The urge, and demand, to organize

Burning Man started as a campfire on the beach with a bunch of friends. Now it is a commercial organization whose focus is a large boondocking rally at a remote desert location. The story of its airport is one that illustrates how the organization of human activities is both an inherent urge and often a demand of circumstances.

An Air & Space magazine article by Chad Slattery, Magic Airport tells the story. “Watch the Burning Man revelers pull an airport out of the desert…then make it disappear.”

Burning Man migrated to Black Rock in 1990, and pilots immediately began flying in, drawn to the stretch of hard clay surface, known as playa, scrubbed smooth each spring by wind and rain. …

The lakebed’s 27-mile length is the only break that aviators get. It sits nearly 4,000 feet above sea level; when triple-digit temperatures heat the thin air, lift diminishes as density altitude …The featureless desert floor reduces pilots’ depth perception during landings. Winds constantly batter the aircraft, injecting fine alkali dust into every unprotected vent and inlet. … Capricious playa weather further complicates flying. Past Burning Man events have experienced hail, 70-mph winds, drenching rain, 120-degree heat, and zero-visibility dust-devil curtains blowing across the runway. “Storms are sudden and violent,” warns one aviation Web site, “and hospitals are far away.”

Despite all this, the airplane crowd continued to show up at Burning Man. Their gift, in return for the privilege of being allowed to use air transport to attend, was to provide rides for others. They provided site seeing tours, opportunities for couples to join the mile high club, and ran errands when cold beer was needed or other such needs occurred.

As time passed, more than 100 airplanes started showing up at the festival. In 2003 there were two fatal crashes. Coordination was needed. Education was needed. The urge for organization became a demand.

Pilots are accustomed to expecting certain levels of organization, safety, and procedure at airports so building the infrastructure to meet the demand for organization at the Burning Man airport only required a bit of volunteer effort. After the accidents, the volunteer effort took on a defined structure.

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 … For the volunteers, Ryan wrote a 21-page Radio Operators’ Handbook. The second tier of safety … Once on the ground, … inform pilots that they will not be allowed to fly back out until receiving the mandatory safety briefing, the third tier of safety guidelines.

Not all your RV owners will have bragging like an “Antonov An-2 (“Beats an Airstream,” quipped owner Douglas Fulton)” or the special safety needs and requirements for handling aircraft.

If you do gather in groups you will encounter the urge to organize so people can work together and compliment each other’s efforts. As the group grows, this urge for organization may become a demand so that arguments are more easily resolved, safety is enhanced, and everyone’s needs are addressed in a fair and equitable manner.

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