In the Era of Skyjackers

The clip above is a dramatic trailer for Brendan I. Koerner’s book “The Skies Belong to Us”, published in 2013. This is how you sell books these days, by making a trailer as if it’s a movie, this one featuring riveting news footage from the era of hijackings. This was back in the late 1960s and early ’70s, when airlines and the public endured skyjackings on a weekly basis at times.

The book is a pretty quick read, explaining how easy it was for anyone who wanted to take control of a jetliner to do so, and how the authorities (the Nixon White House, Congress and the FBI) struggled to stop the epidemic. It all seems so natural now, as we go through security at airports, but at that time airlines lobbied hard to make sure the politicians didn’t force through extensive security measures, for several reasons. After all, who would pay for it? And wouldn’t metal detectors frighten passengers? Things have really changed in 50 years.

Koerner writes about numerous hijacking cases throughout the book, illustrating the mayhem they caused, but he focuses on one case in particular, the longest-distance skyjacking in American history, when Roger Holder and his girlfriend Cathy Kerkow took charge of Western Airlines Flight 701 in 1972 and flew to Algiers. That part is written almost as fiction, and Koerner captures some of the tragedy and pop-culture fascination with skyjackings of the era.

As for pop culture, Koerner mentions how Hollywood tried to capitalize on the skyjacking craze through a 1972 Charlton Heston movie, Skyjacked. The trailer above is fun to watch (Heston smoking a pipe in cockpit!), even if the movie as a whole is a disappointment. It fit in nicely together though with the fantastical disaster movies of the 1970s, but no flick from this period satisfyingly captured the craze.

The most effective big-screen treatment of the hijacking of a plane is likely United 93 (2006). But of course, that drama takes place long after security checks killed the original skyjacking epidemic. How that happened is something you should check out in “The Skies Belong to Us”.

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