Interview with Brendan I. Koerner: Love and Terror in ‘The Skies Belong to Us’
Travel Interviews: In the late 1960s and early 1970s, hijackings in American skies were routine. Eva Holland talks to the author of a new book about one young couple's wild long-distance heist.
07.02.13 | 10:40 AM ET
Once upon a time, hijackers took control of American planes almost every week. They demanded cash, or passage to Cuba, and sometimes they got away with both. This was the era of D.B. Cooper, and the final years of the Vietnam War, and a troubled country was fascinated by the epidemic. Among the skyjackers who enjoyed fleeting fame were Roger Holder and Cathy Kerkow, a young couple with vague ideas about protesting the war, rescuing imprisoned black activist Angela Davis, and escaping to a new life overseas.
Most of that era’s skyjackers have long since been forgotten. But in a new book, The Skies Belong to Us, author Brendan I. Koerner tells the unlikely story of Holder and Kerkow, perpetrators of the longest-distance hijacking in U.S. history. “The Skies” is a fascinating yarn that brings to life a strange period in aviation history. I got in touch with Koerner, a contributing editor at Wired, to ask about an era that most of today’s frequent fliers are too young to remember.
World Hum: How did you first get interested in the skyjacking era?
Brendan Koerner: In October 2009, I read a New York Times story about a man named Luis Armando Peña Soltren, a former Puerto Rican nationalist who had helped hijack a Pan Am jet to Cuba in 1968. After spending the next 41 years living in Fidel Castro’s socialist “paradise,” he had decided that he could no longer bear to remain apart from the wife and daughter he had left behind. So at the age of 66, Soltren elected to voluntarily return to the United States. He was, of course, arrested the moment he stepped off his plane at JFK Airport, on charges that carried a possible life sentence. (He ended up receiving 15 years in prison, though an appeal is in progress.)
Soltren’s story intrigued me for a couple of reasons. For starters, I was struck by the fact that it had taken him over four decades to muster the courage to reunite with his family. I wondered how his thought process had evolved over the years, so that he finally came to the realization that he would prefer an American prison cell to a Havana apartment. But more prosaically, I was just amazed that he had managed to hijack a plane in the first place—something that seems fairly unfathomable in this day and age of the infuriating TSA gauntlet.
When I did a little digging into Soltren’s case, I discovered that his hijacking was just one of scores that had occurred during the late 1960s and early 1970s. I had always been vaguely aware that aviation security used to be a bit more porous, but I had no idea that skyjacking had once been such a pervasive problem in the U.S.—there were periods when two planes were swiped every week! And the more I read about the phenomenon, the more engrossed I became in the narratives of desperation and delusion that lay behind each episode.
Out of all the characters who were hijacking planes in those years, how did you decide to focus on Holder and Kerkow?
It was Cathy Kerkow who first drew me in. Part of the reason was that she was a woman—skyjacking was primarily a male pursuit, so she stuck out from the Y-chromosome pack. But I was more intrigued by the fact that she didn’t have an obvious reason for getting involved in this bizarre escapade. She was just a fun-loving 20-year-old with no real history of political activism or criminality. So why would she turn her back on everything she had ever known in order to hijack a jet across an ocean? I became obsessed with trying to worm my way inside Kerkow’s head and figure out her motivations.
What sealed my infatuation with the story was the fact that Holder and Kerkow had crossed paths as children. When Holder discovered that fact back in January 1972, he took it as a cosmic omen that he and Kerkow were meant to do something spectacular together; I took it as a sign that if I passed up the chance to tell this tale, I would always regret it.
I was interested in the intersection of race, the Vietnam War, and the skyjacking epidemic. Was that a pattern that emerged during your research, or was it something that was noticed and acknowledged by observers at the time?
