The Skies Belong to Us

IN 1972, WESTERN AIRLINES FLIGHT 701 was commandeered by a pair of young lovers as it prepared to land in Seattle. The skyjackers were Willie Roger Holder, a decorated Vietnam veteran turned amateur astrologer whose life had fallen down the tubes, and Catherine Kerkow, a former high-school athlete turned small-time drug dealer and erotic masseuse. Holder and Kerkow abscond to Algeria with a half-million dollar ransom, and that’s just the beginning.

Their story, a thrill-ride from the jungles of Southeast Asia to the streets of Europe and North Africa, is the subject of Brendan Koerner’s “The Skies Belong to Us: Love and Terror in the Golden Age of Hijacking” (Crown).

But really, Brendan Koerner tells us two important stories — not merely the extraordinary odyssey of a pair of hijackers, but the equally remarkable story of one of the most peculiar and intense periods of 20th-Century America.

In “The Golden Age of Hijacking,” as the author dubs it, air piracy was rampant across America and the world. Between 1968 and 1972, U.S. commercial aircraft were commandeered at a rate of nearly one per week. Hijackings were so routine that over a four-month span in 1968 there were three instances of multiple aircraft being hijacked on the same day. (The Western Airlines 727 that Holder and Kerkow commandeered to San Francisco, before continuing on to Algeria, was one of two purloined jets to land at SFO that same evening.)

Koerner’s chronicle of these events is exhaustively researched and staggering to behold. And in many ways it’s this historical catalog that provides the book’s most fascinating and colorful parts. For instance the story of Rafaelle Minichiello, the 20 year-old Italian-American who earned a Purple Heart in Vietnam and would later hijack a TWA 707 from Los Angeles to Rome, where he was lionized by the Italian media (and legions of teenage girls) and remains a folk hero to this day. And while everybody has heard of D.B. Cooper, it turns out he was among several hijackers of the era to parachute out the back of a Boeing 727 with a bag of ransom (one of them was a Mormon Sunday School teacher and former Green Beret). From hapless teenagers to misguided militants, the list goes on and on — the list of hijackings is seemingly endless, the perpetrators endlessly eccentric.

Koerner also documents how, even in the throes of a hijacking epidemic, the airline industry staunchly resisted the sorts of intrusive security measures now taken for granted. While nobody is advocating that we return to an era in which passengers could freely stroll aboard with loaded handguns, we could probably use a bit of that spirit nowadays, caught as we are in a self-defeating mindset that seems willing to justify almost anything in the name of safety, no matter how irrational or intrusive.

If you’re familiar with my work, and my semi-regular rants about airport security, it should come as no surprise that the security backstory is, for me, one of the most poignant aspects of Koerner’s book. What I like best about is the sense of perspective it imparts, reminding us that the crimes against civil aviation was a target for criminals and saboteurs * long before September 11th, 2001.

Which isn’t to take away from Koerner’s central narrative. His prose isn’t always the most artful, but it hardly needs to be, because the saga of Roger Holder and Cathy Kerkow is so over-the-top that you can hardly put the book down. Their hijack plot was as audacious as it was ridiculous, and the ensuing drama was so — to borrow a word of the period — far out, that it can hardly be believed. Why a movie is yet to be made of their absurd adventure is hard to figure; on the other hand, most viewers would refuse to accept that it actually happened the way it did.

In “The Skies Belong to Us,” Brendan Koerner rediscovers an unforgettable true-crime drama that resonates profoundly even today.

Brendan Koerner

 

* Koerner’s sub-title is “The Golden Age of Hijacking,” which made me smile when I first saw it. I’ve been using the phrase, “The Golden Age of Air Crimes,” in a similar context, in my articles and columns since at least 2003. In fact, it appears as the sub-title to a section in chapter six of my own new book, introducing a list of hijackings and bombings in the years prior to September 11th.

I’d like to take credit for it, but the phrase was coined by Andrew Leonard of Salon.com, who first used it during a Q&A with me several years ago.

Andrew Leonard, for those of you unaware, is essentially the Godfather of Ask the Pilot. He’s the one who accepted and published the very first “Ask the Pilot” column at Salon, and who named and created the brand.

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15 Responses to “The Skies Belong to Us”
  1. Simon says:

    Patrick, thanks once again for reminding people that ‘terrorism’ wasn’t invented on 9/11 and that aviation safety has been issue for far longer than that. In fact, thinking back to the 70s and 80s, it appears we have much less to be worried about nowadays. For certain, it’s not thanks to the confiscation of 3 oz bottles.

  2. Great writeup Patrick. Airport security has come a long way. Passengers don’t appreciate the long lines, but that is nothing in comparison to this. I will pick up this book when I get a chance and read it. Keep up the great work.

  3. Rod says:

    A cartoon from circa 1970 by that great, slightly sick genius Don Martin had a plane packed with passengers all looking furtively around them. In the next frame they’re all on their feet, with pistols, grenades and dynamite brandished in clenched fists and shouting in unison “Nobody move! This is a hijack!” Then there’s a frame with them all standing there in classic Martin finger-to-lower-lip befuddlement. In the final frame they’ve all sat down again red with embarrassment and the flight continues on its way.

