Beyond Art at Burning Man: This Pilot’s Thrilling Adventures on The Playa
There is no shortage of interesting people in The Bay Area somehow connected to the dusty playground of Burning Man in the desert of Nevada. While artists often steal the spotlight for their boundary-pushing creations on the playa, this extraordinary event and temporary city draws an array of captivating people from all over the world, including logistics coordinators, carpenters, rangers, and even pilots. Over the years I’ve started to see Burning Man as more of a massive engineering effort to build a city (Black Rock City) in the desert and less of the wild art party that I once saw it as. Just like any city, there are a wide variety of people who make up the rich fabric of Black Rock City.
As we delve into this interview, we have the pleasure of meeting Matt Stephenson, a person with an wide variety talents. Matt shares his journey into flying, his connection with Burning Man, and the various ways he has leaned into his happiness by continuing to share his skills and seeking new adventures which has led to a really dynamic lived experience.
Getting to Know Matt Stevenson as a Pilot and a Burner
I start my interviews pretty much always in the same exact way, asking the interviewee their origin story. For Matt, I dove right into what was most interesting thing to me… how he started flying into Burning Man. Do y’all remember that crazy photo that went viral last year where there was seemingly an endless sea of cars commuting out of Burning Man? Feels so luxurious to get in a plane and fly above it all.
“My career is in engineering and technology, not really aviation, though I’ve worked on some aviation related projects. I got into it through a friend who took me up for a flight in a Citabria (a type of plane). I’d been up in Cessnas and other small aircraft before, but never anything as nimble as an aerobatic plane like the Citabira. Aerobatics was a very strong focus of mine for many years, I got rusty during Covid, but I’m getting back into it.
Mostly I do scenic gift flights these days. From time to time I’ll fly folks in and out of the event, but generally only fully credentialed staff that have a personal emergency or other strong need. I don’t do any emergency flights, Burning Man has a contracted emergency flight services company for that, and my airplane is poorly equipped to handle a passenger in distress. I have done many emergency supplies flights for various reasons throughout the years,” says pilot and Burner Matt Stephenson.
Who has been the most interesting person that you’ve flown with?
“Larry Harvey(one of the creators of the event) was a very interesting passenger. I flew him into the event in 2016. It was a really strange weather day in the bay area, so I had to get him to meet me at an alternative airport, and his habit of not having a cell phone made that incredibly difficult.
I guess I just became popular in the Burning Man aviation scene and he reached out and asked. He was a hoot of a passenger, it was a nice 2 hour flight, we talked about the history and future of Burning Man, building The Man* and being on that crew, and some of the other non-staff camps that he enjoyed hanging out in. This was the year of the Vitruvian Man, so it was a really complex design, he was very excited about it,” says Matt.
So, where do planes land at Burning Man’s Black Rock City?
“It depends, during Burning Man there is an airport (88NV) that is constructed on the playa to facilitate aircraft. The BLM closure order stipulates that pilots must use this airport while the closure order is in effect. When Burning Man isn’t happening, most people will land in areas that are known for being very flat and hard packed. We generally avoid the hilly terrain along the shorelines. There are 2 major roads across the playa (the east and west playa highways) and those generally have good flat surfaces on either side,” says Matt.
What other ways do you help out on The Playa?
For Matt, he’s been headed back to the dust city every year since 2010. The amount of stories that Matt has amassed are endless and fun to chat to him about. Through the years he’s gotten involved in lots of different interesting ways including managing Crew Camp for the Man Pavillion* and also being involved with Burning Man’s radio station.
“I joined Burning Man as a member of the tech team and worked to automate the deployment of the long distance wireless infrastructure that brings the internet out to the playa. From there I just kept offering to help on side projects.”
“In 2013 I got looped into the Man Pavilion crew because there was a need for some electrical help on the rotating platform that the man was attached to. Myself and Garth Ferris aka Easy Goin did all the electrical wiring for the motor control system that year. Garth was integral to me being a part of Burning Man, and I’ll always remember him for his sense of radical inclusion and how he included me in so much of how DPW works. Garth unfortunately passed away in 2021.
Today, I lead the survey of the Man Pavilion construction site and manage the crew camp. I work off-season to build site plans.
My job (as the manager of crew camp) is mostly just making sure the camp runs smoothly: surveying out all the structures, working with other staff departments to build the infrastructure for the camp, and working to resolve any issues that arise. We’re out in that little campsite for almost 6 weeks, so it takes a bit more logistics than a normal Burning Man camp.
I also build on the Man when I have time. During Covid I was one of a few folks who worked on the man that was live streamed. In 2021 I crafted the heart of the Man. Before my time working on the Man I was the network architect out at BRC, I did the backhaul networking and also wrote the software that automated the wireless network setup,” says Matt.
