Taking Flights

I read my friend Brendan Koerner’s The Skies Belong To Us straight through; On its surface, this is a book that tells a riveting true (not inspired-by-true, but true) story of two young lovers and the fantastic, farcical way in which they pulled off the longest-distance hijacking of an American airliner in history. That’s reason enough to recommend that you dive into it.

But what makes The Skies Belong To Us truly resonant and meaningful is the context in which it takes place. As the sixties became the seventies, commercial airline hijackings were so routine that stand up comics cracked jokes about them, and major airlines printed and distributed “what to do in case of a hijacking” handbooks for every plane in their fleet.

I met Brendan in late 2001, in a newsroom that was eventually consumed with stories about 9/11 and its aftermath for months and years. And in all the discussions at the time, not once had I ever considered that part of the fear we now placed as our greatest threat had been so common as to be laughable just thirty years earlier.

Open Skies

The Skies Belong To Us is arresting from its opening, with a cinematic attention to the details of how two ordinary kids from the suburbs got wrapped up in everything from the Black Panthers to Parisian art circles to Angela Davis to the evening news. The acknowledgments thank Spike Lee for his advice, and rewatching “Inside Man” just after reading through Skies reveals that Brendan may have taken a lesson or two in the pacing of a brilliant heist story from his work with Mr. Lee.

Where Skies hit me wasn’t merely in its text, but in the profound implications of its story on our contemporary issues. The details are so rich that there’s enough context in the book to make these connections, despite the narrative being primarily focused on the cringe-inducingly haphazard hijackers, not the evolution of security culture in the last half-century. Just some of the points that leapt out:

  • During the early 70s, airliner hijackings peaked at a rate of one every week, including the occasional rare double hijacking, when two airliners would be commandeered on the same day by separate, unrelated parties. It’s almost inconceivable to picture sentiment about a major issue flipping so dramatically from farce to terror, with the possible exception of communism, which went from mortal danger to ironic punchline over roughly the same time period.
  • The then-nascent FAA tried repeatedly to enact the ubiquitous metal detectors at every airport in America, only to be solidly rebuffed for a decade by the airlines. Though the airlines were of course concerned with cost, there was an argument made on civil liberties grounds as well. It’s a stark contrast to the lack of public debate and comment we heard from Internet companies when they were called upon to participate in PRISM, despite it being based on the same “let’s prevent this terror” premise.
  • There are early hints of how regulatory capture affects the attitude an industry has toward regulation, security culture and paranoia in general. A key player in the FAA’s efforts was Najeeb Halaby, who at the time of the story was administrator of the FAA, but then went on to champion the creation of the Department of Transportation and was later CEO and Chairman of Pan Am when that airline was at the height of its cultural importance. It may be no coincidence at all that the major airlines suddenly became much more amenable to regulation when the revolving door between industry and regulators began to spin at the highest levels of both institutions.
  • Even before the protagonists of Skies, Roger Holder and Cathy Kerkow, brought skyjacking to new heights of theatricality, the phenomenon had been so pervasive as to inspire action at the highest levels of government. What does Richard Nixon have to do with 9/11? On September 11th of 1970, President Nixon announced a program to deal with airplane hijacking, introducing sky marshalls and called for the use of the then-costly and rare metal detectors.

Too Soon

Having spent a dozen years stuck in a “too soon” mindset, I had never considered a future where the worst-case scenario might be rendered absurd. There are likely dystopian fiction works that talk about 9/11-style hijackings happening routinely, but until now there haven’t been absurdist historical novels that look back and remind us: Hey, this shit used to happen like, every day, man.

The introduction to The Skies Belong To Us quotes Virgil and Ghostface Killah, and that catholic perspective on hijacking, the boogeyman of our times, was irresistible to me. Given the fact that I like to read on planes and trains, I can offer no better endorsement of this book than the fact that I repeatedly found myself willing to brave carrying a book with the words “terror” and “hijacking” on the cover through security checkpoints. You should do the same.