The Skies Belong to Us: Love and Terror in the Golden Age of Hijacking

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Overview

In an America torn apart by the Vietnam War and the demise of sixties idealism, airplane hijackings were astonishingly routine. Over a five-year period starting in 1968, the desperate and disillusioned seized commercial jets nearly once a week, using guns, bombs, and jars of acid. Some hijackers wished to escape to foreign lands, where they imagined being hailed as heroes; others aimed to swap hostages for sacks of cash. Their criminal exploits mesmerized the country, never more so than when the young lovers at ...

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The Skies Belong to Us: Love and Terror in the Golden Age of Hijacking

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Overview

In an America torn apart by the Vietnam War and the demise of sixties idealism, airplane hijackings were astonishingly routine. Over a five-year period starting in 1968, the desperate and disillusioned seized commercial jets nearly once a week, using guns, bombs, and jars of acid. Some hijackers wished to escape to foreign lands, where they imagined being hailed as heroes; others aimed to swap hostages for sacks of cash. Their criminal exploits mesmerized the country, never more so than when the young lovers at the heart of Brendan I. Koerner’s The Skies Belong to Us pulled off the longest-distance hijacking in American history.

A shattered Army veteran and a mischievous party girl, Roger Holder and Cathy Kerkow commandeered Western Airlines Flight 701 as a vague protest against the war. Through a combination of savvy and dumb luck, the couple managed to flee across an ocean with a half-million dollars in ransom, a feat that made them notorious around the globe. Koerner spent four years chronicling this madcap tale, which involves a cast of characters ranging from exiled Black Panthers to African despots to French movie stars. He combed through over 4,000 declassified documents and interviewed scores of key figures in the drama—including one of the hijackers, whom Koerner discovered living in total obscurity. Yet The Skies Belong to Us is more than just an enthralling yarn about a spectacular heist and its bittersweet, decades-long aftermath. It is also a psychological portrait of America at its most turbulent, and a testament to the madness that can grip a nation when politics fail.

A letter from the author:

On October 11, 2009, I first encountered the 616-word story that would change my life. It was a New York Times report about a Puerto Rican nationalist who had hijacked a Pan Am jet to Cuba in 1968, then spent the next forty-one years living in Fidel Castro's socialist “paradise.” He had finally elected to come back to the U.S. voluntarily, knowing full well that he would have to serve time in prison for his long-ago crime. The article made me wonder how many other American hijackers might still be on the lam. I soon discovered that there are several, most of whom live openly in Havana. But there is one fugitive hijacker whose whereabouts remain a total mystery: a beautiful native Oregonian named Cathy Kerkow, who helped divert Western Airlines Flight 701 from Seattle to Algiers in 1972. Unearthing the saga of what happened to Kerkow and her lover-cum-accomplice, Roger Holder, has been my great obsession these past four years. In bringing Kerkow and Holder's tale to life in The Skies Belong to Us, I became fascinated by the “Golden Age of Hijacking”—the chaotic period in the late 1960s and early 1970s when desperate and deluded Americans seized commercial jets nearly once a week. It is an era that produced scores of compellingly bizarre historical nuggets, such as:

At the height of the epidemic, the FAA considered building a fake airport in south Florida, so that hijackers could be tricked into thinking they had reached Cuba.

Hijacker Rafaelle Minichiello, who went from Los Angeles to Rome in 1969, was so adored in Italy that he eventually signed a contract to star in a spaghetti Western.

The first American hijacker to ask for ransom, Arthur Barkley, demanded $100 million in cash, to be taken directly from the coffers of the U.S. Supreme Court.

Before he surrendered, hijacker Ricardo Chavez Ortiz was allowed to give a rambling speech about his tragic life; his words were broadcast live on Los Angeles radio.

David Hubbard, a famous psychiatrist, believed that all hijackers had deformed inner ears. He tried to find a cure by conducting experiments on baby chimpanzees.

Universal passenger screening wasn't instituted until January 5, 1973, shortly after three hijackers threatened to crash a plane into a Tennessee nuclear reactor.

