'The Skies Belong to Us' recalls age of hijacking

"The Skies Belong to Us" by Brendan I.

"The Skies Belong to Us" by Brendan I. Koerner (Crown, June 2013) (Credit: Handout)

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THE SKIES BELONG TO US: Love and Terror in the Golden Age of Hijacking, by Brendan I. Koerner. Crown, 318 pp., $26.

Flying used to be fun. You'd stroll onto an airplane without anyone searching your carry-on luggage. No one scanned your body, either. On the plane itself, your kid might get invited into the cockpit, and they'd serve you Alaskan crab and Champagne -- in coach.

And if you were bold enough, you could walk into the cabin with a gun or a fake bomb and insist on being flown to any exotic locale. The compliant airline might even give you a few hundred thousand dollars in cash if you asked for it.

The freewheeling, hijacking-crazy days of the 1960s and early '70s come to life vividly in Brendan I. Koerner's evocative new page-turner, "The Skies Belong to Us: Love and Terror in the Golden Age of Hijacking." The airlines would accede to almost any crazy demand to keep passengers from getting hurt -- though they stubbornly refused to spend the funds and endure the hassle of installing metal detectors at airports.

All that began to change, Koerner argues, thanks in part to one especially colorful pair of young lovers who in 1972 carried out one of the boldest and most successful takeovers of an airplane in U.S. history.

Roger Holder was an African-American Vietnam vet whose war experience left him troubled, adrift and in debt; Cathy Kerkow was a white masseuse and small-time drug dealer. Broke and rootless, they decide to hijack a plane with a fake bomb and demand $500,000 and the freedom of Angela Davis, the onetime UCLA professor then on trial in a Northern California courtroom. Then they'll spirit Davis away to North Vietnam and resettle in the Australian outback and live "happily ever after," Koerner writes.

Their plan is harebrained and half-baked. The bad check they write to buy their tickets bounces before they can make a connecting flight, nearly stopping their hijacking before it gets started. Once aboard Western Airlines Flight 701 from San Francisco to Seattle, Holder makes a spontaneous and fateful decision that will eventually make their hijacking a record breaker -- they will travel farther than any air pirates in U.S. history.

What happens to the couple after their plane reaches its final destination is exciting and dramatic -- but their post-hijacking lives quickly become boring and purposeless. The media eventually forgot the hijacking lovers, but the impact of their impetuous actions was quick and enduring. Within six months, Americans were standing en masse before airport metal detectors for the first time. The press expected passengers to rise in revolt. They did not.

"The skyjackers had become so brazen that even the most privacy-conscious travelers had come to accept the need to sacrifice convenience for peace of mind," Koerner writes. A couple forgotten to history had changed flying forever.

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