Terror in the Skies

The Skies Belong to Us: Love and Terror in the Golden Age of Hijacking BY Brendan I. Koerner. Crown. Hardcover, 336 pages. $26.
The cover of The Skies Belong to Us: Love and Terror in the Golden Age of Hijacking

At one point in The Skies Belong to Us, Brendan Koerner’s riveting second book, a troubled Vietnam veteran informs his girlfriend that they will be hijacking a plane to North Vietnam before settling in Australia. “There was only one way she could possibly respond to such a deliciously extreme proposal,” writes Koerner: “'So, what do I wear to a hijacking?’”

Such incredible moments recur throughout the book, an account of a spate of plane hijackings that took place during the sixties and seventies. Koerner is a contributing editor at Wired and the author of a 2008 non-fiction thriller about a World War II deserter called Now the Hell Will Start. In The Skies Belong to Us, Koerner reconstructs Roger Holder and Cathy Kerkow’s successful hijacking of a Western Airlines flight to Seattle, one of the wildest tales to come out of the period between 1961 and 1972, when 159 commercial flights were hijacked across the United States. During these years, unlikely characters such as teenagers, academics, and small-time crooks commandeered planes and made demands for cash, asylum in foreign countries, and even an end to the Vietnam War. “Large segments of the population were aggrieved that word and placards had failed to end the war in Vietnam, or cement the gains of a civil rights movement that was decimated by assassinations,” writes Koerner. “There was no more spectacular way for the marginalized to feel the rush of power” than to take over a plane full of passengers.

The Skies Belong to Us focuses on the end of this period, early 1972, when Roger Holder, a bitter African-American Vietnam veteran with a criminal record, fell in love with Cathy Kerkow, an adventure-seeking middle-class white girl. Motivated by anger at the Vietnam War, Holder convinced Kerkow to help him hijack a plane (she wore tight purple slacks and a pink blouse). He devised a plan that involved smuggling a bomb on board and holding passengers hostage in exchange for the release of activist Angela Davis, who was on trial in San Jose for the murder of a judge. The plan didn’t stop there: After escaping with Davis, Holder wanted to stop off in North Vietnam as an act of political theater before flying to Australia, where he and Kerkow would live together.

Amazingly, despite a number of mishaps, the lovers-cum-criminals actually managed to land in Algeria with $500,000 of Western Airlines money. The crew and passengers were unfailingly cooperative during the hijacking, but Holder was forced to improvise when Davis rejected his attempt to adopt her cause (she stood trial and was acquitted), and when they realized that they couldn’t make it to Vietnam. These setbacks didn’t deter them: In the most memorable moment in the book, the skyjackers even make love in coach class.

The Skies Belong to Us contrasts favorably with other recent books on hijackings, such as Skyjack, New York Magazine reporter Geoffrey Gray’s account of the famous case of D. B. Cooper. Cooper became a national legend after hijacking a plane in 1971, ransoming $200,000 from Northwest Orient Airlines and then escaping via parachute somewhere over Oregon. He has never been seen since, leaving open the delectable possibility that he survived to get away with his crime.

But while Skyjack was marred by confusing storytelling, the unnecessary insertion of Gray’s own adventures, and a lack of new research, Koerner’s book is original and riveting, relying on extensive information derived from Freedom of Information Act requests, newspaper reports, and original interviews. Before he died in early 2012, Holder recounted his exploits to Koerner in great detail. These descriptions, which form the bedrock of the book, are amazing, and also provide a picture of Holder’s life in the years after his sky-venture concluded.

In Algeria, Holder and Kerkow were befriended and then cut off by the Black Panthers. After living there for a year, they moved to Paris, where Holder became increasingly paranoid and delusional, clearly suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. Kerkow, by contrast, thrived in France, and abandoned her co-conspirator for a luxurious life of fashion and jewelry. The duo was eventually put on trial in France for possessing false passports. They were forced to pay several hundred francs for the hijacking, but because the French government considered Kerkow and Holder political refugees, they refused to cooperate with US requests for extradition. Several years later, Holder became homesick and returned to the United States, where he served a brief stint in prison before being transferred to a halfway house. When Koerner found him, he was surviving on disability payments and had been taken in by a friend of a friend. Despite Holder’s crime, we are left feeling sorry for this sad, tortured man. He died mentally ill, feeling that his life had been a failure.

Kerkow’s story has a different ending—a lack of one. She disappeared in Paris in February in 1978 and has not been seen since. In place of an interview, Koerner substitutes a Truman Capote-style reconstruction of the woman’s thoughts, replacing certainties with speculations. Through a variety of scenarios, Koerner imagines what happened to Kerkow after her disappearance: In one, she reinvents herself as a nomad; in another, she’s living in Europe, married to a wealthy man. If Kerkow is still alive, it’s doubtful she’s flying—airport security is now too meticulous to allow her to go unnoticed—but Koerner floats the possibility that she could still be among us, undetected. This goes to prove Koerner’s suggestion that while some highjackers in the 70s and 80s might have seemed ordinary, they were not quite prepared to lead ordinary lives.

Jordan Michael Smith is a contributing writer at Salon and the Christian Science Monitor.