playa dust can get trapped between the cover and the windshield and then start scratching with movement of the cover, is the theory. I flew every day and had planned on doing that. Taking the cover on/off just didn’t make sense. Too much risk potential. I had no problems.
I used the 3 rebar method with great success. I like it so much it is all that lives in my plane now. I brought a small sledge hammer and vice grips which works very well for installing and removing them.
You’re now tied down, now it is time to go check in. The volunteers will show you where to go. Bring your ticket(s) and go to the Box Office which is the first building as you enter through the airport gate. They will check you in and give you your pilot’s wristband so you can go back and forth to your plane. Pilots are the only group that has “in and out” privileges. Time to go and meet other people inside. Plenty of time to set up camp, get the lay of the land first. After setting up camp and getting situated, figure out when the next pilot’s briefing is and plan on attending it. You may arrive with the thought of staying parked all week and you may change your mind, or not. Either way, you have to attend this briefing before you fly again even if it just to go home, so you may as well get it done.
If you are going to give rides or fly to the legal hot springs at Soldier Meadows then I recommend you participate in the fuel buy. Yes it is more expensive then buying it at a nearby airfield but the 120NM round trip will eliminate those savings quickly. Giving rides. You will be very popular as it is a coveted gift. I started out by giving just 1 person a ride, then 2 then finally 3 others in my 172-C until I felt comfortable with the weight and DA. Go slow, be safe. Don’t miss the hot springs!
Hot springs and showers
Now you have been at BM for a few days. Being a pilot with weight limitations, we don’t get the option of bringing in enough water for showers and Black Rock City does not provide them. Wait you say, what about the hot springs? The local hot springs are fantastic and why I go up there every year but they are also a fragile ecosystem and having 10’s of thousands of people jumping into them would destroy them so they are strictly off-limits and that is enforced by BLM rangers. You are left with 3 options.
Go stinky/filthy. My niece and her boyfriend like this one, why I have no idea!
Find someone to “gift” you a shower. This was surprisingly easy to find.
Fly to a legal hot springs. Soldiers Meadows (NV06) is 38NM to the North. Jim and Kathy (owners) [new owners now, check for details] are a great couple whom in addition to running their cattle ranch also offer a ranch B&B experience and just happen to have several private Hot springs within walking distance of their 4000’ runway. How convenient! Especially if you like long warm soaks out in the desert. If you’d like a nice shower instead, with clean towels and all the special soaps, conditioners, shampoos and the like, they can do that as well. During Burning Man they waive the landing fees and charge only $10 per person for burners. If gifting a ride is one of the most coveted gifts available then flying someone(s) to the hot springs has to be the BEST gift. Everyone who went there last year said it was awesome and the owners have told me that everyone who showed up was great and they’d like to see everyone again this year. I had met them earlier in the year and the thought of no showers for a week made me call them and set up a pilot program for us aviators. When I go, I circle the main compound a couple times to get their attention and then land. They usually can pick you up and drive you to the Hot springs, then you can enjoy the walk back. Not to be missed. The runway was in great shape. Some pilots gifted Jim and Kathy the landing fee anyway, it’s up to you.
Tie down, runway, taxiway etiquette
As I mentioned before. When you park your plane shut your engine down BEFORE you turn into your parking spot. When leaving, pull your plane out by hand and when it is on the taxiway facing the proper direction start your engine. The playa dust is very fine and gets everywhere. Your propwash will blast the planes behind you and if someone is camping there, you will cover them in playa dust. Be considerate of your fellow aviators. When I pulled my plane out, there was always someone to help push the plane and when gifting rides, your giftees are thrilled to be able to help so I let them do all the work. Even when it is 100 degrees out, it is such a small thing to do the right thing. People who rode with me wanted to tie down the plane, put on the pitot static cover and cowl plugs. Anything and everything as a way of saying thank you and also because this was something they have never done and they wanted to be a bigger part of it.
Last year  as I was rolling down the runway with a plane load of burners, someone came across the playa and cut me off on the runway just as I was ready to rotate. The really bad thing about this was that this “pilot” dusted me and I went from unlimited visibility to near zero instantly. I moved over and had one wheel on the runway, the other off the runway, got visibility and took off. It does get hot sitting in your plane waiting your turn but this kind of behavior was dangerous to myself/passengers. Even though none of my passengers had ever flown in a light plane before they all knew something was very wrong. If you are hot, open your door(s), don’t be a jerk. Most of the pilots (99%) are extremely responsible and knowledgeable. If you don’t know something ask, don’t guess. Nobody will judge you and everyone will be happy to assist you. Next year you will be the one answering questions of a newbie.
Cleaning your plane
A friend of mine who was an A&P advised me against using vinegar on my plane to get the alkali dust off. I used a power washer and soap and it cleaned just fine. The outside of the plane cleans pretty easily, the interior however…. it would be ideal if your annual was scheduled as soon as you got home!
I hope this has helped answer some of your questions and quelled some of your fears. You may have questions that I did not cover. Entirely possible, as everyone’s needs are unique. If that is the case for you, then ask your questions on the Aviators list you subscribed to earlier. There you will always get lots of thoughts and suggestions to your questions. This is by no means the total and complete pilot’s guide to Burning Man. Keep checking the Aviators list and see what new and exciting changes are in store. Burning Man is a very fluid experience that is constantly changing and while what I wrote what was accurate for last year, this year may have a change or two in store for us.
I had a great time and look forward to another awesome time this year. I find it humorous that people are already predicting it will be a bad year. On what basis? A lot of advanced ticket sales? Seems ridiculous to me. This year will be better as this time I know what to expect, have one burn experience behind me, have friends I am meeting and am just looking forward to having too much fun! You can find me camped at the airport. I am the one with the monkey hut and the orange trash fence over the top. Stop by and say hi.