This morning I wake up at 8am. This is unfortunate, since I had arranged to meet an ultralight pilot at 6am this morning to give me a flight. I quickly dress and head off on my bike across the sleepy city towards the airport. Coffee is being enjoyed at the Kona Café, dancers are staggering home from the all-night clubs, and the porta-potties are busy with morning ablutions.
The airport is already busy with the morning’s arrivals. Planes are landing, and passengers are welcomed by a cheery customs officer who processes them, checks their passports, and welcomes them to the City.
I’m unfortunately stuck outside of the gate, and have no way to reach Jake, my volunteer pilot. I mill around, trying to find Tiger Tiger, the airport chief, or her designated Wing Commander on duty. When I finally find Hawk, the morning’s Wing Commander, he kindly points out to me that Jake is having coffee at the kitchen car, which is outside security.
Jake asks me if I was there at 6am. I admit that I overslept, and he grins and says that he just woke up himself. (This is playa time.) He grabs a cup of coffee and escorts me through the gate and onto the ‘tarmac’, which is really just more playa dust, but it’s secure playa dust.
Jake flies an Air Creations Tanarg ultralight, which I’ve been told by other pilots is the Rolls Royce of ultralights. It certainly looks gorgeous, all red and shiny. It’s even clean, and I wonder if Jake gives it a new coat of wax every morning. It inspires more confidence than some of the other ultralights. Those ultralights are dusty, and have parts sticking out at strange angles or in odd ways, and the pilots only give rides to topless young women. One wonders if those pilots can fly their contraptions with one hand.
Jake, though, is a gentleman adventurer. He is dressed well, and he is clean. His fingernails appear to have recently been manicured.
He tells me that he is the first pilot to fly his ultralight to Black Rock City, rather than trucking it in. I look at his Air Creations Tanarg ultralight and I see a hang-glider strapped with a lawn mower, and then tarted up in shiny red fiberglass. Then I imagine that machine buzzing over the 10,000′ peaks of the Sierra Nevada mountains. Until now, Jake had appeared relatively sane.
Well, into the breach. I put on the helmet that Jake hands me. Jake carefully tells me that the skin of his plane isn’t structural, so I shouldn’t step on it when I climb in. I carefully use an overhead bar to swing myself into the back passenger seat, my feet resting near a large sticker that warns “EXPERIMENTAL AIRCRAFT”. Jake climbs in between my legs, checks a few dials, and then fires up the engine.
We quickly pick up speed as we race across the desert floor, and then we’re not on the desert any more. The desert floor drops out below us, quietly, with no warning, and continues falling away until it’s 1,000 feet below my sandals. I can’t breathe, but not because of the altitude. I’m flying. I want to extend my arms and flap them, but I worry that it might throw off the delicate balance that is keeping our riding lawnmower aloft, so instead I just take photos.
Ultralights must stay outside of the ‘trash fence’, a miles-long fence that surrounds the city on all sides. We slowly circle the city, just outside the trash fence, and I’m drunk with happiness. Seriously, I’m already planning on buying one of these things and flying it everywhere, including to work every day. I’m laughing and snapping photos and if there were room, I’d do a little dance. The city is spread out to the right, beautiful in its geometry.
In the area known as the ‘far playa’, out past the Man and the Temple, right at the edge of the trash fence, the mobile DJ camp known as Robot Heart has set up a party, and people are dancing in the cool air of the morning. They have been dancing here all night, young and primal and full of fire.
The playa out here is criss-crossed with tire tracks, which make their own beautiful patterns. Some of them are from the Builders, other are from other users of the Black Rock Desert, like the folks who come out here to race their rocket cars or to set off explosives throughout the year.
After our too-short circumnavigation of Black Rock City, we land back at the airport and I thank Jake repeatedly for sharing the skies with me. In the five times I’ve been to Burning Man, this is the first time I’ve every gone airborne, and I know that I’ll never let another year pass without taking a flight. Suddenly I’ve discovered a third dimension to the flat playa surface, and I don’t need special glasses to enjoy it.
Later, Chino Loco and I head out to Burning Sky, the sky diver’s camp at 5:00 and Hyacinth. I already spoke with them and they’re going to allow us to ride along as fireflies, non-skydiving passengers on their jump plane. Normally these jumps are given out by lottery, but because I’m a member of the Burning Man photo team, they automatically put me onto the manifest. Our friends Pupzilla and WildWang come along and (after some bare-assed dancing) are also allowed to get a free ride on a jump plane.
We’re shuttled out to their airport, given ‘chutes (“just in case“) and packed into the plane. I am given a seat right next to the exit door so that I can get some good shots of the jumpers. The plane takes off and we spiral upwards, climbing and climbing. The plane is mostly fireflies, but there are three jumpers in the back of the plane. The door in the side of the plane is like a roll-up garage door, and it’s open as we climb. The jumpers stare out of the side of the plane. I feel their desire to jump, to fly out into the open sky.
The three jumpers are keeping an eye on their wrist altimeters, which are calibrated to be feet above the base altitude of the playa, which is approximately 4,000 feet. We pass through 7,000′ above base, or 11,000′, and continue climbing.
When we hit 10,000′ above base, the jumpers quickly get their helmets on, double-check their gear, and then they’re out of the door, almost immediately disappearing out of sight.
As soon as the jumpers are clear, the rolling door slams shut and locks. Then the tone of the engine changes, and the plane plunges.
We fall, the fireflies screaming, and for a moment we’re weightless. I knew that this would happen, but riding backwards in the back of the plane, it takes you by surprise. The pilot wants to get to the ground as fast as possible to save fuel, so he’s nose-diving from 2 miles up towards the ground, his important passengers delivered to their jumping-off point. The screams of his remaining (non-paying) passengers don’t matter, all that matters is saving fuel for the next flight.
And we do scream. As we tail-spin towards earth, the cabin is filled with the sound of screams and laughter. Immediately behind me Chino Loco is laughing maniacally.
In what seems like 2 hours, the plan levels out and goes into an approach to the airport, circling the city, and I take a few more shots of Black Rock City from the air. I canot stress enough how beautiful the city is from up here. The chaos on the ground disappears, and all that I can see is the mathematical purity of the city’s radial design, the streets, the camps, the dust storms, and the monuments. I feel so fortunate to be here now, a citizen of this great city.