Review: The Skies Belong To Us

Brendan Koerner has found an amazing corner of history to explore and does it with verve.  The corner is the rash of skyjackings from the mid-1960’s to the mid-1970’s, and it’s amazing to the point of unbelievability. I’m old enough that I remember comics using getting skyjacked to Cuba as a punchline, but even in the late 70’s it seemed stale and overblown. Skyjackings always seemed rare to me, and air travel simple and safe.  Mentally disturbed people shot public figures to get in the news; they didn’t reroute aircraft.

But, oh, things were not always thus.  If I were 10 years older, skyjacking punchlines would not seem like “take my wife” lines, but like the edgy references they were. The golden age of skyjacking was short lived – about a decade – but spectacular.  Before the airlines finally began using metal detectors, skyjackings were a weekly occurrence – if not more frequent.  Koerner uses a particular 1972 skyjacking as a case study/framing story and there were 2 skyjackings that day.

It is a fascinating and alien world where the airlines are fighting metal detectors as impractical and intrusive in the face of armed passengers frequently commandeering aircraft.  And the skyjackers are an amazing lot as well.  Some want to get the attention of the media, some want the money, some want to leave the country.  One fellow flees to Italy and becomes a celebrity and movie star based on the skyjacking notoriety. As, I say, fascinating.

Koerner’s framing story captures the spirit of the times by following a specific case.  A troubled veteran and his hippy girlfriend carry out a less-than-precision operation that takes them to Algeria to  join a set of Black Panthers in exile.  The original plan was homesteading in Australia after a stopover in Vietnam, but improvisation is apparently a hijacker’s best friend.

Koerner follows them as they appear and disappear, joining Paris society and eventually (for at least one of them) wending their way back to the US. It’s a remarkable story, and the backdrop and snippets of other skyjacking tales capture a nigh-unbelieveable period in American history with clarity and style.

Highly recommended.

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