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Desert Flying

What do high winds, heat, dust devils, gusts, 0-0 in blowing dust, turbulence, lack of depth perception, summer thunderstorms, mountain waves, poor nav aid reception, and high density altitude have in common? You guessed it: they are all problems associated with desert and mountain flying.

If you have no experience with mountain flying, get some before you fly to Burning Man. Hire an instructor and practice at a high altitude airport near you. Attend a mountain flying seminar. Read about mountain flying. At the very least, read section 7-5-6 Mountain Flying in the AIM (Aeronautical Information Manual). Educate yourself and don't crash, please! Nothing will ruin your Burning Man experience more than missing it due to an accident. This page is not a substitute for proper training and education in the dangers and techniques of mountain flying.

High Density Altitude

Your stall speed increases with altitude. At a hot, high airstrip, your landing speed must be higher than at sea level. Fortuitously, your airspeed indicator is reading lower than actual airspeed and you end up flying the same numbers as for a sea level airport. However, the ground is passing by much more quickly. Seat-of-the-pants flying will fool you if you don't normally land at high altitudes. Use your airspeed indicator.

Your aircraft performance will be greatly decreased. Expect a significantly longer take-off roll, and poor climb. Temperatures can be well over 100 degrees Fahrenheit.

No Depth Perception

Landing on the open playa with nothing to give you a ground reference is similar to making a water landing. You can't tell how high you are. If you learned to fly at an airport with a narrow runway, and then flew over to the huge, wide runway at a big airport, you probably flared way too high. It's the same effect only stronger. It's considerably worse landing at dusk. The marked runway during Burning Man should reduce this problem.

When in doubt, push the throttle in and go around.

Get as good an altimeter setting as you can, and use your altimeter. Ease on down, bit by bit, holding an appropriate landing configuration. Don't push it down, there's no rush, you have miles of open playa. Make a pass down the runway (or landing area out on the playa) to get oriented. Use your shadow if you can for a ground reference.


Early morning is usually the best time for flying in the mountains. Thunderstorms build in the afternoon. The winds sometimes calm down before sunset, so plan your arrival for early or late.

The Burning Man site is in a natural wind tunnel created by the surrounding mountains. The winds are usually out of the southwest. They can be much worse at the site than on the open playa. They can also be going in different directions at different locations at the same time.

Look for dust off the dirt roads. If there is a plume of dust, but no car driving, it's very windy and you might consider diverting to an alternate until it calms down. If there's dust over the entire playa, do not land.

Keep an eye out for dust devils on both sides of the runway. Those naughty little devils pop up quite suddenly even on calm days. Go around if there's one in your landing path, and wait until it dissipates or moves away.

Keep a little extra speed during the approach for gusts.

Brush up on your high-wind ground-handling technique. Tie-down facing into the wind. Tie-down even if you are only gone for an hour. That's all it takes to work up a nice storm. Early August 1999 brought a storm with winds of at least 70 miles per hour in Gerlach. Make propitiatory sacrifices to your favored weather goddess for balmy weather.


Never landed on a dirt runway before? Don't worry, Black Rock City Airport has an excellent runway (assuming no rain). The raw desert surface is better than many poorly paved ones. Your take-off roll might be lengthened a bit, but not as much as a true soft-surfaced runway. Braking ability is reduced, but there's no need for hard braking. You can "taxi fast" off the end of the runway with no problems.

The dust is a problem where there is a lot of traffic on the surface. Black Rock City streets and the desert roads are annoyingly dusty. The runway should see little enough use to remain clean during the event. Bring cowl plugs if you worry about dust blowing into your engine compartment during a storm. Clean or replace your air filter after you get home.

Covering your windscreen with a canopy cover is a controversial issue. In sandy and windy areas, you do not want to use a cover because blowing sand gets under the cover, the cover moves slightly in the wind and grinds the sand into your windscreen. The playa is not sandy, it's a dry clay. This clay may be abrasive enough to damage your windscreen, or it may not. Using a cover will reduce interior temperatures. Use interior screens if you can, or remove your external cover during strong windstorms.

Wash the dust off your windscreen before departure.

Black Rock Desert dust is an alkali clay dust. Wash your plane as soon as you can after you get home. The dust eats bicycle chains and metal tools left lying on the desert floor. If you are worried about the alkalinity, use a slightly acid wash to neutralize it. Put a little white vinegar, lemon juice, or equivalent in the wash water.

The Airport Manager has been flying her Grumman Tiger to the desert since 1996 and has no problems with any component of the aircraft (despite her failure to follow her own advice regarding washing the plane promptly). You'll have to scrub it all down (just rinsing doesn't work) and wash the interior and possibly your carpets. Consider leaving the carpet at home.

Soft Spots

The runway is located in a firm, dry, smooth portion of the playa. If you are flying to the desert at other times, or visiting the far reaches of the playa, you won't have a runway. Dark areas are wet and soft. On some playas (notably Hualapai, site of Burning Man 1997), the white areas are even wetter and softer than the dark areas. The mud gets a dry white glaze on the surface. The tan areas in the center of the playa are your best bet.

You can make a soft-field landing on a firm surface. The reverse is not true.

The edges of the playa get increasingly softer. Look for tire tracks. If they have little or no depth, the surface is probably firm. If the tracks get deeper and deeper, and then go back out the way they came in, you can count on very soft and wet conditions.


A pleasant outing can quickly turn into a survival situation in the desert whether you are on the ground on in the air. Carry water at all times. It's big, wide-open country, and a crashed plane might not be spotted for a long time. File a flight plan. Don't forget to close it in the air over the radio before you land. There are no phones in Black Rock City, and cell phones do not work in the Black Rock Desert.