Interview: Brendan Koerner, author of 'The Skies Belong To Us' In the 1960s, catching a flight wasn't much of a hassle. No lines, no security screenings and no need to show ID. But the ease of travel brought with it some serious consequences.
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Booking A Flight For The 'Golden Age Of Hijacking'

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Booking A Flight For The 'Golden Age Of Hijacking'

Booking A Flight For The 'Golden Age Of Hijacking'

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It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Arun Rath.


UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing) Fly the friendly skies of United.


RATH: Let us take you back now to a different era in air travel: the 1960s, when traveling the skies meant luxury. You could light up a cigarette on board, enjoy a five-star meal.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: lobster Newberg, filet mignon with bordelaise sauce prepared as you like it.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: In coach, we'll show you our pub. Yes, the pub is back, and it's more fun than ever.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: This airplane is just like a limousine. Feel like a millionaire sitting back all relaxed and saying, drive on.


FRANK SINATRA: (Singing) Come fly with me let's float down to Peru.

RATH: And then there was the ease of it all, like the boarding process, which wasn't any harder than getting on a bus.

BRENDAN KOERNER: You'd be dropped off at the curb, walk through the whole terminal...

RATH: That's Brendan Koerner, author of the book "The Skies Belong to Us."

KOERNER: ...onto the tarmac, to the top of the boarding stairs and sometimes onto the plane without a ticket, without showing anyone your ID, without having your body or your luggage searched at all.

RATH: Imagine that - flying before all those TSA lines, all the hassle. It was a different time.


SINATRA: (Singing) I'll be holding you so near.

RATH: But there were consequences.


SINATRA: (Singing) You make...


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: This is the news and detail on the hour from the WOR newsroom. Two airline hijackings tonight in the United States still in progress. In Los Angeles, a Western Airlines plane...

RATH: Skyjackings. When Congress created the Federal Aviation Agency in 1958, Brendan Koerner says they didn't even bother to make hijacking a crime. The prospect was just too absurd. But again and again, people seeking money or fame or passage to Havana would carry a gun or a bomb or a bluff onboard a plane and take it hostage. Amid the Vietnam War, cities erupting in riots and political assassinations, Koerner says the U.S. was also facing a skyjacking epidemic.

KOERNER: By the end of the '60s, you were having 30, 40 hijackings a year.

RATH: The spectacular hijacking that I'd always heard about from that period was D.B. Cooper. He was the guy that parachuted out of a plane with a couple hundred thousand dollars in cash. And somebody wrote a song about him, and there was an episode of "In Search Of," the Leonard Nimoy documentary show, all about him. But he wasn't even close to being the most spectacular of these characters, as it turns out.

KOERNER: Yeah. There's a couple of great ones I talk about in the book. The first one that pops to mind is Raffaele Minichiello, who was an Italian-American Marine, who had a pay dispute with the Marines and decided to solve his problem by hijacking a plane from Los Angeles to his native Italy where he was greeted as a folk hero and actually ended up signing a contract to star in a spaghetti Western after serving just 18 months in prison there.

RATH: Very handsome man too.

KOERNER: Yes, a sex symbol as well. In fact, Italian teenagers would talk about how much they wanted to marry him and how more beautiful he was than most matinee idols in that country.

RATH: Give a sense of the time as well because it didn't seem people were all that scared. It was almost like a joke.

KOERNER: That's really fascinated me. In doing the research and seeing the kind of flippant attitude people had about hijackings, a lot of people saw them as an adventure. And I think part of that goes into the way these hijackers operated. They weren't out to cause mass death and destruction. They were in it to negotiate.

And that made sense for the airlines to comply with them. They said, well, let's have them come up to the cockpit as quickly and quietly as possible and get to know what they want. So it was really a more transactional experience than a kind of terrorist experience.

RATH: You know, it was wild that what you described as how the airlines are almost in complete conflict with law enforcement, with FBI about the approach to hijackings.

KOERNER: Yeah. The biggest thing for the airlines was the bottom line. They really fear that if there was any kind of death or mayhem that results from a hijacking, they'd lose a lot of business because people would be afraid to fly. So they thought the safest thing they could do is give in to the hijacker, you'll get the plane back. If the hijacker asks for a ransom, you should get the ransom back as well because most of these hijackers weren't very good criminals.

So they figured it was much, much better financial play to have this policy of total compliance than get gun-toting federal agents involved.

RATH: Your book follows a story - in detail - of one pair of hijackers in particular who seem to really sum up a lot of what seems to be the essence of these hijacking stories. Could you talk about - tell the story of Roger Holder and Cathy Kerkow.

KOERNER: So Roger Holder was a 22-year-old Vietnam vet. He served four tours in Vietnam. And during his third tour, he was arrested for smoking a joint on a street in Saigon and sentenced to the stockade. And he felt this was very unjust based on his record of service, came into conflict with a commanding officer, was sent back to the U.S. and went AWOL and was living in San Diego, and he meets Cathy Kerkow, this 20-year-old woman from a small town in Oregon - Coos Bay, Oregon, working a massage parlor in San Diego. And it turns out that actually their paths had crossed as children.

Roger Holder's family had briefly lived in Coos Bay. And so Roger Holder was a big fan of astrology, thought that this was kismet and that they were meant to do something amazing together. And that amazing thing was hijack a plane.

RATH: It's a wild tale. It's a - we can't really get into all the details of it, but they both make their way to France. He ends up coming back to America, to a very different America. But Cathy Kerkow just sort of vanished.

KOERNER: Yeah. That's the real mystery of the book is what happened to Cathy Kerkow. She certainly seems to have vanished around 1978. And what we do know is that she was able to obtain some very convincing false document that would've helped her perhaps even get citizenship with the aid of a French associate. So I'd like to think that she's there right now.

RATH: So when was it that law enforcement and the airlines were able to finally see eye to eye on how to tackle the problem?

KOERNER: There was a real milestone event in November of 1972, the hijacking of Southern Airways Flight 49. This was a commuter flight in Alabama. And three fugitives from justice hijacked it and demanded $10 million. And they said if they didn't get that amount of money, they would crash the plane into a nuclear reactor in Tennessee. And that was the real moment when the airlines realized that planes could be used as weapons of mass destruction, and that the liabilities involved in this policy of total compliance and lack security were no longer tenable.

RATH: That the equation could not just be about trading a plane or hostages for something. It could be about, well, what we saw at 9/11.

KOERNER: Yeah. Once you had it in the mix that you - you know, turn Tennessee into a nuclear wasteland, they didn't want to be involved in that anymore. And literally, six weeks after the hijacking, you had the debut of universal physical screening that we all know and love now.

RATH: What's amazing as well is that when you're writing about the earlier days in this book, the airlines float out the possibility of, like, what could we do? Can we screen everybody? That would take forever. Nobody would ever put up with that. That would just mean chaos. And then they did it, and what happened?

KOERNER: Yeah. Actually, passengers seem to enjoy not being hijacked. The first year that they had this universal screening, there were actually no hijackings that year after they instituted it. And passenger numbers actually went up about 15 percent. So people liked the idea. At that point, things had gotten so crazy they liked the idea of not having their plane commandeered by a person with a bomb.

RATH: That's Brendan Koerner. His book is "The Skies Belong to Us: Love and Terror in the Golden Age of Hijacking." Brendan, thank you.

KOERNER: Oh, thank you.

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