The Skies Belong to Us: Love and Terror in the Golden Age of Hijacking

The Skies Belong to Us: Love and Terror in the Golden Age of Hijacking

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, using guns, bombs, and jars of acid. Some hijackers wished to escape to foreign lands, where they imagined being hailed as heroes;...

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Title:The Skies Belong to Us: Love and Terror in the Golden Age of Hijacking
Author:Brendan I. Koerner
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Edition Language:English

The Skies Belong to Us: Love and Terror in the Golden Age of Hijacking Reviews

  • Brendan Koerner

    A man should take pride in his work.

  • Joseph Spuckler

    by Brendan I. Koerner is a detailed history of a pair of hijackers as well as a history of hijacking in general. Koerner is a former columnist for

    and

    . His work has been printed in the

    ,

    and many other publications. He is currently a contributing editor at

    . This is his second book.

    I am just barely old enough to remember all the “Take this bus to Cuba” and other hijacking jokes of the 1970s. I d

    by Brendan I. Koerner is a detailed history of a pair of hijackers as well as a history of hijacking in general. Koerner is a former columnist for

    and

    . His work has been printed in the

    ,

    and many other publications. He is currently a contributing editor at

    . This is his second book.

    I am just barely old enough to remember all the “Take this bus to Cuba” and other hijacking jokes of the 1970s. I do recall television comedies also picked up on the theme too. How ever funny it seemed at the time, it was a serious matter. Koerner lays out many facts that I have forgotten. Surprising to me was the number of veterans who hijacked planes for multiple reasons from demanding money to give to North Vietnamese orphanages to the purely delusional. Cuba was a popular destination to either give the hijacked plane as a gift to Castro, to study communism, or as one veteran insisted to kill Castro with his bare hands. The number of juveniles that hijacked planes is also surprising high. Although many methods of taking over the plane were clever, many hijackers had put very little thought into the their plan aside from taking it over. More than once, commuter planes were hijacked with orders to fly to Cuba or other international destinations.

    Another rather surprising bit of information is how opposed the airlines were to additional security. Airlines refused to increase security. They did not want to treat their passengers like criminals and more importantly they did the math and found it was cheaper to meet hijackers demands than buy into security. For a long time, hijackers never hurt passengers and the worst case was “being late for dinner.” Hijacking was an common inconvenience. Airlines learned the best thing to do was meet the demands and carry on. There are several instances where the airlines and pilots completely shut the FBI out for fear that confrontation would bring violence. I remember hearing how sky marshals brought safety to the skies. Koerner, however, shows the number of sky marshals compared to the number of flights made it very improbable that a sky marshal would actually be on a hijacked plane. To complicate the sky marshals job, airlines regularly bumped them off flights to open a seat for a paying customer. Eventually, everyone, including Castro, got fed up with hijackings.

    documents several different hijackings and the results from mandatory sentencing to public opinion. One hijacking is covered throughout the book. Alternating chapters of history and the hijacking of Western Airlines flight 701 from Los Angeles to Algiers – the longest hijacking in American history. Koerner gives the complete biography of the two involved in hijacking flight 701: William Roger Holder and Cathy Kerkow. Their story takes up the majority of the book. This inside look into their lives before, during, and after the hijacking ties the entire book together. It give personal insight into a successful hijacking. Their story is very compelling and very well worth reading.

    The general history of highjacking is a look back into an age that those under fifty will find hard to believe existed. The idea of post 9/11 TSA security would be a thing of dark science fiction fifty years ago. It was truly a different era. A younger reader today will not understand how these things were allowed to happen. Why didn't the government force airlines and passengers to agree to higher security? Perhaps there are some who are older wondering how we allowed the government the power it has today. That maybe the back story in this book. How we as a society changed our view on rights and security: what was unacceptable then and fully expected now. This is more than just an excellent history book. It is part of our culture, then and now.

  • Darcia Helle

    This book fascinated me from beginning to end. While the focus is on Roger Holder's convoluted and oddly successful plan to skyjack a plane with his lover Cathy Kerkow, the story told is broad and full of wacky, real life characters. As the US stumbled out of Vietnam, the political and social climates were rife with damaged servicemen and angry citizens seeking ways to make a stand. Skyjacking became the perfect outlet for a staggering number of these people.

