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The Skies Belong To Us

January 12, 2014 Leave a comment

skiesbelongtous

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

Flight Tracking

December 15, 2013 Leave a comment

Virgin603

Ever since a certain family member (who prefers that I not tell the details of his life on Ron’s View, so I’m leaving him nameless) went away to college years back, I found myself tracking his flights when he headed to school or back home. I still do it, sometimes texting gate info or other advice as he lands at intermediate stops. This weekend offered the ultimate tracking experience, thanks to his three-flight itinerary from Seattle to JFK to London Heathrow to Cape Town. What a journey!

Nothing too exotic about Friday’s first segment, one we’ve all flown many times. I didn’t start tracking until he was already over western Michigan, having just crossed Lake Michigan. Next time I looked, he was above northern New Jersey. I watched the plane make the usual big turn out over the Atlantic before heading back north to the barrier beaches of Long Island and into JFK. All home turf to me as a native Long Islander.

After a brief overnight stopover, he was off to London. By the time I awoke yesterday morning and thought to start tracking, the plane was approaching the southern coast of Ireland. Next look and he was in the west of England. The plane continued east, straight to the south of Heathrow, then made a circle southwards and back to the north, in for a landing I thought, only to turn to the east and south again, at which point FlightAware stopped tracking. Where did he go? I never did find out. It took over half an hour before Virgin Atlantic recorded the flight as landing.

Two hours later, he was embarked on the overnight, twelve-hour flight to Cape Town. The plane was, anyway. I had to hope he was on it. When I first took a look, he was over southern France. We headed out for a while, the fun beginning on our return.

I thought I knew the location of the world’s countries pretty well. Eastern Europe, the old USSR, the Stans? No problem. Asia? Under control. But Africa not so much, as it turns out.

The big country in northern Africa that he was flying over? Algeria. I know that one. But what about the big country to its southeast?

I should explain, as you can see above, that FlightAware draws in boundaries of countries, but doesn’t identify them.

I know Egypt and Libya in the northeast. I know that Sudan and Chad lie below them. But, um, what is that country just west of Chad? I took the screenshot above a few minutes ago, tracking tonight’s flight, not last night’s. And the plane happens to be right where it was last night when I was stumped.

Mali? Not quite. It’s Niger. Mali is to the west. Oh well.

Next I looked, the plane was over Gabon, just past the bend there on the Atlantic, but I struck out on that one too. Angola, the big guy farther south, was no problem. I finally went to bed as the plane was nearing Angola’s southern border, heading toward Namibia. I never did see it enter South Africa’s airspace. I awoke to learn that the plane landed on time, the family member’s journey over.

I better study up before his return flights.

Categories: Family, Flying, Geography

Recliners

February 26, 2013 2 comments

reclinedseatprotection

[Illustration by Scott Garrett, Boston Globe]

I have long dreaded the torture airplane passengers inflict on those just behind by insisting on reclining their seats. I once thought that when the flight attendants come down the aisle to serve meals, you’re entitled to a respite, since everyone understood it’s impossible to eat in coach when the passenger in front of you is reclining. But with the disappearance of airplane meals, even that courtesy is gone.

I could write at length about everything that’s wrong with subjecting people to reclined seats. However, now I don’t have to, thanks to Dan Kois. In an excellent piece in Slate last week, he nails it.

His opening:

The woman sitting in front of me on this plane seems perfectly nice. She, like me, is traveling coach class from Washington to Los Angeles. She had a nice chat before takeoff with the man sitting next to her, in which she revealed she is an elementary school teacher, an extremely honorable profession. She, like me, has an aisle seat and has spent most of the flight watching TV. Nevertheless, I hate her.

Why? She’s a recliner.

For the five minutes after takeoff, every passenger on an airliner exists in a state of nature. Everyone is equally as uncomfortable as everyone else—well, at least everyone who doesn’t have the advantage of first class seating or the disadvantage of being over 6 feet tall. The passengers are blank slates, subjects of an experiment in morality which begins the moment the seat-belt light turns off.

