Why was skyjacking so common in the 1960s and '70s?
In an era when going through airport security demands a level of intimacy that would ordinarily require several dinner dates, it’s mildly shocking to realize that security measures were once so lax that for a brief period of time, the American skies served as a playground for an aerial version of Grand Theft Auto. As Wired contributing editor Brendan Koerner details in The Skies Belong to Us, over an 11-year period from 1961 to 1972, 159 commercial airlines were hijacked across the U.S., sometimes as frequently as twice a week. (On especially exciting days, two separate hijackings might even happen simultaneously.) The identities of the skyjackers, as the New York Daily Mirror dubbed them, were diverse: from former mental patients to wealthy white heiresses to radical Marxists. They were seen as something between outlaws and heroes, latter-day pirates propelled by the loss of late-sixties idealism and aided by the airline industry’s reticence to impose strict—or any—security measures. (Airlines feared it would cost them customers; the government more or less acquiesced.) The Skies Belong to Us takes readers through this heady age via two of its more successful protagonists, but before getting to them, allow me a quick survey of the period’s highlights.
Excepting a bizarre incident in 1954 in which a “giant teenager” unsuccessfully attempted to hijack an American Airlines flight, the threat of skyjacking was so far off the government’s radar in the late fifties that it forgot to make hijacking a crime when it passed the Federal Aviation Law in 1958. The first wave of hijackings began in the spring of 1961, when a deranged Miami electrician diverted a flight from Key West to Cuba in order to warn Castro about a fictitious assassination attempt. The man was arrested upon arrival, the passengers were treated to lunch in Havana, and the flight was delayed by three hours before landing safely in Key West.
Once Kennedy finally made skyjacking a capital offense, in the fall of 1961, the designation led to a lull in hijackings that would last until 1965, when a 14-year-old boy commandeered a plane in Hawaii. After that, Cuba proved to be by far the most popular destination for hijackers: By 1968, regardless of their destination, all airplanes were outfitted with charts of the Caribbean sea in the event of a rerouting to Havana. For several years, hijacked planes were a source of extra income for the Castro regime, which charged airlines an average of $7,500 to retrieve their aircraft. To dissuade would-be hijackers, the State Department proposed offering free one-way flights to Cuba to anybody who wanted them—a measure the Cuban government rejected.
In 1969, the Federal Aviation Administration convened a special anti-hijacking task force to come up with a solution to the problem. The most popular suggestion (which was never acted upon) was to build a mock version of Havana’s Jose Marti Airport in South Florida to trick hijackers into thinking that they had reached Cuba.
By 1971, skyjackings had become so frequent that Lloyd’s of London started offering hijacking insurance to travelers in the U.S., guaranteeing “$500 per day of captivity, plus $2,500 in medical coverage, and $5,000 in the event of death or dismemberment” in exchange for a $75 premium per flight.
The era of skyjacking reached its apogee and conclusion in 1972. That year saw 40 separate hijackings and a coup-de-grace in which three men hijacked a plane over central Alabama and threatened to fly it into a nuclear power station. After realizing that airplanes could potentially be used as “weapons of mass destruction” the government finally mandated the use of metal detectors and armed guards at airports nationwide. (All this took place several years before Venezuelan celebre-terrorist Carlos the Jackal kidnapped 42 members of OPEC and negotiated a plane to fly them to Algiers.)
Clearly Koerner has plenty of material to work with, but he decides to focus on Roger Holder and Cathy Kerkow, two unlikely criminals who executed one of the most dramatic skyjackings in U.S. history. We meet the pair in San Diego in 1972, just months before the government decision to take air safety seriously. Holder is an unemployed huckster, a black PTSD-suffering Vietnam vet who expresses his resentment of the military by seducing the wives of men in uniform. Kerkow is 20, white, an erotic masseuse and a former Black Panther groupie with an abundance of free time. They hit it off right away, bound by a mutual appreciation for sex and drugs, and, oddly enough, a childhood encounter in Oregon decades earlier. Before long they start dating, and not long after that, inspired by growing anger over the Vietnam War and the Charleton Heston flop Skyjacked, Holder decides to hijack a plane. The plan is to end up in Australia, with a stopover in Hanoi to make a show of support for the Vietcong.
