Saturday, August 6, 2011

Learning to Fly

Yeah, it's been a while. Sorry about that.

I was sitting at a meeting in the offices of The Black Rock Beacon during last year's burn when one of the staff members mentioned the Black Rock Airport. A few years prior, he had managed to talk one of the pilots into taking him on a ride over the festival grounds.

I had never been out that way but I had heard stories. In 2009, one of my neighbors, a pilot, told me about sneaking in and out of Black Rock via a small passengar plane in the early days of Burning Man. Then, one year, he touched down and was met by two topless women who demanded to see his ticket. The organization had decided to close this sneaky loophole and figured that buxom security guards would be the best candidates to keep the city's flyboys in line.

I was suddenly inspired to zip out there and see if I could talk my way into a flight. It was a long haul from the Beacon's office near Center Camp. The fully-functioning airport is on the edge of the city and an impressive sight, consisting of a heliport, a drop zone and "The Phoenix," a pilot's lounge set up like a waiting area in a '60s-era airport. One wall was covered in photos of famous lady aviators. This being Burning Man, the pilots tend to dress up in aviator costumes. There's also female "flight attendants" who stand watch over a spinning propeller turnstile that leads to the runway.

Word around the Phoenix was that I had arrived too late in the day. Most of Black Rock's pilots take a siesta during the afternoon hours. I took a seat and began writing in a journal. About twenty minutes later, "Pablo" walked in with a Dutch gal dressed like a Catholic school girl. They hugged and she headed off in search of her bike. He was dressed in a Top Gun flight suit with an aviator cap adorned with Mickey Mouse ears. With a tireless smile, he turned to the lounge and asked, "Anybody looking to go up?"

I was out of my seat in a second flat. I flashed my makeshift press pass from The Beacon and introduced myself. He agreed to take me on a flight in exchange for a photo. You see, Pablo's wife was convinced that during his yearly trips to Burning Man that he only took young women for rides. A snapshot of me would prove otherwise. I agreed. Seconds later, I was through the turnstile.

Pablo led me over to the "Citaborea," his small, two passenger stunt plane (take a moment to see what the name spells backwards). I wish I could tell you all about the plane's features but I know more about astro-physics than I do avionics. This much I can remember: it looked pretty awesome and was capable of doing loopty-loops. As he fueled up, Pablo told me his story. Back in California, he works as a flight instructor. He's logged hundreds of flight hours. Random factoid: his second student puked all over his plane during a lesson.

I helped him push the Citaborea out to the runway. After climbing in the back seat, Pablo pointed out the airsickness bag. He went over his pre-flight check and casually asked, "So, do you want to learn how to fly this thing?"

"Sure, why not," I responded. It's not every day that someone offers you a free lesson in a stunt plane. Pablo would later tell me that he typically charges over a $100 for an hour in the air. My stomach started crawling towards my throat as the Citaborea picked up speed.

The ground disappeared below us and I remember thinking, "Damn, this thing is LOUD." We rose to an elevation of 3,000 feet over the Black Rock desert. The view of the festival and the surrounding hills was gorgeous. Visibility up there was almost completely unlimited. I broke out my camera and started photographing and filming everything.

Typically, this time of day the air over Black Rock is "too hot" for flying but I had lucked out. It was a perfect afternoon for a flight lesson. Down below, "The Man" looked like a bug surrounded by micro-dot Mutant Vehicles.

Now I'm a guy with slight vertigo. I managed to keep it in check until Pablo did a 180 and swung us back over the city. "Are you ready to take over," he asked. I grabbed the stick in front of me as he pushed a button up front. I was now in control of the plane. I suddenly felt as though I was floating and that I might fall through the floor in a few seconds. An initial flood of panic hit me square in the forehead and I broke out in a cold sweat.

My hubris and cowardice duked it out in my brain as Pablo gave me a rundown on the basics. He told me to keep the nose of the plane slightly above the horizon. My survival instincts kicked in. For all I knew, If I didn't immediately focus on what was going on, I could easily send the Citaborea into a tailspin.

There was nothing to it. Pablo told me I was a natural, a line he probably uses on all the newbs. "I don't usually have first timers do this but you want to learn how to turn?" He told me to ease up on the stick and send the plane into a turn. Boom. No problem. I may as well have been playing Pilotwings.

I did a few more turns over the city. This was thrilling. I was ready to do a 360. I was like a newborn vampire hungry for some O Negative. I wanted to dive down over the city and shake some dust. "Ok, you ready to spin us around towards the airport," Pablo asked.

And then I screwed up. I went into the turn too fast without pulling up far enough on the stick. Pablo quickly flipped a switch. "Ok.....ok....I need to take over," he said, keeping calm.

He pointed the Citaborea back towards the airport and eased it back down towards the runway. After we had safely come to a stop, he told me my error. "If I had let you continue into that turn we would have flipped the plane over."

This has happened before. The odd climate and incredibly low humidity of the Black Rock Desert makes flying difficult. Pulling off stunts, even on the best day, could be a suicide mission. At least one pilot has met his doom at Burning Man. He had made the same mistake I had nearly made. He went into a turn too fast and too low. His plane flipped and he landed in the dust like a stone.

After getting photos, Pablo and I parted ways. I'm still grateful to him for taking me up there. It was one of the most thrilling hours of my life and an experience I'll never forget.

Having nearly killed myself and a pilot, I went in search of the "Green Bike" I had used to get to the airport. It was long gone. I took a swig of water and started hiking back to the city. Along the way, I managed to hitch a ride on a Mutant Car. It's afternoons like this that have made me realize that there is absolutely no place on the planet like this crazy, annual fest.

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