    While the events in this book are on

    This book fascinated me from beginning to end. While the focus is on Roger Holder's convoluted and oddly successful plan to skyjack a plane with his lover Cathy Kerkow, the story told is broad and full of wacky, real life characters. As the US stumbled out of Vietnam, the political and social climates were rife with damaged servicemen and angry citizens seeking ways to make a stand. Skyjacking became the perfect outlet for a staggering number of these people.

    While the events in this book are only a few decades behind us, much has changed in dramatic ways. I was particularly struck by the airlines' lackadaisical attitude toward security, as well as their vehement opposition to change. Lives were lost and people lived in fear while airline executives and government officials bickered about details and finances.

    Koerner has an engaging, conversational writing style that made me feel like he was sitting beside me, telling me a story. This is a nonfiction book that often reads like fiction. At times I had to remind myself that, while crazy, these things did really happen.

  • Alan Cohen

    I thoroughly enjoyed this book. Read it in ~ 3 days sort of like a non-stop versus a layover with connecting flights. If I didn't have to go to work, well, a lot of books would get read a lot quicker!

    [As a passenger in ]one of the hijacked planes of that era, I had special interest in the subject . Yes, , 1968, Dec. Phila. to Miami for Christmas vacation detoured to Havana, bussed to the coastal town of Verdero(sp), and flown back to Miami on turbo prop planes , I can vouch for the accuracy of

    I thoroughly enjoyed this book. Read it in ~ 3 days sort of like a non-stop versus a layover with connecting flights. If I didn't have to go to work, well, a lot of books would get read a lot quicker!

    [As a passenger in ]one of the hijacked planes of that era, I had special interest in the subject . Yes, , 1968, Dec. Phila. to Miami for Christmas vacation detoured to Havana, bussed to the coastal town of Verdero(sp), and flown back to Miami on turbo prop planes , I can vouch for the accuracy of the book's highly detailed and well researched descriptions. I've retold my family's trip many times, even the ironic part when our family friend drove us in to the airport speaking a few phrases in Spanish as a joke because " you could be going to Cuba, signore!" Wonder how he felt afterward. I never did ask.

    The book describes many behind the scenes events and maneuverings, such as explanations for the long delay, years, before the FAA finally instituted the kind of security screening that would have stopped so many hijackers who carried weapons on board. These days it's hard to conceive of anyone packing a pistol or carrying nitroglycerin with them, as our man claimed to have when he diverted our plane off course. The later hijackings were more violent and dangerous. In '68 , they were happening with regularity and relative peace. Brendan Koerner has created an informative and exciting read that held my interest to the end. He has a wealth of backstory information to set the stage, interviews to add the personal side to the facts and stylistic aplomb to make it work better than a novel. The events in here are sometimes so incredible that if put into fiction would seem over the top. Facts often trump fiction in my experience.

  • Susan

    Brendan Koerner has just written one of the most fascinating books I've read in a long time. 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. 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, Ro

    Brendan Koerner has just written one of the most fascinating books I've read in a long time. 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. 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 vet and she a fun-loving white woman. Both were in their early 20s.

    Holder felt betrayed by his country for allowing him to fight in Vietnam and then discard 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 half a million dollars and a larger plane to take them to Hanoi. They received the money and the larger plane, but at the last minute Holder changed their destination to Algiers.

    The story gets even more fascinating from there. A writer of fiction couldn't come up with a more spellbinding tale of love, terror, international relations, and domestic turmoil.

    Back to the airlines in the 1970s. The US government was determined to enact security measures at airports, but the airline industry lobby in Washington, DC resisted. For years during the height of these hijackings, airports still didn't have any security in place. The airlines were worried about delays, turning off customers, and the cost of x-ray machines and metal detectors.

    By the end of 1972, the government realized something had to change. 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.

    The story of Holder and Kerkow, plus the history of hijackings in the US, make for a page-turning book.