The Skies Belong to Us contains so many more gems that will captivate you. Thanks a million for checking out this remarkable yet nearly forgotten slice of American history.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble

The Golden Age of Hijacking began in the late sixties and ended in the early seventies. During that headline-grabbing heyday, commercial airplanes were taken over by madmen, the Japanese Red Army, teenagers, fathers and son, suicidal gunmen and one disgruntled flier who just wanted to just wanted a more direct flight to his small town in Arkansas. Perhaps the most compelling case though was the relatively successful 1972 aerial heist pulled off by a Black Panthers Vietnam War veteran and his impressionable Oregon girlfriend. The pair not only managed to make the longest-distance hijacking diversion in history without a weapon; their Algerian getaway brought them $488,000 in ransom and political asylum. A riveting account of a forgotten chapter that fully deserved to be a book. Editor's recommendation.

The New York Times - Dwight Garner
Mr. Koerner's book…[is] such pure pop storytelling that reading it is like hearing the best song of summer squirt out of the radio. Both the author and his subjects are so audacious that they frequently made me laugh out loud…[Koerner] finds the ideal tone…for the fleet true-crime story he is telling, and he introduces us to a supporting cast that's rarely less interesting than the skyjackers themselves: brave flight attendants and pilots, F.B.I. agents, African despots. And he locates the deep reserves of personal sadness lingering beneath the entire melodrama.
The Washington Post - Daniel Stashower
Brendan Koerner…skillfully re-creates this tumultuous era…[he] has done an impressive job of research that includes interviews with many of the central players in the drama…The Skies Belong to Us is a gripping portrait of a chaotic time.
Publishers Weekly
Although Koerner (Now the Hell Will Start), a contributing editor at Wired, had access to only one of the two hijackers whose 1972 commandeering of a U.S. airliner he recounts here in thrilling detail, he makes the mistake of sharing the other’s thoughts, a dramatization that blurs the line between nonfiction and fiction. The book opens with a gripping scene: a stewardess aboard Western Airlines Flight 701, en route from Los Angeles to Seattle, is approached by a passenger she had spilled something on earlier. But rather than complain about his stained clothing, Roger Holder, a Vietnam veteran protesting the war, hands her a note claiming that four men with bombs and guns are aboard. The narrative then shifts back in time to provide a fascinating look at the history of skyjacking—from 1968-1973, a plane was hijacked almost every week—and efforts to thwart it, replete with offbeat details like the suggestion that all passengers be forced to don boxing gloves upon entering aircraft to preclude them from being able to hold or fire guns. The odyssey of Holder’s life before and after his act of terror, aided by his lover, Cathy Kerkow, makes for compelling reading, though carelessness about speculation is a minus. 8 b&w photos. Agent: Zoë Pagnamenta, the Pagnamenta Agency. (June)
The New York Times Book Review - Benjamin Wallace-Wells
This material, naturally a great yarn, is handled exceedingly well by the journalist Brendan I. Koerner, whose main interest, beyond the simple delight of the story, is in excavating the skyjacking epidemic from history — an extended moment, from 1968 to 1972, when dozens of planes in the United States were taken over by hijackers, most of them professing political aims.
Kirkus Reviews
A chronicle of the 1972 skyjacking of Western Airlines Flight 701. Wired contributing editor Koerner (Now the Hell Will Start: One Soldier's Flight from the Greatest Manhunt of World War II, 2008) explores the story of the longest-distance skyjacking in American history. Motivated by anger toward America (as well as his newfound interest in astrological omens), embittered Vietnam War veteran Roger Holder, along with his girlfriend, Cathy Kerkow, skyjacked a flight en route from Los Angeles to Seattle. An alleged briefcase bomb forced the airline to make good on Holder's demands, which included money and safe passage to Algeria. In addition, he demanded the freedom of Angela Davis, a communist-sympathizing philosophy professor at UCLA who had lost her position due to her political beliefs and was arrested soon after for her connection to a shootout. A delusional Holder believed it his duty to rescue her, adding a new twist to the skyjackers' usual requests for money and a rerouted flight. "Then he would fly the Communist philosophy professor to North Vietnam," Koerner writes, "where the nation's grateful prime minister would grant her political asylum." Yet Holder's carefully hatched plan soon required various split-second decisions, and while Holder and Kerkow eventually touched down in Algeria (without Davis in tow), they hardly achieved the celebrity status they'd imagined. While Koerner focuses on this unlikely plot carried out by an unlikely duo, he expands beyond this single instance to draw attention to the skyjacking epidemic that plagued commercial airlines throughout the early years of flight travel. Between 1961 and 1972, 159 U.S. flights were skyjacked. By making mention of so many skyjackings, Koerner paints a complex portrait of a war-torn and racially charged country, one whose dissenters often took to the skies for revenge. A riveting, highly readable tale of terror in the skies.
From the Publisher
"Gripping. . . . A fascinating look at the history of skyjacking. The odyssey of Holder's life before and after his act of terror, aided by his lover, Cathy Kerkow, makes for a compelling [listen]." —-Publishers Weekly
Library Journal
Though it's hard to imagine now, less than 50 years ago airlines never screened their passengers. Even after the first American hijacking—in 1961, Antulio Ramirez Ortiz famously hijacked an airplane to Cuba—commercial airlines resisted the expense and inconvenience of formal screening. As a result, skyjackings were so common in the 1960s and 1970s that they became an almost routine part of flying. Journalist Koerner (contributing editor, Wired; Now the Hell Will Start: One Soldier's Flight from the Greatest Manhunt of World War II) follows the strange and romantic exploits of Willie Roger Holder and Cathy Kerkow, lovers and radicals who became international celebrities when they hijacked Western Airlines Flight 701 in June 1972, demanding a ransom and the release of Angela Davis. Their escape to Algiers and their subsequent adoption by French radicals contributed to the cachet of hijacking. VERDICT This book illuminates the outlaw glamour of this period of aviation, when ordinary men and women could command the skies, if only for a moment. For fans of aviation history and political history as well as true crime.—Deirdre Bray, Middletown P.L., OH
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780307886101
  • Publisher: Crown Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 6/18/2013
  • Pages: 336
  • Sales rank: 693,388
  • Product dimensions: 6.44 (w) x 9.34 (h) x 1.15 (d)

