LA/LA Land: Flying (literally) with a Goth rocker
Recently I had Christopher Sluka on my radio show, the founder and lead guitarist of the Gothic influenced hard rock dance music band SLUKA, whose 11th studio album, Colorful Radiations, is now working its way up the hard rock charts. I had a great time talking with him about his past performing in the New York Club scene with artists like Tears For Fears, INXS, and Simple Minds and his current world tours. Sluka has traveled the world, selling out stadiums, appearing on television, and thrilling crowds with vibrant colorful performances that have gotten him comparisons to bands like Coldplay and Radiohead.
In addition to his music, Christopher is also a visual artist whose surrealistic oil paintings are in galleries in New York, San Diego, Tokyo, and Milan – not bad for a guitar jockey. He also brings his visual talents to his music; he is releasing his latest album on a Blue-Ray disc set with remarkable video.
All that was so interesting to me as a music writer that I almost overlooked the final couple of lines in his bio that said he is a pilot and loves to fly his planes. Planes? Hmm…I did some research and found out that his “day job” was owning and running a flight school, and that he is certified as a stunt pilot, a motion picture pilot and a jet pilot. Made me think of rocker/pilot Bruce Dickinson of Iron Maiden. When I asked him about this he said, yes, flying is what really, really turns him on. Moreover, he loves to teach other people how to fly. Then he added that if I was ever in San Diego where his flight school is, he will take me up.
Well I was going to be in San Diego for Thanksgiving and asked if I could take him up on his offer and bring my wife and daughter along. “Absolutely,” he said. So we set a date for the Saturday after Thanksgiving. Wow! This was going to be so cool.
Christopher met us at Montgomery Field in east San Diego wearing a snappy black uniform with gold bars and a tie, setting off his long flowing blond hair and short beard. The uniform was very reassuring. A uniformed pilot always makes you feel like you’re in good hands. Then he asked us who was going to fly the plane?
What? What? What do you mean who is going to fly the plane?
I don’t like small planes – anything with fewer than 30 seats can put me into a fetal curl around the seatbelts. What keeps me at least sane in a small plane is the knowledge that the pilot knows what he or she is doing. When Christopher – who has tens of thousands of hours of flying and a wall full of certificates, not mention a great uniform with gold bars – implied that he wasn’t actually going to fly the plane, the urge to fetal curl began. It didn’t get any better when we walked past his fleet of large black-painted planes to a small 4-seat, one-door, single-engine very claustrophobic Cessna. Maybe flying with a rock guitarist wasn’t such a good idea after all.
We stood in front of the tiny (to me) plane and he asked again, “who is going to fly?” Before I could raise my hand and suggest we borrow one of the 20-seat corporate jets a few rows over and that Christopher do the flying, my wife, Lynn – who has never been in a small plane – stepped forward and said, “Me. I’ll give it a try.” At that point all thoughts of the thrill flying with a rock star went out the window. But I was committed so I squeezed awkwardly into the back seat and did the best imitation of a curl possible in the cramped space.
It turns out that Christopher Sluka is a phenomenal flight instructor as well as phenonenal pilot. The plane was a trainer – set up with dual controls so that he could take over instantly if needed. “Nothing to worry about” he said to us over the headphones we were all wearing. Easy for him to say; my headphones did not have a microphone so I couldn’t tell him that. But he was right; there was nothing to worry about.
It was a beautiful sunny day. Fog lined the coast, but we were several miles inland and his one-hour flight plan took us South over the Del Mar Racetrack, back North over downtown San Diego, and then a loop around near the Mexican border before heading back to Montgomery Field. The little airport is surrounded by Navy and Marine airbases and the San Diego International Airport, so there was potential heavy air traffic, but we only saw two planes and they were not near us. Christopher kept in constant touch with the tower, speaking in the coded language pilots use, which we could hear in our headphones, explaining what was going on after each transmission.
He said he often listens to rock music while flying alone, but since we were in a tight traffic corridor and he was coaching Lynn, the usual rock and roll was quiet. He showed her the controls, taught her how to taxi along the yellow line and talked her through take off. I closed my eyes. My 20-something daughter grinned. Christopher gave Lynn the compass heading to follow and how to bring the plane up to 3500 feet – higher was ok, lower was not. She made it with a couple of adjustments, dipped and turned the plane south (that was scary), leveled out at 3500 feet and cruised. At that point I uncurled, took out my camera phone, and forgot I was afraid.
We had to drop to 1500 feet over the racetrack to stay out of commercial airspace and Christopher took over the controls to do a “slip” in which he essentially killed the motor and let the plane drift down. As we were losing altitude – I was carefully watching the gauge from the backseat – he explained that it would have been easier to put the plane into a dive, but that would probably make us nervous… Probably would have.
We leveled out and he handed the controls to back to Lynn and told her to keep it at 1500 feet, which she did, giving us a fantastic view of San Diego. He coached her through the loop which lined us up for a landing. He said that the tower said there was traffic in the area he might have to deal with so he would land the plane, although Lynn could have in other circumstances.
Christopher had a huge grin on for the entire flight. He kept one eye on Lynn, one eye on me to make sure I wasn’t going to panic and try to bail out, and one eye on the airspace around us. His non-stop explanation of what was going on, punctuated by conversations with tower, put me at ease, even during landing. His joy at flying was infectious. I asked him later which he likes better, playing music in front a full arena or flying – he answered without much hesitation, flying, but added that music is a close second.
I have not yet had the opportunity to see Christopher Sluka play live or talk to him backstage, so I don’t know if the Goth-metal rocker who plays with a broadsword on his keyboard is any different from the grinning pilot in the black uniform with the gold bars. I suspect they are pretty much the same person and I intend to find out, which will require a live concert and another flight, this time with me at the controls.