So many skyjackers were mentally unstable Vietnam veterans that the concept became something of a cliché: in the cheesy 1972 Charlton Heston film “Skyjacked,” for example, the bad guy (played by a young James Brolin) turns out to be a stereotypically frazzled vet who escaped from a psychiatric hospital. There wasn’t a lot of sympathy for these damaged men at the time, primarily because there was such a poor understanding of the psychological consequences of combat. Guys would come home to find that none of their friends or family members could understand what they had experienced, and that they were unable to cope with the demands of “normal” life. Sometimes those feelings of dislocation and bewilderment would morph into irrational anger, at which point skyjacking for escape or profit could seem like a reasonable solution—a radical way to right a wayward life.
As for race, I obviously went into the project knowing that Holder and Kerkow were an interracial couple, and I assumed that fact partly explained the chief goal of their hijacking—namely, to obtain the freedom of imprisoned black radical Angela Davis. But it wasn’t so easy to nail down how racial experiences had shaped the couple—Holder, for example, had been a victim of prejudice from both sides of the American racial divide, while Kerkow had gone through a superficial dalliance with the Black Panthers. My big takeaway from all my reporting is that although broad racial grievances played a role in a lot of skyjackings, they were often secondary to more deeply personal motives—love affairs gone wrong, disputes with the government, searing memories of Vietnam. In the thick of the epidemic, though, observers rarely bothered with such nuance—Holder and Kerkow were widely characterized as Black Panthers, even though neither one was a member of the party prior to the hijacking.
Another intriguing theme was the idea of airplanes as a symbol of American power and luxury. These days we hear a lot about the decline of air travel, of “flying buses,” and so on. This is the age of RyanAir and no-frills flight. Do you think planes still hold that kind of power, or has their luster faded?
This is something I discussed a lot with the retired airline pilots who I interviewed for the book. They’re a surprisingly close-knit bunch, with active alumni networks. That’s because they have such fond memories of their time in the skies—they genuinely enjoyed their jobs, because they felt they were part of something greater than merely ferrying customers from Point A to Point B. Commercial air travel was still something of a novelty back then, so passengers were often quite amazed to realize that they were hurtling through the air at 400 miles per hour while enjoying unlimited champagne. Pilots were viewed as debonair heroes, and the planes they commanded were regarded as symbols of America’s technological supremacy.
That awe has obviously faded over the decades, perhaps because we’ve grown so accustomed to air travel as a utility rather than a luxury. Planes just don’t hold the same allure for anyone too young to remember the Golden Age of Hijacking—myself included. I remember this one time back when I was a kid and I wanted to wear sweatpants on a trip somewhere. My dad was flabbergasted, because he always dressed up to get on planes—a blazer, a tie, nicely shined shoes. He couldn’t understand why I viewed air travel as just a mode of transportation, not some brief holiday in the skies. Writing this book gave me a much better understanding of where he was coming from—though, to be honest, I’m not sure I’ll ever dress to the nines for JetBlue.
You write a lot about the debate over privacy vs. security as American legislators grappled with the skyjacking threat and how to stop it. Were you tempted to draw parallels to the post-9/11 years?
I went back and forth on this issue a bunch of times, but I ultimately chose to stop short of dealing with 9/11 and its aftermath. I do flick at how the reliance on private contractors created serious security flaws, and how the airlines failed to update their crisis-management policies for decades. But going beyond mere hints about the catastrophe to come struck me as a notch too on-the-nose, and possibly exploitative. I trust that readers will grasp the parallels without me having made them explicit.
Finally, has any of this changed the way you fly?
Early on in my research, one of the pilots I interviewed sent me this beautiful scale model of a Boeing 727—the type of jet that Holder and Kerkow hijacked near Seattle. Holding it in my hands and checking out its unique three-engine design, I realized that I never paid attention to the sort of aircraft I traveled in—maybe for a moment while reading the safety card in the seat pocket, but not much beyond that. Now I totally geek out on planes, to the point that I can identify them as they fly overhead. That’s a really useful skill for me to have, seeing as how I have a curious five-year-old son and we live just two miles from LaGuardia Airport. The kid will grow up knowing his Airbuses from his Embraers, for sure.