Feature

The Skies Belong to Us: Love and Terror in the Golden Age of Hijacking by Brendan I. Koerner

Brendan Koerner’s lively new book captures the general craziness of an era when hijackings occurred roughly once a week on average.

(Crown, $26)

Once upon a time, skyjackings occurred so often that the situation was “almost comical,” said John Biggs in BoingBoing.net. You could blame a combination of 1960s radicalism and astonishingly lax airline security, but between 1968 and 1973, a passenger plane was hijacked roughly once a week on average, often rerouting passengers and crews while rarely resulting in their deaths. Brendan Koerner’s lively new book captures the general craziness of that era while focusing on a pair of young skyjackers who proved to be “at once charming and dangerous.” In 1972, 22-year-old Vietnam vet Roger Holder and his girlfriend, Cathy Kerkow, concocted a wild plan to free imprisoned black power activist Angela Davis by capturing a flight out of Los Angeles and ordering it flown to Hanoi. The plot failed, but not before spawning the longest-distance hijacking in history.

Koerner makes 1972 look “not merely like a different time, but like a different planet,” said Emma Garman in TheDailyBeast.com. Airlines were so at ease with the threat of hijackings that they stocked cockpits with maps of Havana’s airport—the hijackers’ destination of choice—rather than give in to calls for expensive security upgrades. Holder and Kerkow thus needed only to claim they were carrying a bomb to win a $500,000 ransom and divert the passengers of a Seattle-bound plane to San Francisco, then New York, and finally Algiers. Davis wanted no part of their scheme, but when they escaped to Paris, the city’s intelligentsia embraced them as leftist heroes.

Besides being “a great yarn,” Koerner’s story “suggests a deeper truth about the nature of extremism,” said Benjamin Wallace-Wells in The New York Times. “Koerner’s deft touch, his deference to the randomness of his characters’ story,” hints at the possibility that militants’ devotion to a cause is often fleeting. “For some, politics may be a logical process from outrage to radicalization. For others, like Holder and Kerkow, it is simply a disguise.”

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