As American air travel gets to be more and more of a pain in the ass every year—cramped seats, baggage fees, over-the-top security measures—there seems to be more and more nostalgia for the "golden age" of air travel of the 1960s. Stewardesses were stylish and sexy. Complimentary drinks flowed freely. No one cared what was in your luggage.
But, as Brendan Koerner ably reports in his new book, The Skies Belong to Us: Love and Terror in the Golden Age of Hijacking (Crown), flying during those years had one significant downside, one that has been mostly forgotten in the ensuing years. Between 1961 and 1972, there were 159 hijackings of commercial flights in American air space (and even more overseas). At some points during that decade, the hijackings were happening at a pace of once a week. And, amazingly, the airlines were okay with this.
It's hard to overstate how surreal it is, at times, working your way through The Skies Belong to Us, living in this era in which we walk through airport scanners in our socks and are forbidden from carrying regularly sized toiletries onboard a plane. But in those years, we learn, airlines didn't want to prevent people from traveling with guns, for fear of losing customers. They worried X-ray machines would be too time-consuming and make air travel too inconvenient. (They also didn't want to spend the money to install the machines.) Even attempts by Congress to pass legislation to deal with the increasing number of hijackings were thwarted by the powerful airline lobby.
Koerner investigates the rise and the fall of hijacking with a level of detail that won't be surprising to anyone who has read his work for Slate or Wired, where he is now a contributing editor. At 38, he's one of the best young journalists around, not because he's getting scoops of international significance, but because his perspective is so unique. Koerner covers the stories that don't even occur to anyone else, and there are few other writers whose work is consistently so fascinating.
This approach is what makes The Skies Belong to Us such a great read. Koerner's exposition of the era is contained within the narrative of the longest-distance American hijacking, Western Airlines Flight 701, commandeered on June 2, 1972, as part of a scheme to free activist and UCLA professor Angela Davis, then on trial for murder, and fly to Vietnam. Orchestrated by Roger Holder, a black Vietnam veteran with PTSD, and Cathy Kerkow, a white 20-year-old party girl, the hijacking doesn't go quite as planned—Davis wants nothing to with it, for one—and the pair ends up with $500,000 in Algeria, hoping to live with Eldridge Cleaver and his outpost of the Black Panthers. Later, in Paris, Jean-Paul Sartre gets involved. And it just gets wackier from there.
While The Skies Belong to Us has all the elements of a great screwball heist film (one that you could see fitting well into Steven Soderbergh's repertoire, were he not ostensibly retired), Koerner's aim is not laughter. He conveys the stories of Holder and Kerkow with sympathy and understanding—you find yourself rooting for their crazy plan to succeed against all odds. And when things fall apart, as of course they do, Koerner captures both the tension and the sheer absurdity of the situation with aplomb.
Koerner spent four years researching this book, talking to most of the principals involved, including Holder, and it shows. The level of detail in The Skies Belong to Us is outstanding, and it's these quirky pieces that make the book so mesmerizing, over and above its subject matter alone. Here's the passage directly after Holder has asked Kerkow to join him in his hijacking scheme:
"Kerkow had never heard anything so incredibly far out. She had always known that Holder had a defiant streak, but this plan was the stuff of true rebellion. There was only one way she could possibly respond to such a deliciously extreme proposal.
"'So, what do I wear to a hijacking?'"
The answer, we learn later, is "purple hip-hugging slacks, a chunky brown belt that she had crafted herself, and a light pink blouse." (Holder wears his Army dress uniform, in case you're wondering.) These little bits of trivia scattered on page after page had me giggling in delight, taking pictures of sentences and e-mailing them to friends. You learn that $2 million in cash weighs 150 pounds; that when most hijackings were destined for Cuba, in the early '60s, the FAA thought about building a fake version of the Havana airport in Florida; that Carlo Ponti, the producer of Blow-Up, almost made a hagiographic film about an Italian skyjacker hailed as a patriot.
You also learn that Knoxville has its own starring role in putting an end to the epidemic of hijackings. On Nov. 10, 1972, three men hijacked a Southern Airways flight, demanding passage to Detroit and $10 million. When Detroit was too foggy to land, the hijackers changed course, eventually settling on Knoxville, where the plan was to crash the plane into ORNL if they didn't get their ransom. They got it—well, part of it—and eventually landed in Cuba, where they were promptly taken by Cuban soldiers. But that threat of blowing up a nuclear reactor was the final straw for the government and the airlines: Metal detectors and other security measures were implemented early in 1973.
The Skies Belong to Us is essential reading for anyone interested in aviation or the cultural history of the '60s and '70s, but honestly I don't know how anyone could read this book and not find it enthralling. Still, you're probably better off not reading it while flying on a plane—you might start looking a little too askance at every briefcase that passes you by.
Correction: An earlier version of this story mistakenly described Kerkow's belt as "chinky." It was a "chunky" belt. We apologize for the unintentionally offensive typo.