I don’t remember the first time I flew in an airplane. But I do know that my parents breezed through Chicago’s O’Hare Airport to the gate before boarding our flight to Hartford, Connecticut. There was no security whatsoever.
It was also the heyday of airline hijacking.
Brendan Koerner has just come out with one of the most fascinating books I’ve read–ever. The Skies Belong to Us: Love and Terror in the Golden Age of Hijacking (Crown, 2013) recounts some of the more memorable US hijackings between 1961 and 1972. (My first flight was in November 1970.) Hijacking became a real problem starting in 1967, culminating in a tumultuous year in 1972 when almost 100 US airliners were highjacked, sometimes two in one day.
But the main story of Koerner’s book is that of traumatized Vietnam vet, Roger Holder, and California beauty, Cathy Kerkow. The two made a stunning couple: he a tall African-American and she a white party girl. Both were in their early 20s when they started dating.
Holder felt betrayed by his country for allowing him to fight in Vietnam and then discarding him like a piece of garbage. Kerkow was drawn to Holder’s story and mesmerized by his bookish and charismatic demeanor. The two realized they had met over a decade ago in a small town up in Oregon when they were children. Holder, who had taken up astrology after returning from Vietnam, was certain he and Kerkow were destined to be together.
And together they hijacked a Western Airlines flight, demanding Angela Davis (an African-American feminist on trial for murder), half a million dollars, and a larger plane to take them to Hanoi, where they would deliver Davis to freedom and give the money to the Viet Cong. They received the cash and the larger plane, but at the last minute Holder changed their destination to Algiers.
Davis thought they were nuts and refused to have anything to do with them.
This is where the story really gets interesting. A writer of fiction couldn’t come up with a more spellbinding tale of love, terror, international relations, and domestic turmoil.
Hijacking was so easy back then (even teenagers got into the act) because the airline lobby in Washington, DC resisted any type of security measures whatsoever. The airlines were worried about delays, turning off customers, and the cost of x-ray machines and metal detectors. And they were willing to abide by the hijackers’ demands as long as passengers were safe. A plane here, a million dollars there–it didn’t matter.
But by the end of 1972, the US government realized something had to change as hijackings became more violent and lives were lost in FBI shootouts. So in early January 1973, airports started to use x-ray machines and metal detectors. And suddenly the number of hijackings was reduced to nothing for a couple of years. Apart from a brief resurgence of hijackings to Cuba in 1980 and 1981, the turbulent skies all but settled down until 9/11.
I found this book to be absolutely fascinating, both for the history and for Holder and Kerkow’s story. It’s a book I’d definitely read again.