Meet the Author

BRENDAN I. KOERNER is a contributing editor at Wired and the author of Now the Hell Will Start, which was optioned by filmmaker Spike Lee. A former columnist for both The New York Times and Slate, he was named one of Columbia Journalism Review’s “Ten Young Writers on the Rise." Visit him at www.microkhan.com and follow him at @brendankoerner.

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Table of Contents

Contents
Prelude 1
1. “Keep Smiling” 3
2. Coos Bay 12
3. “I Don’t Want to Be an American Anymore” 35
4. Sweet Black Angel 58
5. “I’m Here and I Exist” 67
6. Operation Sisyphus 86
7. “There Are Weathermen Among You” 105
8. “Can’t You Get a Chopper?” 126
9. “It’s All a Lie” 136
10. The Choice 144
11. “We Are Going to Be Friends” 160
12. “My Only Bomb Is My Human Heart” 171
13. “How Do You Resign from a Revolution?” 189
14. “The Olympics Wasn’t Anything” 203
15. “Monsieur Lecanuet, Anyone Can Steal . . .” 216
16. Omega 234
17. Tweety Bird 243
18. Erased 261
Acknowledgments 275
Notes 277
Index 309

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4
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Sort by: Showing all of 4 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted July 26, 2013

    This book ended up being much more interesting than I originally

    This book ended up being much more interesting than I originally thought it would be. The story is about a specific couple and their lives leading up to and after they complete a hijacking. Their story is not what kept my attention, it was the the overview of the hijacking era that I found to be fascinating. I had no idea how prevalent hijackings were during this time period and enjoyed reading a little snapshot into some specific stories throughout the time period. It was also interesting to see how airport security practices progressed only after a significant amount of time and hijackings.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 19, 2013

    Fun and informative read!

    Usually with books like this (this kind of topic anyway) the author, often times, can't see the forest for the trees. Authors know their stories so well that they innundate the readers with extra trivia and minute details and these bog the reader down and make for boring reads. That's not the case here.

    Mr Koerner does a fantastic job of weaving together loads of facts and trivia about many different highjackings and all the while keeping the reader wanting to know what happens with two specific people. The story was interesting and told very, very well.

    I look forward to what more stories this guy has to tell.

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 20, 2013

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted July 20, 2013

    No text was provided for this review.

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