Archive for January 12, 2014

The Skies Belong To Us

January 12, 2014 Leave a comment


I started this post a week ago. Where did the week go? Meanwhile, I was catching up just minutes ago on my blog feeds before turning to this post. The latest was a New Yorker post about this weekend’s NFL playoff games, with a preview of next weekend. The author’s name looked strangely familiar. Not a frequent New Yorker contributor, but I’d seen it somewhere recently. Brendan I. Koerner. Hmm.

Silly me. As you may already have noticed, he’s the author of the book that is the subject of this post, which I realized when I brought up my WordPress window and took a look at what I’d written for this post last week. Geez.

Two Fridays ago, I started Koerner’s The Skies Belong to Us: Love and Terror in the Golden Age of Hijacking, inspired by Dwight Garner’s inclusion of it a few weeks ago in his end-of-year list of 10 favorite books of 2013. Garner wrote that

Mr. Koerner’s book, a pure pop masterpiece, returns us to the 1960s and ’70s when commercial flights were hijacked with stunning regularity. He zeros in on one young couple’s criminal midair odyssey. Reading this is like watching a Scorsese movie, or hearing the best song of summer squirt out of the radio.

I downloaded the opening bit at the time and read through it, but wasn’t convinced I wanted to go further. Then I returned to the book nine days ago, still not convinced I would read far. Before I knew it, I downloaded the full book, finishing it less than two days later.

Here’s the blurb at the publisher’s website:

In an America torn apart by the Vietnam War and the demise of sixties idealism, airplane hijackings were astonishingly routine. Over a five-year period starting in 1968, the desperate and disillusioned seized commercial jets nearly once a week. Their criminal exploits mesmerized the country, never more so than when the young lovers at the heart of The Skies Belong to Us pulled off the longest-distance hijacking in American history.

A shattered Army veteran and a mischievous party girl, Roger Holder and Cathy Kerkow commandeered Western Airlines Flight 701 as a vague protest against the war. Through a combination of savvy and dumb luck, the couple managed to flee across an ocean with a half-million dollars in ransom, a feat that made them notorious around the globe. Over the ensuing years, their madcap adventures on the lam would involve exiled Black Panthers, African despots, and French movie stars.

Yet The Skies Belong to Us is more than just an enthralling yarn about a spectacular heist and its bittersweet aftermath. It is also a psychological portrait of America at its most turbulent, and a testament to the madness that can grip a nation when politics fail.

And here’s more from Garner in his full review last June:

He folds many sad, weird and riveting skyjacking stories into “The Skies Belong to Us,” most of them little known, some more so, like the case of D. B. Cooper, who vanished out of a Boeing 727 in 1971 with more than $200,000.

The author carefully charts the slow movement toward screening baggage with metal detectors at airports, which did not become mandatory until 1973. The airlines and their lobbyists fought screening measures. They thought costs would be prohibitive, and that passengers would rebel. Civil libertarians fought screening, too.

The best move that Mr. Koerner makes in “The Skies Belong to Us” is wrapping all his information around one incredible single story, that of a veteran named Roger Holder and an imposingly beautiful would-be hippie named Cathy Kerkow, who in 1972 hijacked Western Airlines Flight 701, on its way from Los Angeles to Seattle, as a vague protest against the Vietnam War.

This event started small. It grew big and shaggy, as if a vision concocted by the director Robert Altman. It became the longest-distance skyjacking in American history. The plane ended up in Algiers.

As promised, the book interweaves an overview of a decade’s worth of hijackings with the details Koerner turned up on the wildest hijacking of them all. (He restricts, as I’m doing, to hijackings that began in the US on domestic flights.) Though never explicitly commenting on the events to come of 9-11, Koerner knows the reader will make the appropriate connection. The airlines were loath to introduce any measures at all for fear that the nuisance would drive customers away. And for years Congress listened. For instance, in 1968, Florida senator George Smathers raised “the possibility of using metal detectors or X-ray machines to screen passengers.”

This modest proposal was something the airlines feared far more than hijackers. For the industry was convinced that enduring periodic skyjackings to Cuba was financially preferable to implementing invasive security at all America’s airports.

In the grand calculus of business, an airline’s bottom line barely suffered when one of its vessels was diverted to Havana. The price to bring a hijacked aircraft and its passengers back to the United States … struck the airlines as chump change compared to the fortunes they imagined losing should electronic screening be made compulsory. …

Having turned a profit of more than $360 million in 1967, the airline industry had ample resources to hire Wasnington, D.C.’s, top lobbyists … . With such influential voices railing against metal detectors and X-ray machines, the FAA’s views on the matter had come to mirror those of the airlines. And so Irving Ripp parried Senator Smathers’s suggestion as certain to have “a bad psychological effect on passengers… . It would scare the pants off people. Plus people would complain about invasion of privacy.”

Three years and many hijackings later,

Eastern Air Lines announced the launch of a groundbreaking experiment at New York’s LaGuardia Airport: passengers on its shuttle flights to Boston and Washington, D.C., would have to pass their carry-on bags through an X-ray machine.

This is where Koerner’s story makes contact with my own life, as I was a frequent flyer of Eastern’s Boston shuttle in those days. What a great service, unimaginable now.

Living in Boston, I would just take the subway to Logan, the shuttle bus to the Eastern terminal and wait for the next flight to load. There was one an hour, with the promise that if it filled up, they’d roll out another. On crowded days, we’d line up along the giant windowed wall and stream on the DC-9. Once we took off, the flight attendants would come down the aisle with not beverage carts but pay carts, taking cash or credit cards as payment for the flight. No need for reservations or tickets. No security. Just get on. Koerner doesn’t need to drive home the point that things have changed.

The best part of the book, the part I initially thought I wasn’t going to find so interesting, is the story of the Holder-Kerkow hijacking and its aftermath. So many twists, and so many surprise appearances, like those of Eldridge Cleaver and Jean-Paul Sartre. I’m glad I gave it a second try.

Categories: Books, Flying