Thursday, August 1, 2013

Book Review: The Skies Belong to Us

As a long time fan of Wired magazine (I was a subscriber from issue #1 for many years before my interest in all things computer related waned but have been following them more closely again as they have branched out into so many other areas) seeing that the author of this book possessed some Wired pedigree got me beyond just viewing the front cover as I knew it would be well written and interesting.

I was not disappointed. Brendan Koerner uses one airline hijacking in particular to delve into the whole skyjacking phenomenon prevalent throughout the 60's and 70's. From the reluctance of the airlines to submit to passenger screenings to the sometimes off the hinges methods behind the skyjackings, Koerner covers it all with humor and insight. This is not to say the the book is funny, its not. Its just that its overall attitude is an off the cuff, slightly irreverent one that I enjoy.

One comes away from the book understanding why skyjacking rose in prominence and frequency during this period and why it is nearly extinct today. In today's world of undressing, full body scans, explosive material wipedowns, confiscation of water bottles, etc. it seems downright amazing that in 70's individuals were allowed to board unscreened, unsearched and virtually unquestioned. Carrying a loaded gun onto a plane?? Sure, have at it!!

Not only that but the policies in place by both the airlines and the federal government virtually ensured via their complete capitulation to the hijackers on all terms and conditions (a million dollars?? Sure!! Here you go!) that the numbers and severity of the instances would only increase.

While the book focuses on the hijacking of a plane in California by a Richard Holder (African American, Vietnam Vet with delusions of the many and varied kind) and Cathy Kerkow (a white, hippy, moron--are there any other kind?) and its resulting attempt to free a communist philosophy teacher from her murder charges while absconding with $500,000 at first to North Vietnam and when that didn't work out, to Algeria where they would join the Black Panther leadership in exile and eventually gain asylum in France where they were lauded by all sorts of left wing sympathizers (Jean Paul Sartre as one amongst many).

The story of these two wanna be world changers ends with more of a whimper than a bang (best thing to be said of them is that they never directly injured anyone during their escapades) but by that point you are satisfied with the book because you've learned so much. The advent of modern day airport security, the end of hijacking as we knew it (until 9/11), the collapse of Cuba as a haven for American terrorists, the virus spreading like nature of skyjackings, etc. It is shocking to someone of my age to find out that during the late 60's and early 70's that there could generally be said to occur a skyjacking on American soil every week. Compare that to the 1990's where there wasn't a single skyjacking in the entire decade and you realize the massive change that has occurred. Prior to reading this book I thought the famed case of DB Cooper (the guy who got a ransom and then parachuted out of a plane with said ransom into the wilds of the American Northwest, never to be found) was a one off instance--turns out it was one of MANY instances where hijackers commandeered an airplane, received money and jumped from the plane with a parachute (to one level of success or another). I was dumbfounded. You mean there was a time in recent history where people were routinely taking over planes, obtaining six figures ransom sums and parachuting out all around the country?? That's insane! And sometimes it takes a quality bit of reporting and storytelling to bring the craziness of our recent, overlooked history to light.

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