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

The Skies Belong to Us: Love and Terror in the Golden Age of HijackingThe Skies Belong to Us: Love and Terror in the Golden Age of Hijacking by Brendan I. Koerner
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Interesting book! Some things I learned from it:
– The period in question had a ton of hijackings. (or “skyjacking”s as they used to call it, which is way cooler!) At a Senate hearing, the airlines claimed it was an impossible problem “short of searching every passenger”, which they really didn’t want to do for cost reasons, and they thought passengers wouldn’t stand for it. At this point, every hijacker just wanted to go to Cuba, where the airline would pay Castro a nominal fee to get the plane back, so it didn’t even cost that much!
– A few weeks after the hearing, a hijacker pulled a gun on a Senator (randomly, he didn’t know the victim was a Senator), which made it clear that something had to be done. The State Department proposed providing free one-way flights to Cuba for anyone who wanted to go! (Castro didn’t want to do this – he preferred the black eye that America would take from hijackings) So the airlines told pilots and flight attendants to comply with hijacker demands no matter what to avoid violence. As a part of this, all cockpits had charts of the Caribbean regardless of where they were going, and some Spanish phrase cards to communicate with the Havana airport!
– So people just accepted hijackings to Cuba as a necessary risk of air travel for a while. (and passengers were treated well in Havana, although Castro generally disliked the hijackers themselves)
– By February 1969 there was more than one hijacking a week in the US! So the FAA tried again to address the problem, and the public had some input. They had the following crazy suggestions: trapdoors outside cockpits! Arming flight attendants with tranquilizer darts! Playing the Cuban national anthem before takeoff and then arresting anyone who knew the lyrics?! One suggestion the FAA took seriously was to build a replica of the Havana airport in South Florida to fool hijackers into thinking they had reached Cuba, but it was rejected as too expensive.
– Eventually hijackers started wanting to go other places, although they didn’t always plan ahead. One hijacker wanted to go to “Africa” (which is a pretty broad place to want to go?), but the airline only flew to California so of course their planes couldn’t reach across the ocean. Incidentally, the main hijacker’s girlfriend ordered one flight attendant to feed her baby a bottle, and another to crochet the baby a hat!
– The hijacking that broke the camel’s back was a hijacking in 1972 that landed in Cleveland, Toronto (an elderly passenger suffered a nonfatal heart attack on this leg of the journey), Chattanooga (where they picked up $2 million of ransom money), Havana (where Castro rejected them), Orlando (where the FBI started shooting at the plane, which still managed to take off), then for lack of a better idea, back to Havana. Along the way they threatened to “bomb” the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, where nuclear material was kept. After that threat, the airlines saw the writing on the wall and agreed to screen passengers with metal detectors and inspect carryon bags. The Cubans also made a deal to extradite hijackers to the US, which didn’t hurt.

The main story is an interesting look at a hijacking by Roger Holder and Cathy Kerkow – how they hatched the idea, where they ended up, etc. The whole book is pretty interesting and I’d recommend it if you’re interested in such things!

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