Ding! Instantly the jerk in 11C reclines his seat all the way back. The guy in 12C, his book shoved into his face, reclines as well. 13C goes next. And soon the reclining has cascaded like rows of dominos to the back of the plane, where the poor bastards in the last row see their personal space reduced to about a cubic foot.

Kois then moves to the key point. How much comfort does one gain by reclining five degrees? How can it be worth the inconvenience caused to others?

Obviously, everyone on the plane would be better off if no one reclined; the minor gain in comfort when you tilt your seat back 5 degrees is certainly offset by the discomfort when the person in front of you does the same. But of course someone always will recline her seat, like the people in the first row, or the woman in front of me, whom I hate. (At least we’re not in the middle seat. People who recline middle seats are history’s greatest monsters.)

But, as Kois points out, blame should be heaped on the airlines, not the passengers.

The problem isn’t with passengers, though the evidence demonstrates that many passengers are little better than sociopaths acting only for their own good. The problem is with the plane. In a closed system in which just one recliner out of 200 passengers can ruin it for dozens of people, it is too much to expect that everyone will act in the interest of the common good. People recline their seats because their seats recline. But why on earth do seats recline? Wouldn’t it be better for everyone if seats simply didn’t?

[snip]

It’s time for an outright ban on reclining seats on airplanes. I’m not demanding that airlines rip out the old seats and install new ones; let’s just extend the requirement that seats remain upright during takeoff and landing through the entire flight. (Unlike the stupid electronic-devices rules, there is an actual good reason for this regulation: Upright seats are safer in a crash, and allow for easier evacuation.) To those who say such a rule is unenforceable, I respond: Kick. Kick. Kick.

Next topic: Children who kick the back of your seat through the entire flight. There is no way to repay the favor. Reclining won’t bother them. They’re small. It will just make you more miserable. In any case, blame not the kids. It’s the parents’ fault.

Categories: Flying, Travel

Letter of the Week

November 26, 2011 1 comment

[Mac W. Bishop/The New York Times]

The NYT had an article last week whose opening sentence captured the theme: “The gap between first class and coach has never been so wide.” There’s been a lot of talk lately about the 1% and the 99%, thanks in large part to the Occupy Wall Street movement, but one doesn’t have to read very far into the article to recognize that international first class travel is not for the 1%; it’s for the .05%. There’s business class for most of the 1%, and perhaps for a few more percent on occasion, thanks to frequent flyer upgrades. But international first class is a world of its own.

Just click on the video embedded in the article and you’ll see the difference. Check out the shot of the beds Lufthansa offers (also shown in the photo above). Not seats that flatten out to form beds, but beds next to the seats. You get both.

Lufthansa, for its part, has kept its first class on most flights but has removed half the seats to focus on a more intimate experience on board. In the new A380 aircraft, Lufthansa also installed a system that increases the humidity in the first-class cabin by 25 percent, which the airline says will help ease jetlag. It has also insulated the cabin with special soundproofing material.

“It is our premium product, and our customers were asking for more intimacy, more privacy,” said Jürgen Siebenrock, Lufthansa’s vice president for North and South America. “If you want to be competitive, you really need to upgrade your product.”

Earlier in the article, we learn that “the airlines have been engaged in a global battle for top executives and the superwealthy on their international routes. Though only a privileged few can afford to pay $15,000 to fly first class from New York to Singapore or Sydney, the airlines are betting that the image of luxury they project for the front helps attract passengers to the rest of the plane. That includes a growing business-class section with offerings once solely the preserve of first class.”

Today, the NYT published some letters responding to the article. The one that prompted this post is from Alan Weiss of East Greenwich, Rhode Island.