  • Sue

    A riveting read about the skyjacking epidemic of the late 60's and early 70's focusing on the personal stories of Roger Holder and Kathy Kerkow - the Bonnie and Clyde of the skies. The outrageous personal stories of domestic hijackers is fascinating in itself, but what's more incredible is how a study of the subject of hijacking and how it was handled by the government and the airlines highlights the stark contrast between the respect of individual civil liberties in the 1970's and the shockingl

    A riveting read about the skyjacking epidemic of the late 60's and early 70's focusing on the personal stories of Roger Holder and Kathy Kerkow - the Bonnie and Clyde of the skies. The outrageous personal stories of domestic hijackers is fascinating in itself, but what's more incredible is how a study of the subject of hijacking and how it was handled by the government and the airlines highlights the stark contrast between the respect of individual civil liberties in the 1970's and the shockingly eroded state of those liberties today. What a difference fifty years makes.

  • David

    – Chico Marx, “Duck Soup” (1933)

    This is a very enjoyable audiobook with a sprawling and complex story. I'm going to write about only one facet of it.

    Opposing political viewpoints champion different narratives about how the world works. This book and

    by

    , which I listened to consecutively, are two recently-issued examples of conflicting narrative. The topic getting the ideological narrative makeover is, in this case, aviation

    – Chico Marx, “Duck Soup” (1933)

    This is a very enjoyable audiobook with a sprawling and complex story. I'm going to write about only one facet of it.

    Opposing political viewpoints champion different narratives about how the world works. This book and

    by

    , which I listened to consecutively, are two recently-issued examples of conflicting narrative. The topic getting the ideological narrative makeover is, in this case, aviation safety, although neither book is exclusively about that topic. Those familiar with the American political landscape could probably make an accurate guess of each author's narrative slant based solely on the knowledge that Ip is on the staff of

    and Koerner's writings appeared, among other places, in

    . Who you gonna believe?

    Although Ip's book is about airplane crashes and similar disasters, and this book is about hijacking, I propose that talking about the two phenomenon together as instances of air safety is NOT like comparing apples and oranges.

    It is an inarguable fact that air travel is one of the safest activities a person can engage in. Certainly it's safer than driving yourself. The question is: How did it get that way?

    Ip argues, if I understand correctly, the rise of airline travel for the masses occurred at the same moment that prolonged prosperity translated into a hunger for eliminating risk as much as possible from life. Since they recognized the needs of their customers, airlines did not need to be coaxed by government regulation as airlines recognized that safe skies were profitable skies – in the long run. They invested in expensive equipment and private security contracts because they understood it as a good investment.

    Koerner, on the other hand, documents years of obstructionism, specious arguments, and regulatory capture as airlines took a prolonged rear-guard action against getting into the air safety business out of pure unalloyed shortsightedness. From '60s to the '90s, hundreds of people's lives were unnecessarily put in danger. Only by dumb luck or divine protection (as you prefer) were a mere handful of people actually killed by this sad-sack collection of sky pirates. Still, those were avoidable deaths.

    Take these both together and you have, in my sight, evidence that the large profit-making entities will always do the right thing once all other alternatives have been exhausted (BTW, this turn of phrase has been

    ). The trick is to exhaust all the possibilities as quickly as possible – “fail faster”, as the youngsters are saying nowadays. To do that, a good healthy segment of the population must act as if they have a near-pathological suspicion of all money-making enterprises and a burning desire to act on their near-pathology. The easiest way to compel yourself to act on this belief is to actually believe in it. To put it another way: in order to experience the benevolent effects of free markets, it is necessary for many people to act as if they don't exist.

  • Jan

    I don't know about the rest of my fellow Americans, but the only hijackings I'm familiar with are the really big ones, like D.B. Cooper. I was complete unaware that hijackings were a "thing" throughout the 1960s and early 1970s. I mean, seriously a thing, like people accepted it as a normal part of air travel, that your plane might get hijacked and flown to Cuba and you might miss a day or two out of your life. It's absolutely mind boggling to think about.

    Koerner does an excellent jo

    I don't know about the rest of my fellow Americans, but the only hijackings I'm familiar with are the really big ones, like D.B. Cooper. I was complete unaware that hijackings were a "thing" throughout the 1960s and early 1970s. I mean, seriously a thing, like people accepted it as a normal part of air travel, that your plane might get hijacked and flown to Cuba and you might miss a day or two out of your life. It's absolutely mind boggling to think about.

