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.
* 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.