Why bring a 747 to Burning Man?
Sometimes the sheer size or looming impossibility of a project is reason enough to attempt it. For Big Imagination, a Los Angeles nonprofit foundation that famously announced its intention in early 2015 to haul a 135-feet-long, 32-ft tall, and 60-ft wide 747 fuselage and partial wings to Nevada’s Black Rock Desert for the annual end-of-summer arts and experimental community event.
It made it, in part, this past burn, with the top front end. More than 100 volunteers from 14 countries transformed the 75 x 21.5 x 16.5-ft section into a two-level chill-out space offering science and empowerment-themed talks by day, and dance club by night, appointed with cheeky airport-themed flourishes, like an Insecurity Checkpoint, Emotional Baggage Check, and boarding passes allowing burners to set life destinations.
This week, the crew returns to Mojave to realize the foundation’s plan to bring the remainder of the fuselage, wing portions, and landing gear to next year’s Burning Man, to cart 300 revelers around the playa as the event’s largest art car. That it didn’t deliver the jet in total this year elicited some snarky social media comments and press by burners, who Big Imagination leader Ken Feldman insists missed the point of the project. The “art,” in this context, is less about the final product than the journey and community created in attempting to overcome its challenges.
“We wanted to create something that had an inspirational effect, partly through sheer size,” says Feldman. “This is supposed to be the biggest art car ever, on purpose, because when you stand next to it, your head explodes. A 747 is iconic, beautiful, and massive. But it’s not just the physical object. Part of our art and inspiration is overcoming the logistical challenge of making this happen in an unbelievably difficult and remote location.”
Feldman, who honed his logistics chops in film production transportation and managing tech startups, came up with the idea five years before he began researching it in earnest after the 2014 burn. He called the Mojave airplane boneyard, a section of the Mojave Air & Space Port, roughly 100 miles north of Los Angeles, that stores retired commercial jets. “Can I buy a plane?” he asked. “Sure, we’ll sell you one,” came the reply.
Feldman then tracked down moving companies specializing in very wide loads and learned the most efficient way of getting a plane to Burning Man was cutting it up, strapping it to specialized shipping trucks, and reassembling it on the playa. He calculated that the entire project would cost less than $1 million.
Still uncertain about the feasibility, he ran into a friend, San Francisco tech investor Jonathan Teo at a post-Burning Man party, explained his idea and showed him a sketch. Teo’s response: “Fuck yeah, let’s do it!”
“From that initial burst of support, I thought we could make this happen,” says Feldman. Over the next few months, Feldman, Teo, and a core team crystalized the concept, pooled their own money to buy a plane, and established Big Imagination to develop inspirational community-building projects, impelled by the 747 art car.
“A lot of really talented people don’t have the opportunity to have their voices heard or put their ideas forward,” says Teo. “A project that attracts a lot of attention provides a spotlight for people to express their views and art. We also noticed more folks coming to Burning Man who wanted to insulate their communities with closed-off camps and art cars requiring special wristbands. We decided to build an art car that was so big, it would require multiple camps to come together to build. It’s not about some jackass wanting to bring a plane there.”
They made three teaser videos, with the last going viral and caused a stir around the Burning Man community and international press. They were on their way.
Or so they thought. It would take a year and a half, negotiating with four boneyards in two states, to find the right plane in the right location at the right price. Switching gears for the 2015 burn, they opted for a concept camp, The 747 Experience. The effort helped solidify their core team and drum up awareness that enabled them to subsequently raise more than $70,000 from 1,000 donors for transport costs.
“This is what separates us from a lot of the other large projects and art cars, which are usually one person with a singular vision and a huge check,” says Feldman. “We’re not even close to the most expensive project on the playa.”
They finally found their plane (for an undisclosed amount) last March—a 1985 Boeing 747-300 originally built for the now-defunct Brazilian airline, Varig, and later converted into a cargo plane. Coming to rest in the boneyard in 2011, this once mighty flying machine was reduced to storing tires in its hull.
Feldman and his team rented a nearby house in which to live, then set about removing installation, severing the wings and tail, and relocating it to a permanent workspace in the Air and Space Port, where they then cut and prepped the front portion that would come to this past Burning Man, which ran August 28—September 4. It was a steep, sometimes dicey learning curve. Even seemingly mundane task of removing the tires ended up a dangerous lesson.
“747s are aerodynamic; they want to fly,” says Feldman. “The engines keep the nose down, so when they’re turned off, the plane is a little out of balance. Without the tires, the center of gravity shifted and the landing gear hadn’t been adjusted to keep the plane tilted down. After taking hundreds of tires out, there was a 20-30 mph wind, and we suddenly realized the plane and the ladder we used to get into it, was four to six feet off the ground, and the nose and tail were rocking back and forth. We were afraid the tires would roll back and crush someone, so we quickly got out of the plane, hanging off ladder, and dropping to the ground.”
It took another week to adjust the landing gear and anchor the plane. It wasn’t until they could remove most of the wings and the six-story tail, that it stabilized.
