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

The Skies Belong to Us by Brendan I. Koerner

The Skies Belong to Us: Love and Terror in the Golden Age of Hijacking 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 The New York Times and Slate. His work has been printed in the New York Times Magazine,Harpers and many other publications. He is currently a contributing editor at Wire. 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.

The Skies Belong to Us 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.

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