    Meanwhile I know a guy who’s a real product of globalism: a very black Tamil who speaks English just like Prince Charles, has a US passport and lives in Prague. He’ll soon be making his annual visit to the US and is nervous about the airports (not flying – the airports). He was telling me yesterday that last year TSA demanded photo ID. He gave them his passport. They then held him up because they had “never seen a passport done this way before” for long enough that he missed his flight. He was outraged and let them know about it. His tormentor told him “Look, I’m the last line of defense against terrorism.”

  4. Julie Walker says:

    My parents were on that flight: Western 701. I remember that day so vividly, hearing about a hijacking on the TV and the phone ringing in the middle of the TV report with my sister crying: “Mom and Dad are on that hijacked plane!” That set off a crazy night of trying to keep family informed and trying to get info, long before the age of cellphones and Internet. Dad was sitting opposite Holder and had just decided that Holder wasn’t what he seemed to be because he was wearing a military jacket for one branch of the service with insignia from another and told Mom: “Something’s not right here,” and started making notes when Holder got up and walked into the cockpit and locked the door. Mom and Dad were among the passengers finally let off in SF, and Dad, a former WWII “Black Cat” pilot, was among the first to be reached by the media. Who were dumb enough to ask, “If they catch him, what should they do with him?” Dad pulled no punches: “Hang the bastard!”

  5. Brian Fay says:

    I finished reading it the other day. I finished it in about 3 days. The book provides an interesting perspective on how the airlines originally treated hijackings and how hijackings evolved. You also have to admire the bravery of the flight crews. This book puts today’s airline security measures in the context of how they first started.

  6. Phil says:

    I just finished the book and it was an enjoyable read. The most important question is where is Cathy Kerkow?
    There is another book in finding out that question.

  7. [...] perfect tales. You will be glad to have read this book — as none other than Patrick Smith has pointed out.  When I land, I will post this, and then see what the sequelae on the Asiana crash are, after [...]

  8. Antonella Bassi says:

    I had never heard of Raffaele Minichiello; I was 16 and living in Milan, Italy, when he hijacked the plane to Rome. I most likely did not pay particular attention to that event b/c, as the article and the book point out, there were so many such hijackings occurring regularly, and many people were not shocked any more by this news. I definetely disagree w/ the notion that Raffele Minichiello is a folk hero in Italy to this day. He may have evoked anti-American sentiments at the time of the hijacking (b/c ov the Vietnam war), and even some misguided “prodigal son” feelings in part of the public (b/c of the history of emigration of Southern Italian to the Americas), but he surely is not considered a folk hero today. The 2009 article in the Italian newspaper Il Giornale, although referencing his actions to the movie character Rambo, points out that Raffaele Minichiello’s life after he served about two years of his seven-year sentence was quite antiheroical; he married, was widowed, remarried, became some sort of born-again Christian; in other words, no folk hero material, at least not in 2013 Italy.
    http://www.ilgiornale.it/news/ralph-litaliano-primo-dirottatore-che-divent-pap-rambo.html

  9. Dick Waitt says:

    An interesting read – I finished it about three hours ago. Now it’s on to “Cockpit Confidential”…

  10. Bob says:

    Thanks, Patrick, for the recommendation. It’s a great read, and one I might have overlooked otherwise.

  11. Steven M says:

    The last time I saw the 1974 film, “The Taking of Pelham One Two Three”, a few years ago, the biggest thing that struck me was how low a priority the subway management was giving to the train hijackers. The response was being handled by Walter Matthau’s character, the mayor’s office, and a handful of other participants. Yes, there were newspapers and television stations on the story, and it wasn’t as if there was a media blackout. But they had other problems to worry about, other than just one train with a few dozen victims. Compare that to the hundreds of officers in pursuit at the end of the “Blues Brothers”.

  12. […] might seem, that Istanbul-as-Sochi trick isn’t new. Such a ruse dates at least to the 1970s, when hijackings were very common. More than one Eastern or Pan Am crew hoodwinked a skyjacker into thinking Miami was […]

  13. […] remember that the long, long history of air piracy did not begin and end with September 11th, 2001, so it’s important not to view every […]

  14. Otavio Lima says:

    I was scheduled to fly on a Swissair flight from London to Geneva either the Fall of 1970 or January of 1971. I was returning to boarding school in Leysin, and decided the flight was too early to return. As I recall, after I changed the flight, plane was hijacked to the Middle East. One list of hijackings said it was September 1970, and that it was hijacked to Jordan. I recall the Egyptian desert. In any case, hijacker were so polite in those days! None of this flying airplanes into buildings! You were hijacked, flown to their alternate destination, and taken off the plane BEFORE it was blown up. I imagine a terrorist at the exit saying “Thank you for flying terrorist air”!!

  15. JamesP says:

    Yes, I remember in the early- to mid-70s when I was a kid, “skyjackings” as the news reporters liked to call them at the time seemed to be a fairly regular occurrence. Crazy times!

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