Daniel Stashower’s most recent book is “The Hour of Peril: The Secret Plot to Murder Lincoln Before the Civil War.”
It is bizarre to think that there was a stretch of time in the nation’s cultural history when the image of a gunman entering an airplane cockpit became a staple of television comedy. The first hijacking in U.S. airspace occurred in the spring of 1961, when a Miami electrician pressed a steak knife to the throat of a National Airlines pilot and declared, “If I don’t see Havana in 30 minutes, we all die.” The incident touched off a phenomenon that gathered momentum as it went along. Over the next 11 years, 159 commercial flights were commandeered, sometimes at a rate of one per week, or even two in a single day. By 1972, a year in which a mind-blowing 40 hijackings took place, the phrase “Take me to Havana” had become a familiar prime-time punch line. On “All in the Family,” the nation’s top-ranked sitcom, Archie Bunker proposed a plan in which the airlines might provide passengers with the means to fight back: “They just pass out pistols at the beginning of the trip, and then pick ’em up again at the end — case closed.” The live studio audience went wild.
Brendan Koerner, a contributing editor at Wired magazine, skillfully re-creates this tumultuous era in “The Skies Belong to Us.” “It is no accident that the epidemic began to crest as the last vestiges of 1960s idealism were being extinguished,” he writes. Troubled souls were seeking ways to vent their “vague yet all-consuming rage,” and airplanes provided an ideal and accessible platform. “By seizing a jet as it hurtled across the nation’s most exotic frontier, a lone skyjacker could instantly command an audience of millions,” Koerner says. “There was no more spectacular way for the marginalized to feel the rush of power.”
Koerner focuses on a particularly star-crossed pair of hijackers, Willie Roger Holder and Catherine Marie Kerkow, who, through a combination of “savvy and dumb luck,” managed to pull off the longest-distance skyjacking in American history. “He was a traumatized ex-soldier motivated by a hazy mix of outrage and despair,” the author writes. “She was a mischievous party girl who longed for a more meaningful future.” On June 2, 1972, the pair boarded Western Airlines Flight 701, en route from Los Angeles to Seattle, claiming to have a briefcase bomb. Their demands included money, safe passage to Algeria and, incredibly, freedom for the political activist Angela Davis, whose trial over her connection to a notorious 1970 shootout at the Marin County courthouse had sparked a media sensation. Holder seems to have styled himself as Davis’s knight in shining armor, and intended to whisk her away to political asylum in North Vietnam. He appears to have believed, Koerner writes, that the “resulting media circus would somehow force America to confront the blunt realities” of the Vietnam War.
Although Davis wanted nothing to do with it, an increasingly convoluted chain of circumstances eventually carried Holder and Kerkow as far as Algeria, where a fresh round of misadventures immediately began. Koerner does an excellent job of chronicling the ill-conceived plot that succeeded almost in spite of itself, as well as the lengthy aftermath that found the hijackers living as international exiles and consorting with the likes of Eldridge Cleaver, Yves Montand and Joan Baez.
Koerner, who was born two years after the hijacking of Flight 701, has done an impressive job of research that includes interviews with many of the central players in the drama — including Holder, who died last year at age 62. Some readers, however, will miss a larger sense of context for what the author insists on calling the “Golden Age of Hijacking,” and it is jarring to hear Holder and Kerkow’s plan described as “utter zaniness,” as though they were plotting to kidnap a crosstown rival’s football mascot. In the end, the author gives only a passing nod to that dark day when it would no longer be possible to think of hijackers as free spirits and party girls. “No one in a position of authority,” he remarks in the final pages, “fathomed a scenario in which skyjackers would have no interest in using their hostages as bargaining chips.” Perhaps not, but the matter deserves a bit more elaboration, especially when Holder begins spouting extremist rhetoric: “My only regret,” the hijacker declares at one stage, “is that I did not smash that plane into the ground.”
Even so, “The Skies Belong to Us” is a gripping portrait of a chaotic time. “If you could go back and make the choice again,” the author asks Holder near the end of the book, “do you think you would still go through with the hijacking?” Holder’s answer, after an initial burst of anger, is utter nonsense, but somehow it manages to capture the era’s crazed and contradictory spirit of dissention: “I just did something everybody else was too scared to do.”
THE SKIES BELONG TO US
Love and Terror in the
Golden Age of Hijacking
By Brendan I. Koerner
Crown. 318 pp. $26