The Skies Belong to Us

Love and Terror in the Golden Age of Hijacking

by Brendan I. Koerner

The Skies Belong to Us

Hardcover, 318 pages, Random House Inc, List Price: $26 | purchase


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NPR Summary

Brendan Koerner documents the 1972 story behind the longest-distance hijacking in U.S. history, tracing the events of the hijacking against a backdrop of civil unrest and the skyjacking wave of the early 1970s.

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Excerpt: The Skies Belong To Us

Most skyjackers earnestLy believed that upon reaching Havana, their sole destination during the mid-to-late 1960s, they would be greeted as revolutionary heroes. "In a few hours it would be dawn in a new world — I was about to enter Paradise," one skyjacker recalled thinking as the runway lights at José Martí International Airport came into view. "Cuba was creating a true democracy, a place where everyone was equal, where violence against blacks, injustice, and racism were things of the past ... I had come to Cuba to feel freedom at least once."

But though Fidel Castro welcomed the wayward flights in order to humiliate the United States and earn hard currency — the airlines had to pay the Cuban government an average of $7,500 to retrieve each plane — he had little but disdain for the hijackers themselves, whom he considered undesirable malcontents. After landing at José Martí, hijackers were whisked away to an imposing Spanish citadel that served as the headquarters of G2, Cuba's secret police. There they were interrogated for weeks on end, accused of working for the CIA despite all evidence to the contrary. The lucky ones were then sent to live at the Casa de Transitos (Hijackers House), a decrepit dormitory in southern Havana, where each American was allocated sixteen square feet of living space; the two-story building eventually held as many as sixty hijackers, who were forced to subsist on monthly stipends of forty pesos each. Skyjackers who rubbed their G2 interrogators the wrong way, meanwhile, were dispatched to squalid sugar-harvesting camps, where conditions were rarely better than nightmarish. At these tropical gulags, inmates were punished with machete blows, political agitators were publicly executed, and captured escapees were dragged across razor-sharp stalks of sugarcane until their flesh was stripped away. One American hijacker was beaten so badly by prison guards that he lost an eye; another hanged himself in his cell.

Yet graphic news reports about this brutal treatment did little to slow the epidemic's spread. Every skyjacker was an optimist at heart, supremely confident that his story would be the one to touch Castro's heart. The twenty-eight-year-old heir to a New Mexico real estate fortune hijacked a Delta Airlines jet while inexplicably dressed as a cowboy; a sociology student from Kalamazoo, Michigan, forced a Piper PA-24 pilot to take him to Havana because he wanted to study Communism firsthand; a thirty-four-year-old Cuban exile diverted a Northwest Airlines flight back home because he could no longer bear to live without his mother's delicately seasoned frijoles.

By July 1968 the situation had become dire enough to warrant a Senate hearing.

The FAA was represented at the hearing by a functionary named Irving Ripp, whose testimony was devoid of even the slightest hint of hope. "It's an impossible problem short of searching every passenger," Ripp testified. "If you've got a man aboard that wants to go to Havana, and he has got a gun, that's all he needs."

Senator George Smathers of Florida countered Ripp's gloom by raising the possibility of using metal detectors or X-ray machines to screen all passengers. He noted that these relatively new technologies were already in place at several maximum-security prisons and sensitive military facilities, where they were performing admirably. "I see no reason why similar devices couldn't be installed at airport check-in gates to determine whether passengers are carrying guns or other weapons just prior to emplaning," Smathers said.

But Ripp dismissed the senator's suggestion as certain to have "a bad psychological effect on passengers ... It would scare the pants off people. Plus people would complain about invasion of privacy." None of the senators made any further inquiries about electronic screening.

Two weeks after the Senate hearing, a deranged forklift operator named Oran Richards hijacked a Delta Airlines flight. Somewhere over West Virginia, Richards jumped from his seat and pulled a pistol on the first passenger he encountered in the aisle — a man who just happened to be Senator James Eastland of Mississippi. Though the

Delta crew eventually talked Richards into surrendering in Miami, the skyjacking of a national political figure represented a dangerous new twist to the epidemic. Almost immediately the State Department proposed a novel antiskyjacking solution: free one-way flights to Cuba for anyone who wished to go, provided they vowed never to return to the United States. But Castro refused to accept these "good riddance flights"; he had no incentive to help America curtail its skyjackings, which gave him excellent fodder for his marathon sermons against capitalist decadence.

Unwilling to spend the money necessary to weed out passengers with dark intentions, the airlines instead focused on mitigating the financial impact of skyjacking. They decided that their top priority was to avoid violence, since passenger or crew fatalities would surely generate an avalanche of bad publicity. As a result, every airline adopted policies that called for absolute compliance with all hijacker demands, no matter how peculiar or extravagant. A November 1968 memo that Eastern Air Lines circulated among its employees made clear that even minor attempts at heroism were now strictly forbidden:

The most important consideration under the act of aircraft piracy is the safety of the lives of passengers and crew. Any other factor is secondary ... In the face of an armed threat to any crew member, comply with the demands presented. Do not make an attempt to disarm, shoot out, or otherwise jeopardize the safety of the flight. Remember, more than one gunman may be on board ... To sum up, going on past experience, it is much more prudent to submit to a gunman's demands than attempt action which may well jeopardize the lives of all on board.

To facilitate impromptu journeys to Cuba, all cockpits were equipped with charts of the Caribbean Sea, regardless of a flight's intended destination. Pilots were briefed on landing procedures for José Martí International Airport and issued phrase cards to help them communicate with Spanish-speaking hijackers. (The phrases to which a pilot could point included translations for "I must open my flight bag for maps" and "Aircraft has mechanical problems — can't make Cuba.") Air traffic controllers in Miami were given a dedicated phone line for reaching their Cuban counterparts, so they could pass along word of incoming flights. Switzerland's embassy in Havana, which handled America's diplomatic interests in Cuba, created a form letter that airlines could use to request the expedited return of stolen planes.

As the airlines labored to make each hijacking as quick and painless as possible, the American public grew to accept unscheduled diversions to Havana as a routine risk of air travel. Comedians mined the phenomenon for corny jokes, none more mimicked than Jerry Collins's quip that stewardesses were being trained to ask hijacked passengers, "Coffee, tea, or rum daiquiris, sir?" Pundits shrugged their shoulders at the epidemic, convinced that nothing could be done to halt its spread. "It seems the best we can do is add airplane hijacking to the list of things we don't like, along with sin and high taxes," wrote the editorial board of The Pittsburgh Press in December 1968, "and pray there are no tragedies."

From The Skies Belong To Us by Brendan Koerner. Copyright 2013 by Brendan Koerner. Excerpted by permission of Random House.

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