Volunteer Nick Avila of San Francisco sits in the 747 cockpit that he's helping to fix up for Burning Man. Susan Valot/KQED
Volunteer Nick Avila of San Francisco sits in the 747 cockpit that he's helping to fix up for Burning Man. (Susan Valot/KQED)

Burning Man Artists Haul Gutted 747 Jetliner to Desert

Burning Man Artists Haul Gutted 747 Jetliner to Desert

A peculiar sight emerges from the Nevada desert floor:  a Boeing 747, sliced in half lengthways.  If you step out of the emergency exit, you'll find yourself in a poof of playa dust, amid the hubbub of Burning Man, which begins this Sunday.

The airplane is a refugee of sorts, born as an idea and pulled from the hundreds of decommissioned planes at the Mojave Boneyard in California's high desert.

Volunteers have spent the last few months working on what's known as the 747 Project at the Mojave Air and Space Port, about halfway between Bakersfield and Barstow.  They've been transforming the jetliner into what they hope will be the world's largest mobile art installation.

On a recent Thursday, work crews and volunteers used a forklift to move metal beams into place so the plane could be lifted onto the back of a semi truck to make the 500-mile trek up the spine of California, along the eastern Sierra Nevada, to the arts festival in Nevada known for its burning centerpiece.

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Only the top half of the plane would make the trip this year -- all that was the cabin -- phase one of the 747 Project.  The tail is gone.  The wings have been clipped.  The inside has been cleaned out, leaving a cavernous, seat-less tube with its metal ribs exposed.  It's a half football field long and three stories tall.  One volunteer jokes that you could fit another plane inside it.

The goal is to eventually take the entire plane up to Burning Man.

"How do you eat an elephant?  A little bit at a time," Ken Feldman jokes.  He is the CEO of the Big Imagination Foundation, the nonprofit arts organization that is funding the project with donations and an IndieGoGo campaign.

747 Project creator Ken Feldman (Hawaiian shirt), workers and volunteers help place beams that will help transport the plane to Burning Man.
747 Project creator Ken Feldman (Hawaiian shirt), workers and volunteers help place beams that will help transport the plane to Burning Man. (Susan Valot/KQED)

The plane will be decorated with lights, with DJs playing music and people dancing inside.  But as with so many other art projects at Burning Man, this one is interactive.

"You come up through the cargo bay and you come to another staircase and at the top of that is the 'insecurity checkpoint,' where our TSA agents -- Touching Sensitive Areas -- will pat you down and help you get rid of your insecurities,"  Feldman explains.  "Then you move to the baggage check, where another flight attendant will ask you, 'Do you have any emotional baggage that you want to drop off?' "

Then it's on to the boarding zone, where a flight attendant asks where you're going.

"And if someone says, 'Oh, I want to go to Disneyland!'  It's like, 'No, no, no:  Where, where are you going in life?  Where do you want to go?'  And we give you a boarding pass, where you write down on the boarding pass where you are headed." Feldman says.

Then you staple your boarding pass onto the "Destination Wall."

"The flight attendant gives you a little airplane wings, gives you a little hug and sets you on your way," Feldman smiles.

Feldman came up with the idea during his second year at Burning Man a few years ago when he saw two bicycles made of fuel tanks of fighter jets.  He sketched out the idea in the dust on the ground.  His friends told him he was crazy.  But seven years later, they're helping him with the plane.

Feldman says the idea is to use this interactive art to inspire people to dream big, much like the plane itself -- "to make the world a better place, right?  That's the ultimate inspiration."

Volunteer Nick Avila drove down from San Francisco to help with the plane.  On this particular day, he's troubleshooting how to secure seats in the cockpit and trying to figure out how to rig fake cockpit instruments to do things when people press buttons and take the controls.

A view of the Mojave Desert from the back of the 747 Project in August 2016, before it was transported to Burning Man.
A view of the Mojave Desert from the back of the 747 Project in August 2016, before it was transported to Burning Man. (Susan Valot/KQED)

"All this stuff is hopefully going to work.  Like you can come and pull the throttle up, down." Avila shows how the throttle controls move.  "Probably shouldn't move the landing gear thing, but you can move that around.  So it'll be cool."

Avila says the 747 Project is part of the Burning Man tradition of art cars, which people at the festival call "mutant vehicles."  They're basically any vehicle, from bicycles to buses, made to look like something else, like pirate ships, dragons and even unicorns.

Avila has worked on one art car project before, Beezus Christ Super Car, a utility cart turned into a bee.  He said it was "1/100th of the size" of the 747 Project.

"And we would serve honey out the back and preach the teachings of Beezus Christ over a megaphone," Avila remembers.  "So it was kind of like a fake religious thing and also we would just give out honey to people.  You know, taste the body of Beezus Christ."

Avila laughs.  He says it's the ridiculousness of it all that he loves.

"To me, it's about bringing cool things out that you built for no real reason, other than just to bring it there and share it with people," Avila says, pointing out that he has his own ridiculous theme camp at Burning Man this year.  It serves coffee and spankings.  And it's called Scarbutts.

"It's just like almost anything you could ever imagine is going to end up being there eventually," Avila says.

Next year, Big Imagination plans to bring up the bottom half of the plane, bolt it back to the top and drive it around Burning Man with an airport tug.

Keru McKenzie of Ridgecrest, who's been working on the plane several days a week for the past few weeks, says he's excited to see it come to life in the Nevada desert. "It's the people and the art and the interaction. It's different than going to a concert or a music festival where you sit in the audience.  You know, they might stand and wave and clap and what not. But at Burning Man, you're actually out there being.  You're part of the theater."

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