The Skies Belong to Us: a look at the era of airline hijackings

Brendan I Koerner's The Skies Belong to Us is a great historical explanation of why we have to take off our shoes and endure multiple searches before we board an airplane, Jamie Kenny writes

The American Roger Holder, of North Carolina, on the Champs-Élysées in Paris on May 7, 1977. The veteran of the Vietnam War hijacked a jetliner from the US to Algeria in 1972. During an interview, he said he was willing to return to the US to stand trial. AP Photo
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The Skies Belong to Us
Brendan I Koerner

The year was 1972. Roger Holder was a former soldier, traumatised by what he'd seen and done in Vietnam. Cathy Kerkow was an intelligent but aimless young woman adrift in San Diego's bohemian demi-monde. Together, they took a plane to Algiers.

It wasn't a scheduled destination, but Holder convinced the pilots that a change of course was in order by claiming his attaché case contained a bomb and that he had henchmen on the plane eager to detonate it. The couple had originally planned to fly to Hanoi as a gesture of solidarity to North Vietnam. Then, by some unexplained means which apparently made sense at the time, they would end up contentedly sheep farming in the Australian Outback. But after a great deal of thought, a lot of powerful marijuana and extensive consultation of a book on popular astrology, Holder decided that the couple's destiny lay in North Africa.

The long, enthralling and bizarre tale of what Roger and Cathy did that day and what happened to them as a result forms the centrepiece of Brendan I Koerner's The Skies Belong to Us. But the book as a whole is about an altogether bigger wild ride, the one which saw an explosion of skyjacking begin in the United States in the 1960s and persist until a stunned government and airline industry began to put in place the measures that have ended up making today's airports ongoing experiments in the concept of maximum security.

Why did people hijack airliners in those innocent days, long before it occurred to Osama bin Laden and friends that they could be used as instruments of mass murder? Let us count the reasons. Some did it out of half-baked but sincere commitment to political causes. Some did it out of sheer exuberance. Some were clinically insane. A surprisingly large number were teenagers making an unexpected flanking movement in the perennial adolescent war against parental restriction. One fellow was annoyed at how much he was being charged to go to agricultural college. Another wanted independence for Hawaii. Some did it to raise ransom money. Some were drunk. Some got drunk in mid-hijack, like the gang who emptied the whole plane minibar over the course of a five-airport jaunt around the Lower 48.

The largest number seemed to be working off obscure and long-lasting personal grievances against persons or institutions entirely unconnected with the world of aviation. Their aim was to force people in authority to listen to them while they made long, rambling speeches. Wherever they forced the plane to go, the final destination they had in mind was the press conference. If that was followed by the penitentiary, it was still a price worth paying.

"Though the men and women who hijacked planes would claim dozens of different motives," writes Koerner, "they all shared a keen sense of desperation - a belief, however deluded, that only the most extreme of measures could redeem them."

In the years following the Second World War, hijacking was the exclusive preserve of people trying to escape communist Eastern Europe for the West. To the extent that these cases were noticed, they slotted neatly into Cold War propaganda narratives. So it was a matter of acute embarrassment for the United States government when its own burgeoning legions of hijackers increasingly began to demand that they be flown to Cuba.

There was a good, practical reason for this. The economic and political blockade the US maintained against Havana meant that hijackers who ended up there were beyond the reach of American law enforcement. Some hijackers did express enthusiasm for Cuba's communist experiment, especially African-Americans: Radio Free Dixie, a propaganda radio station broadcast from Havana by Robert Williams, a former US marine, had found a small but enthusiastic audience for its message of revolutionary solutions to racism. But most of the hijackers who headed south were closer in approach to the alcoholic used-car salesman who took over a plane while wearing flip-flops and Bermuda shorts, so as to be ready to hit the beach when he got to Havana.

At first, the Cubans rather enjoyed the embarrassment this caused to the US. Fidel Castro would occasionally turn up at the airport to check out the latest unscheduled arrival, and the fees the Cubans charged airlines to return their planes put the whole caper on a profitable basis. But eventually they grew sick of hosting a parade of misfits, stashing them in the Casa de Transitos - literally, Hijackers's House - a rundown hostel in the south of Havana that at one stage housed 60 increasingly unwanted guests.

"To facilitate impromptu journeys to Cuba, all cockpits were equipped with charts of the Caribbean Sea, regardless of the flight's intended destination," writes Koerner. Pilots were routinely briefed on landing procedures at José Martí International Airport and a special hotline was set up between Florida and Miami to warn of incoming flights: pretty much the only form of regular communication between the two countries at the time. Meanwhile, Time magazine assured its readers that their diversion to Havana would end in a big night out, complete with chorus girls and daiquiris - which, to be fair to the Cubans, it often seems to have done.

The fact that such reassurances were thought necessary tells us something about the scale of the problem. "By the second week of February 1969, 11 flights had been commandeered in the United States - a record pace," writes Koerner. "The hijackers included a former mental patient and his three-year-old son; a community college student armed with a can of bug spray; a Purdue University student with a taste for Marxist economics; and an ex-Green Beret who wanted to kill Castro with his bare hands."

Hijacking may have started as a specific expression of general anxiety at the modern condition, but it proliferated for more venal reasons: the airline companies threw everything they had at preventing the introduction of screening and other security measures. This was mainly because they didn't want to go to the expense, but also seems to have been based on what now seems like the inexpressibly quaint notion that customers simply would not tolerate invasive security measures.

The airlines' insistence that hijackers be in no way provoked had one excellent consequence. It meant that there were very few fatalities. But it also ensured that hijackings not only grew in number but also underwent a kind of professionalisation. They increasingly became the province of guerrilla organisations rather than lone oddballs. And that, in turn, made the pressure for governments to act irresistible.

The Holder-Kerkow hijacking happened at the cusp of this change. The pair were political in a vague way: they were against a random collection of things. But they were also both massively alienated individuals, for whom the phrase "the political is the personal" applied as a means of trying to sort out existential confusion.

Koerner presents their story as a kind of picaresque adventure through the dying embers of the radical 70s. Holder's adventure ended badly. Kerkow's fate is mysterious, though Koerner makes a pretty good case that she eventually did very well for a working-class girl from small-town Oregon.

The Skies Belong to Us belongs broadly in the category of micro-history, where a jobbing writer seizes on some nuggetty event in the past in the hope of writing a reputation-making book. Often these books fail because the chosen phenomena can't support a full length write-up: it simply doesn't mean all that much and so ends up as a horribly thin production, full of writerly strain.

Koerner's problem is rather different. In rediscovering the golden age of hijacking, he has struck a rich, thick seam of pure sociological gold that he has to display to best advantage. By and large he does a great job, inspired by the material into feats of considerable phrase-making élan. He also has a successful magazine writer's knack of briskly and courteously policing the reader through the material. Maybe he's a bit too good at this. All sorts of byways and conjectures go unexplored. It's a book that could have been a little more poignant if it was a little less aggressively competent.

But this is a quibble. The Skies Belong to Us is, among other things, the best pre-history we're ever likely to get of why you have to take your shoes off before you go airside. Read it: but not while you're waiting for a connecting flight. If someone sees you, you'll probably end up on a watchlist. Whomever the skies belong to these days, it certainly isn't us.

Jamie Kenny is a UK-based journalist and writer specialising in China and its growing interaction with the rest of the world.