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

  • @philbycharlotte

Between the years 1961, when the first plane ever was seized in US airspace, and 1972, the year Roger Holder, an emotionally-ravaged Vietnam deserter, and his loved-up partner in crime Cathy Kerkow seized control of Western Airlines Flight 701, some 159 commercial planes were hijacked in the United States. The Skies Belong To Us is the culmination of four years' research by journalist Brendan I. Koerner, and explores this dramatic and politically embarrassing period of history in vivid detail.

Recalling a time when “flying was an ethereal pleasure rather than a grind”, when it was possible to “pass through an entire airport, from curbside to gate, without encountering a single inconvenience – no X-ray machines, no metal detectors, no security personnel with grubby hands and bitter dispositions,” the book highlights the struggle to legislate against a soaring number of air pirates, with proposals sneered at during one senate meeting by then Federal Aviation Administration's [FAA] administrator Najeeb Halaby, who scoffed: “Can you imagine the line that would form from the ticket counter in Miami if everyone had to submit to police inspections?”

Against a turbulent backdrop of war and political disenchantment – spurred on by a now unthinkable absence of security – in the 1960s, skyjacking was adopted by Communist sympathisers intent on reaching Cuba, lunatics and, famously, on 29 August 1969 by supporters of the Palestinian liberation movement including Leila Khaled, who helped hijack a TWA flight to Damascus, Syria. But it is the ballsy, and occasionally batty, coup nicknamed Operation Sisyphus that took place three years later that forms the centrepiece of this narrative: the story of Holder and Kerkow who on 2 June 1972 enacted a madcap plan to seize Flight 701, and somehow pulled off the longest-distance hijacking in American history.

It begins in the city of Coos Bay, Oregan, a place that was in the mid-century as rich in timber as it was poor in its social progressiveness. It was here that Holder, a thoughtful African-American boy and Kerkow, a gawky-looking white girl, first met, just the once, as children. It was here, too, that Kerkow grew into a mischievous teen before heading to San Diego where a chance encounter led to her fateful reunion with Holder in the suburbs of San Diego, more than a decade after his family were run out of Coos Bay on account of being black.

While trying to discern a greater reason for his and Kerkow's chance second encounter 13 years later, Holder – by now addicted to pot and ravaged by his time in Saigon - consults astrological charts before deciding their destiny is to seize a plane in order to free political activist and Black Panther Party associate Angela Davis, and make a fast buck. From the outset their plan is doomed, and yet in an almost farcical turn of events the pair make off with half a million dollars, and spend four years on the run with help from a mind-boggling cast including African despots and French movie stars.

In part re-imagined through interviews with one of the central hijackers, this is a vividly-detailed portrait of an era as much as the characters within it, and one which in light of recent world events resonates all too deeply today.