And this is how it went down: On June 2, 1972, Holder and Kerkow boarded a Western Airlines flight from San Diego to Seattle. Soon after takeoff, Holder, in full military dress, handed a stewardess a note informing her that there was a bomb on the plane. He then entered the cockpit and told the crew that the Students for a Democratic Society had taken his family hostage and were forcing him to commandeer the flight. (Holder spent the duration of the trip talking to imaginary Weathermen over the intercom.) While Kerkow sat in the back and kept quiet about her connection to Holder, he demanded the delivery of half a million dollars and Angela Davis, the black radical who was then awaiting trial for murder in San Jose.
As was the norm with skyjackings, nothing went according to plan. (An important lesson for prospective hijackers: Don’t take over a plane that can’t carry enough fuel to get you to your preferred destination.) After retrieving their ransom and discharging passengers at JFK, Holder opted to fly to Algiers instead of Vietnam, and rather than “liberate” Angela Davis (who wanted no part in his scheme) he demanded that Black Panther leader Eldridge Cleaver meet him on the tarmac in Algeria. Algiers was not yet an internationally known refuge for hijackers, but it was about to become one.1
When the Western Airlines Flight landed in Algiers, Holder and Kerkow were greeted not by the Black Panthers but by the head of the Algerian secret police, who confiscated the money (which was later returned to Western Airlines) and handed over the couple to government operatives, including a man nicknamed No Nuts. After several weeks of interrogation, Holder and Kerkow were released into the custody of the Panthers. Relations quickly soured: The Panthers suspected the couple of being FBI informants, and the couple suspected the Panthers of being opportunists. (Cleaver’s first words to Holder were “So, where’s the bread?”) But this turn of events wasn’t a total disappointment: Holder and Kerkow did spend a lot of time smoking hash on the beach.
The couple’s journey over the next several years more or less continued in this surreal vein: When Cleaver fled the country after sending a patronizing letter to Boumediene, he appointed Holder his successor. When, in turn, Holder and Kerkow fled to Paris and were forced to fight extradition proceedings, they were supported by the French intellectual establishment and by Jean-Paul Sartre, instantly becoming national celebrities. During these years, Holder’s mental health splintered into bouts of paranoia and anxiety. He spent time in a Marxist psychiatric institute outside Paris and suffered panic attacks that left him hospitalized. (Even so, in 1984 while destitute and nearly homeless, he met and married “a six-time divorcee a dozen years his senior” who was paralyzed on one side of her body.) Kerkow, in contrast, flitted among the Parisian creative elite, became fluent in French, and subsidized her lifestyle through a series of wealthy boyfriends before vanishing forever one night in 1978.
Save for a final, embarrassing speculation about Kerkow’s current status and whereabouts—“I picture her as a dignified French woman in her early sixties, her once-lustrous hair now short and streaked with gray … she and her retired husband occupy a well-appointed house in a sleepy hamlet a few hours’ drive from Paris, where they also own a pied-à-terre”—her story ends here. Holder, on the other hand, after years of petitioning the government, finally won the right to return to the U.S. Heavily dosed on psychotropic drugs, he flew into JFK on a July day in 1986 and was promptly jailed, serving three years in detention before being transferred to a halfway house in San Diego. The next several years were spent in and out of psychiatric institutes and courtrooms, in a blur of temporary addresses that made it all the more difficult for Koerner to find him, which the reporter ultimately did, locating Holder in a run-down San Diego apartment only months before the end of his life.
The book, in short, is a trip. But that’s about the extent of it. For all its resemblance to a cautionary tale about the curdling of sixties idealism, a semi-comical account of the failure of government oversight, or even a botched script for a late Antonioni movie, The Skies Belong to Us ends up being little more than a well-researched case study into a particularly bizarre moment in American history. Koerner has no political axe to grind: The hijackings, rather than being seen as symptomatic of larger political or socio-cultural problems, are treated as strange viral phenomena, opportunistic infections attacking a diseased airline system. Koerner might consider hijacking to be an avenue of personal expression for his eccentric and unfailingly earnest subjects, but the deeper causes of their discontent go largely unexamined.
Perhaps because of the extensive interviews that went into researching the book, Koerner has the disconcerting habit of ventriloquizing his characters’ thoughts. Upon storming the cockpit, Holder “took a moment to savor the feeling of accomplishment; for the first time in ages, he felt wholly in tune with the universe’s intentions for his life.” Kerkow is “confident she [can] dupe any FBI agent by flashing her coquettish smile.” Much better is when Koerner allows his characters to speak for themselves.
Questioned after his crime, one skyjacker offers a rationale that seems to characterize the fuck-it-all ethos of the era: “It was better than eighteen years of therapy, or whatever. It just seemed like the answer.”