    Koerner does an excellent job of interweaving the history of "skyjackings," and the reasons behind them, with the story of one particular skyjacking: the one perpetrated by Roger Holder and his girlfriend Catherine Kerkow, who took their misappropriated plane to Algeria. What's particularly nice is that the author was able to interview Holder before he passed away, so many of his memories and thoughts are included in the book.

    I had a little trouble getting into it at first, but once I did, I couldn't put it down. I read the last 200 pages in one day. Everything about it was genuinely mind blowing to me: that the hijackings were allowed to go on for so long without any serious attempts to stop them, that the airlines were so resistant to add security (particularly hard to believe in a post-9/11 world), how the Vietnam War was connected to the issue, and the ultimate fate of Holder and Kerkow.

    This is a real page turner. Excellent book.

  • Terri

    "I want $200,000 in unmarked 20-dollar bills. I want two back parachutes and two front parachutes. When we land, I want a fuel truck ready to refuel. No funny stuff or I’ll do the job.” D. B. Cooper

    In the 1960's and 1970's, epidemic plane hijackings were an American spectator sport and the plane hijackers became folk heroes. Case in point was “ D. B. Cooper,” an unidentified man who hijacked a Boeing 727 aircraft in the airspace between Portland, Oregon, and Seattle, Washington, on

    "I want $200,000 in unmarked 20-dollar bills. I want two back parachutes and two front parachutes. When we land, I want a fuel truck ready to refuel. No funny stuff or I’ll do the job.” D. B. Cooper

    In the 1960's and 1970's, epidemic plane hijackings were an American spectator sport and the plane hijackers became folk heroes. Case in point was “ D. B. Cooper,” an unidentified man who hijacked a Boeing 727 aircraft in the airspace between Portland, Oregon, and Seattle, Washington, on November 24, 1971. This case remains the only unsolved skyjacking in the world and the media romanticized it.

    “The Skies Belong to Us: Love and Terror in the Golden Age of Hijacking” is the story of how and why plane hijackings became so popular during this time period. The author, Brendan Koerner, does a terrific job telling us the famous story of a disturbed young couple, who took control of a Western Airlines flight and caused the longest-distance skyjacking in American history.

    For me, reading about the mindset and motives of both the hitchhikers and the airline industries was the most interesting part of the book. Planes were being hijacked at least once a week and most in the beginning were going to Cuba. Eventually as time went on, this morphed into demands to go to other distant lands and financial gain. The airlines completely folded to the demands of these hijackers, but refused to make flying safer, for fear of scaring off the American public from flying.

    For the couple of hijackers in Koerner's book, this passive and accommodating attitude of the airlines, proves to work to their advantage. The pair were Willie Roger Holder and his girlfriend Catherine Marie Kerkow. Holder was a Vietnam vet (who was clearly suffering from PSTD) after he was severely wounded after his M-113 hit a landmine near Loc Ninh in 1967. He met his girlfriend, Catherine, a pretty young hippie who liked to smoke and deal weed when he returned back to the USA. Their deluded fantasy was they would hijack a plane with a fake bomb and demand $500,000 and the freedom of Angela Davis, the onetime UCLA professor then on trial in a Northern California courtroom. Then they'll spirit Davis away to North Vietnam and resettle in the Australian outback and live "happily ever after.” Willie appears to have believed, Koerner writes, that the “resulting media circus would somehow force America to confront the blunt realities” of the Vietnam War.Of course things did not go as planned and they ended up flying across the Atlantic to Algeria. Years later, Willie was eventually caught in 1986 and died of an aneurism in prison in 2012. . Catherine had escaped in France, has never been found and is on the FBI most wanted list for women.The end of the airline industries complacency was when in November 1972, Southern Airlines Flight 48, was hijacked by three men who threatened to crash into the atomic reactor at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee.

    Things quickly changed after that and airports were no longer like train stations. They started searching the passengers by hand and then eventually the airline industry started using x-ray machines. The American public was relieved and despite the new delays, the wide-spread fears could finally be reduced. In the age of severely heightened airport security and bullet-proof cockpit doors, plane hijackings are rare. This book gives the understanding of the criminal history of just why we all need to stand in our socks waiting in line. Recommended.

  • Nick Black

    should have been longer, and there's rather more omniscient narration than the sourced materials justify. with that said, lots of fun. remember, kids: it's better to collect experiences than things, but a good hijacking can be both.

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