The novelty of the 747 project fit right in with the surrounding engineering efforts, many so clandestine, the Big Imagination crew had to sign non-disclosure agreements to work there.
“The Mojave Air and Space Port has all these crazy projects going on,” says Feldman. “All these aerospace companies are there—Scaled Composites, Northrop [Grumman], BAE [Systems], Virgin Galactic’s Spaceship Two, The Spaceship Company, Vulcan Aerospace, which is building the world’s largest plane the size of two 747s with a wing in between. I wish I could tell you all the strange stuff that goes on there, but it’s top secret.
“We had quite a few people working on spaceships and airplanes and super cutting edge technology there come and help after work,” he laughs. “Several want to camp with us at Burning Man next year.”
Despite pulling five months of 10 to 15-hour days, the crew still ran out of time to bring the entire fuselage. Even so, the section it did move was 21.5 feet wide and 16.5 feet high, just shy of the 18-ft-high powerlines. It covered two highway lanes, thereby requiring California and Nevada transportation permits and a police escort.
Departure came down to a nail-biting finish. The goal was to leave August 16 and arrive August 19, a week before the traffic of 70,000 burners ramped up. Valley Wide Movers handled the transport logistics, and got quick approval from California. But Nevada had construction along the route, delaying a permit. Four days before their departure date, Nevada approved a two-hour construction stop at that spot on August 16, which meant they had to leave a day earlier.
“After that, construction would start and we’d have to wait a week, which we couldn’t do,” says Feldman. “Meanwhile, the highway patrol still hadn’t given us approval. Everyone was sweating it, because of the specific time windows. We finally got the approval 24 hours before we needed to leave.”
Five police cruisers escorted the convoy of five trucks, directing oncoming traffic to the shoulders to allow passage, in its trek up Routes 395 and 95 through the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe Reservation, drawing local crowds. “Everyone was excited to see us,” says Feldman. “You had to wait 10 minutes, but then you got a big show.”
The convoy rolled onto the playa on August 17, the earliest a theme camp was ever admitted. The next day, heavy equipment operators lifted the fuselage onto a wooden support, before the crew stepped in for the final nightclub conversion, adding a DJ booth, pulsating lights, and fuzzy couches.
The plane’s new incarnation created a different kind of vehicle—one that fostered new skills, friendships, and collaboration between disparate industries and countries.
“The best thing about the platform was getting people from all over the world inspired about building art,” says San Francisco inventor Dave Mathews. Dissecting the hull “was like a modern-day archeological dig—there were parts stamped from 1979, 1985, 2000.”
Israelis Or Granot, a geology graduate student, Gal Bracha, a software programmer, used the airplane as a canvas on which to project their interactive 3D imaging technology. San Francisco entrepreneur Jessica Scorpio, an alumna of Silicon Valley think tank Singularity University, spoke on the future of a sharing economy during an afternoon lecture series. Kari Herring, a Los Angeles video editor, developed construction skills.
“I work on a computer in a dark room so this lets me get physical and work on things I’d never get a chance to do in real life,” says Herring. “This crew is really about empowering those who don’t know much about power tools. One day, [a build supervisor] gave me a 10-minute tutorial on how to use a circular saw, then left me to it for an hour.”
Others responded to the project’s philosophical implications. “At the boneyard, all these planes are just sitting there, but this plane is getting a new life and can inspire and move so many people,” says San Francisco writer/artist Kelly Vicars, a project supervisor.
“At Burning Man, the Man is the present—no one speaks about what they do for a living; everyone is equal. The Temple is the past, letting go,” says Anat Sapan, a retired San Francisco physician, originally from Israel. “For us, the plane is the future: ‘What do you want to do? Where are you going with your ideas?’ If you think about it, bringing a 747 to the playa is the most ridiculous thing ever. But it inspires other people who might have projects they are nervous about starting.”
Next year, the group hopes to bring the remaining portion of the fuselage, 15-20 feet of each wing, and the four sets of landing gears—an even bigger logistical horror show.
“If we left the wings on, it would be 60 feet wide and we couldn’t transport it,” says Feldman. “So we have to unbolt what’s left of the wings, pull them off, remove the landing gear, bring all of that to Burning Man, then bolt them back on. But to get the landing gear to fit back on, it has to be within Boeing’s specs. Seventy-five to 80% of the project will be removing the wings in such a way for us to rebolt them in correct alignment, say within a hundredth of an inch, to get the landing gear back on. That’s going to be exceedingly complicated and expensive. Nobody unbolts the wings of 747s. They’ve only done it a half a dozen times, for museums.”
To that end, the appropriate paperwork is coursing through Boeing for the official instructions on how to do this. “This is highly classified. You can’t just look this up on the internet,” says Feldman. “We just have to work our way through the proper channels. I could understand how they could be concerned about participating.”
With the top front end stored at an undisclosed location in Gerlach, the Nevada town abutting the playa near Burning Man, Feldman, on a small foundation stipend for living expenses, is back to working full time on the remainder of the project.
“This was only a piece of it. The project will keep going,” he says, “The real hard work is about to start.”