The next time you're patted down and pornoscanned, remember that there was a time in American history that skyjacking was so common it was almost comical. Between 1968 and 1973, there was a hijacking per week. Teenagers hopped on board with fake dynamite and asked to go to Canada. Disillusioned working stiffs jumped out of airplanes at altitude after gathering thousands in ransom money. Hijacking insurance could be had for $75 and ensured that fliers could sit back, drink free booze, and enjoy the windfall of having a wild-eyed miscreant yell “Take this plane to Havana.”
After all, the insured got $500 per day of captivity – enough for a nice vacation.
To be clear, this was mostly the airlines' fault. They didn't want to reduce the efficiency of their operations. In that era there was no airport security and you could, without issue, alight from your Ford Fairlane and waltz right to the gate in any airport around the world. You could rush onto a flight an buy a ticket from the attendants on board, all the while fiddling with your revolver, baseball bat, or bottle of Jack Daniels. You could even traipse around the baggage handling area with little interference. In short, flying used to be crazytown.
Brendan I. Koerner's new book The Skies Belong To Us, details this wild “golden age” of air piracy and protest. The primary story in the book features a couple of kids from California named Roger Holder and Cathy Kerkow. Roger was a disgraced military man who went AWOL from Vietnam. Cathy was a sometime drug dealer and party girl. The two met, fell into something like love, and hatched a plan: they'd escape their dire straits by hijacking a plane to Australia after picking up Professor Angela Davis and taking her to Hanoi.
It's hard not to like the tale. The pair are at once charming and dangerous. Holder is suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and has let his demons take him. He knows enough of the world, in his early 20s, to know that it doesn't want him in it. Kerkow is mostly there for the kicks although she also loves the freedom of being Bonnie to Holder's Clyde. To pull of their caper they board a flight and Holder pretends to have a bomb on board while his girlfriend waits patiently in the back for the fireworks to start. After frenzied plane swaps and bumbling by the FBI, the plane takes to the air and lands in Algiers – where Holder and Kerkow's troubles really begin.
Koerner also describes the other airjackings of the era, from the comical to the tragic. Wild-eyed hippies and pensioners alike see air superiority as an opportunity for power. As the world spreads out before the seemingly successful hijacker, problems seem smaller and prayers are easily answered. In those halcyon days, airplanes were weapons of mass persuasion, not mass destruction.
The action rarely drags – you might get bogged down by the countless hijacking anecdotes that sprinkle the story like so many airline peanuts, but that's it – and Koerner captures the kinetic energy of the criminals on the lam and the syrup-slow lifestyles they lead after the engines are shut off and everyone is led off the plane. The Skies Belong To Us is a paean and a warning and a true-life tale of two kids who knew better but didn't care. And it puts into perspective just how bad things got before airlines were forced, finally, to take away our water bottles.