Everywhere With Helicopter (And Small Planes)

sumka_blimp450bIf you feel compelled to complain about odd hours at your job or the occasional bout of sleep deprivation, try to think of traffic reporter/radio DJ Ken Sumka. Thanks to his vocational combination, the Brookfield, lll., resident’s schedule is pretty hectic. (And it’s now busier thanks to the birth of his daughter, Abigail, on St. Patrick’s Day.)

On weekday afternoons, Sumka hops into a plane (sometimes a helicopter) and lets listeners of Chicago’s WBBM-AM know what crowded highways to avoid; on Sundays, Mondays and Thursdays, he spins records on the graveyard shift for WXRT-FM, Chicago’s most-established rock station. Sumka, who recently celebrated his 15th year with ‘XRT, also hosts a show from 7 to 11 p.m. on Saturdays.

“I manage to juggle both jobs fairly easily,” says Sumka. “After doing an overnight, I go straight home and go to sleep at 6 or 7 a.m., then wake up around 1 or 2 and drive out to the airport. We take off at 3:30 p.m. and land at 6. I usually get home before 7 and then exercise, eat and relax before doing an overnight shift on ‘XRT. On the days I don’t work overnight, that gives me an opportunity to do the normal things one needs to do during the day.”

Even though he’s a pilot himself (he once had the pleasure of taking the reins of the Goodyear blimp), Sumka doesn’t do the flying when giving his traffic updates; it’s against the law in Illinois. And while he used to have music playing between reports, that’s no longer the case. “We used to have an iPod interface with our intercom system, but it stopped working last summer,” he says. “With listening to the pilot, air traffic control and my editor, music was always a distant fourth anyway. Safety first, you know.”

Guided By Voices’ “Everywhere With Helicopter”:

Given his fondness for flying and rock ’n’ roll, we asked Sumka to pick the five best songs to join the Mile High Club to; he politely demurred (which is probably for the best) and instead gave us a few of his favorite non-salacious aviation-related tunes:

DAVE EDMUNDS “You’ll Never Get Me Up (In One Of Those)”
“This usually the first sentence I hear whenever I tell people what I do. A lot of people don’t like helicopters or small planes, but they get a bad rap. Like pit bulls, the media only reports when bad things happen.”

XTC “Helicopter” / BLOC PARTY “Helicopter”
“Sometimes I go for the obvious.”

SLOAN “Flying High Again”
“I love Sloan, and this one goes well when we’re having a great day in the air.”

SOUL COUGHING “Unmarked Helicopters”
“Now that we have a president from Chicago, it’s not unusual to see military aircraft darting around, especially when he’s in town.”

“There’s a saying in aviation: ‘Better to be on the ground wishing you were in the air than to be in the air wishing you were on the ground.’ After a windy day during which you get bounced around like a rag doll, it’s nice to be back on terra firma.”