It is bizarre to think that there was a stretch of time in America's cultural history when the image of an armed gunman entering an airplane cockpit became a staple of television comedy.
The first hijacking in American 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 thirty minutes, we all die." The incident touched off a phenomenon that gathered momentum as it went along. Over the next 11 years, some 159 commercial flights were commandeered, sometimes at a rate of one per week, or even two in a single day.
By 1972, the phrase "Take me to Havana" had become a familiar prime time punch line. On All in the Family, 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 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 to vent their "vague yet all-consuming rage. . . . 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 focuses on a 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 political activist Angela Davis, whose trial over her connection with a notorious 1970 shootout at the Marin County courthouse had sparked a media sensation.
Koerner, born two years after the hijacking of Flight 701, has done impressive research, including interviews with many of the central players — including Holder, who died last year at 62. Some readers, however, will miss a sense of context for what the author calls the "Golden Age of Hijacking," and it is jarring to hear Holder and Kerkow's plan described as "utter zaniness," as if they were plotting to kidnap a 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. 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 is utter nonsense but somehow captures the era's crazed and contradictory spirit: "I just did something everybody else was too scared to do."