At Burning Man, you’re encouraged to explore anything that interests you and those interests span across really any genre. Many who haven’t been involved in the festival don’t know that Burning Man has a year-around radio station. Matt had a fun contribution tied to that part of the event, too.
“I have been a long standing member of the Amateur Radio club in the Black Rock Desert (BRARA) and have hiked up to the repeater station to service it a few times. It’s an amazing service that is offered year-round by volunteers that has definitely saved lives out on the playa. One year I hosted a ham radio technician licensing exam with the help of a few other staff and volunteers. We got about 30 people licensed,” says Matt.
How have you seen Burning Man change over the years?
It’s clear that there’s a huge difference in how Burning Man is today vs how it was the day it started out in Baker Beach in 1987. A small group of friends gathered to celebrate the Summer Solstice and today there are over 80k people gathering for the event and have built a massive city. As with any city, there will be changes we see over the years – some good and some bad.
What I like about Matt’s answer here is that he’s really honest about how he’s seen change but also he’s seeing it evolve.
“Over the past decade I’ve certainly seen most of what people describe as change in the world of Burning Man. There are absolutely elements of change that push against the 10 principles, but I’ve also seen Burning Man be resilient to that change and adopt it without sacrificing itself. We’ve seen the rise and fall of turnkey camps, for one. One of the largest impacts was the pandemic and taking such a long break, it really reset some of the expectations and social norms we got accustomed to out there. All in all, I’ve enjoyed watching the event evolve.
It’s the only event like it in the world. There is no other place that combines so much art, culture, engineering, and hard work into a single place. Every year I try to help get a few new folks out there, many of which have joined me on DPW to work for many weeks out in the desert. It’s a very approachable place, albeit overwhelming of course, but the inclusion is infectious and it really keeps people coming back after their first burn. I encourage everyone to do the best they can to enjoy their first year, it’s very easy to get busy out there volunteering and building art,”says Matt.
Matt Stephenson’s other interests people may not know about:
Prior to attending Burning Man, I held many misconceptions about the event and those who attended. I wrongly believed that being a Burner defined someone’s entire identity. However, upon immersing myself in the experience 15+ years ago, I discovered the vast diversity of people involved and my view of Burning Man really shifted. For those deeply engaged in the event, the festival is just one facet of their multifaceted lives, and it doesn’t solely define who they are.
That’s all to say that this question was truly just a nudge towards getting Matt to talk about his life outside of the festival. I actually met Matt through my Dad years and years ago when Matt was his music teacher, helping my Dad learn how to play the traditional Irish drum called a bodhran. Because I met Matt through a non-Burning Man activity, I’ve always seen him as this multi-faceted human with so many skills and interests.
“I’m an avid backpacker and live in a small mountain town between the Trinity Alps and Lost Coast. I play the hammered dulcimer and bodhran. Most summer evenings you’ll find me cruising up and down the runway at my house on my onewheel with my dog Failinis followed by a dip in the redwood hot tub I built.”
Matt’s journey into flying, adventures in community building, engineering and fun hobbies are nothing short of inspiring. For me, the more complex a person is – the more interesting. I love getting to know the stories of others who are following their own path like Matt does. His experiences showcase the incredible diversity of individuals who contribute to the event’s success, creating a dynamic and unforgettable life for all involved – inside and out of the festival itself. Seeing him find more and more ways to connect with different people at Burning Man reminds me to also continue to find ways to connect with lots of different communities within The Bay Area.
As a little side note: Midway through writing this article, I was teaching at an event and someone was asking me what articles I was writing right now. I told them I was learning more about a person who is a pilot and flies into Burning Man. Funnily, they knew Matt! Apparently they worked together at Oracle. He would commute into The Bay for work regularly and he was known to commute by plane. Yet another reminder how small The Bay Area is.
Know of an interesting person you think is someone people would like to get to know? Write in and contact us to tell us about them. I love to hear about all of the interesting characters that make our home so special.
Short summary of what Burning Man is (for those unfamiliar):
Founded in San Francisco on Baker Beach, Burning Man is a yearly gathering of people in the desert of Nevada where there is a temporary city created called “Black Rock City”. The city is dedicated to art, creativity, and radical self-reliance. The event happens typically the last week of August and follows ten guiding principles, which include Radical Inclusion, Gifting, Decommodification, Radical Self-reliance, Radical Self-expression, Communal Effort, Civic Responsibility, Leaving No Trace, Participation, and Immediacy. These principles are meant to foster a sense of community, creativity, and individual freedom within the temporary city. To learn more about Burning Man please go to: burningman.org
*The Man is the structure that is burned on Saturday night of the main event and there is a pavilion surrounding the structure that you can walk up to and sometimes interact with. Burning the main structure of the event (The Man) symbolizes something different for everyone but largely symbolizes letting go, radical self expression, a new year, celebrating life and more.
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