BOOK REVIEW: Come fly the unfriendly skies in entertaining book on hijacking



    by Brendan I. Koerner; Crown ($26)

Flying used to be fun. You'd stroll onto an airplane without anyone searching your carry-on luggage. No one scanned your body either. On the plane itself, your kid might get invited into the cockpit, and they'd serve you Alaskan crab and champagne - in coach.

And if you were bold enough, you could walk into the cabin with a gun or a fake bomb and insist on being flown to any exotic locale. The compliant airline might even give you a few hundred thousand dollars in cash if you asked for it.

The free-wheeling, hijacking-crazy days of the 1960s and early '70s come to life vividly in Brendan I. Koerner's evocative new page-turner "The Skies Belong to Us: Love and Terror in the Golden Age of Hijacking." With abundant research and a sharp eye for the absurd, Koerner transports us to a time long before anyone thought of crashing planes into buildings, when people took over airplanes for all sorts of weird reasons that were only occasionally political.

You'd think that a book about the armed takeover of airplanes would make for grim reading. But "The Skies Belong to Us" is a lively and often funny account peppered with dumb criminals and feckless officials. In that bygone and more innocent age, the airlines would accede to almost any crazy demand to keep passengers from getting hurt and airplanes from being damaged - though they stubbornly refused to spend the funds and endure the hassle of installing metal detectors at airports.

All that began to change, Koerner argues, thanks in part to one especially colorful pair of young lovers who carried out one of the boldest and most successful takeovers of an airplane in U.S. history.

When Roger Holder gets busted for writing fake checks and Cathy Kerkow quits her job, they find themselves broke and rootless. After seeing repeated news accounts of hijackings, Holder consults astrology charts (one of several period details Koerner uses to great effect) and chooses a date for what Holder boldly calls "Operation Sisyphus." He and his girlfriend will hijack a plane with a fake bomb and demand $500,000 and the freedom of Angela Davis, the onetime UCLA professor then on trial in a Northern California courtroom. Then they'll spirit Davis away to North Vietnam and resettle in the Australian outback and live "happily ever after," Koerner writes.

The media eventually forgot the hijacking lovers. But the impact of their impetuous actions was quick and enduring. Within six months, Americans were standing en masse before airport metal directors for the first time.

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