I’m back one day from my first-class round trip to Sydney from Boston through Los Angeles, so your article was quite timely. I’ve recently flown first class in giant A380s on Air France and Qantas. On Qantas, I had a 25-to-30-square-foot, semiprivate cubicle with a complete bed and every amenity I needed. As the article points out, when I’m paying in excess of $20,000 for a ticket, I expect only the best.

The return on investment: A day after landing in Sydney, I embarked on a speaking tour in two cities, and on my return this week, here I am writing this letter and back to work as if I had never left. To my mind, it’s worth every penny, and believe me, it is better than business class. Qantas filled 14 first-class seats in each direction.

I don’t doubt for a moment that first class is better than business. But worth every penny? How does one make such a calculation? I suppose if you’re being paid enough for the speaking tour, the $20,000 ticket could be worth every penny. On the other hand, buying that seat (and bed) could mean losing money on the trip. Is that worth a good night’s sleep and arriving fresh? I might rather stay home.

Fascinating letter though. For more on the letter writer and what he does that makes first-class overseas travel both affordable and essential, see here. I might have a look at some of his books.

Categories: Economy, Flying

La Guardia Farewell

November 25, 2011 Leave a comment

[Port Authority of New York and New Jersey]

At the NYT City Room blog today, David Dunlap writes about the dismantling of all but the lowest portion of La Guardia Airport’s 1964 air control tower. As he notes, “Loved or hated, the old control tower was undeniably a traveler’s milestone.” When I grew up, and more so during the years that I lived in Boston, I flew into and out of La Guardia countless times. Less frequently since moving to Seattle, but still we pass through La Guardia on occasion, and indeed, the old control tower had come to be as distinctive a structure as any in New York. I am sad to realize it has disappeared.

We drove by La Guardia twice over Labor Day weekend, heading back and forth between JFK and Manhattan. I’m surprised I failed to notice the tower’s absence. There’s not a whole lot to like about La Guardia. Now it is missing my three favorite features: the tower, the rusted frame of the parking garage, and the temporary building that was home to the Eastern Shuttle. The garage was left unfinished in order to develop a patina — at least that was my understanding — and after decades of what looked like neglect, it was finally painted over.

As for the shuttle, that amazing service in which you lined up to fly to Boston or DC and boarded whichever plane showed up next, rather than a terminal, La Guardia had an over-sized shack you would pass through on the way to covered passageways with openings to head out to board the planes. No reservations, no tickets, no boarding passes. Just get on, and if the scheduled hourly flight filled up, they’d start filling another. Once the plane (one of a fleet of DC-9s) was in the air, the flight attendants would come down the aisle to take payment. On the Boston end, one would arrive at a regular terminal, Logan’s Eastern Air Lines terminal, pleasant enough, but without the charming seediness of La Guardia.

Alas, Eastern went downhill, then out of business, Delta and US Air took over shuttle service, the old shuttle shack was replaced by US Air’s and Delta’s new terminals, and before long, the iconic tower was the lone representative of my beloved trio. Now they’re all gone.

As for the NYT piece, Dunlap writes that spotting the tower

from the cabin of a Lockheed Electra or a Boeing 727 meant you were really back in New York. No other airport had anything quite like this porthole-pocked cynosure; a hometown creation by Wallace K. Harrison, the consummate New York establishment architect of the mid-20th century, who designed the Trylon and Perisphere for the 1939 World’s Fair and went on to play an important role in Rockefeller Center, Lincoln Center and the United Nations.

[snip]

Mr. Harrison’s reputation was resuscitated in the late 1970s. The sophistication of his curving designs was linked to the artistic tradition of Alexander Calder, Jean Arp and Fernand Léger. Yet the La Guardia control tower still seemed to escape respect. Paul Goldberger, then the architecture critic of The Times, said in 1980 that the structure “with its plethora of portholes looks like a concrete piece of Swiss cheese.”

But the influential architect Rem Koolhaas paid oblique homage to the tower in his 1989 design for the Zeebrugge Sea Terminal in Belgium. In “Delirious New York” (1978), Mr. Koolhaas described the dialectic in Mr. Harrison’s work “between the rectangle and the kidney shape, between rigidity and freedom.” Ultimately, he wrote, the liberating impulse surrenders to the grid. “Only his curve remains as a fossil of the freer language.”

Categories: Architecture, Flying

Airplane Etiquette

March 22, 2011 1 comment

The WSJ’s weekly The Middle Seat feature last week focused on airplane etiquette, and just in time, as we prepare to head off on a trip next month. The article focused on six situations with which we are all familiar:

1. You’re in the middle seat, between two strangers. Who gets the armrests?

2. A tall man sits down and his knees jut out wide, encroaching on your space.

3. You’re in the window seat and two strangers in the middle and aisle seats are asleep. You have to go to the bathroom.

4. On a long flight on a full plane, some kids are getting restless, speaking loudly, and kicking seatbacks.

5. Your seatmate brings a smelly meal on board and loudly starts munching.

6. Do you recline your seat?

Assorted experts offer responses, from which we discover, as experience already suggests, that we are far from consensus on how these situations should be handled, besides the obvious approach of not flying.

As for the last question, I’d go with one of the experts, frequent traveler Richard Wishner, whose solution is to “Put your knee in the back of his seat.” Alas, I’ve found this to be better in conception than in execution. Maybe my knees aren’t strong enough.

Categories: Flying

Niner Delta Whiskey

April 15, 2009 Leave a comment
Doug White and the King Air 200

Doug White and the King Air 200

The last three Septembers, we have flown from Boston to Nantucket on Cape Air’s Cessna 402s. They are twin propeller aircraft with a single pilot and a single cabin. The passengers are distributed according to weight, with one passenger getting to sit next to the pilot in the co-pilot position. Gail did that three falls ago. I have flown in the seat just behind the co-pilot twice, affording an excellent view of the control panel and all the actions the pilot takes. It’s kind of fun, but I have yet to make the flight without thinking about what would happen if the pilot had some kind of attack in mid-flight and could no longer fly the plane.

Well, as you may have read, something just like this happened on Sunday, but in a private airplane. Doug White and his family were returning from Marco Island, Florida to Monroe Louisiana aboard a King Air 200 after attending his brother’s funeral. Like the Cessna, the King Air 200 has two engines. White was in the co-pilot’s seat, with the family behind, when the pilot suddenly died a few minutes after takeoff. Fortunately, White had some flight experience, all in a single-engine Cessna, mostly years earlier, but he had resumed flying in January. You can read more about what happened next at the Airplane Owners and Pilots Association website. Better yet, when you have some free time, listen to the audio recording of White’s conversation with the air traffic controller. (You’ll find a link to the audio at the bottom of the webpage linked to above.) White is simply amazing to listen to. I started listening yesterday afternoon and couldn’t stop. While I was at it, I opened a new tab in my browser so I could go to google maps and get a map of the Fort Myers, Florida region, including the airport. This allowed me to follow (or guess at) White’s position as he talks to the controller.

The best reason to fly United Airlines is channel 9 on their audio, on which one can listen to the air traffic control conversations. I love it. And I always root for our pilot. The best parts are when he or she talks or is given a command by the controller. What’s so stunning about White is that he sounds just like the veteran United pilots. Completely in control.

See also yesterday’s blog post by the Atlantic’s James Fallows, which is where I learned about this recording, and a follow-up Fallows post just a few minutes ago. I couldn’t say it better than Fallows in concluding the second post: “If Tom Wolfe were re-writing the intro to The Right Stuff, which so memorably begins with evocation of the slow, confident drawl of airline pilots who can’t be ruffled by anything, he could do worse than to recreate this recording of a man landing an airplane he had never flown before, while returning from his brother’s funeral, with his loved ones aboard.”

Categories: Flying