Review: The Skies Belong To Us

Reality TV. Everyone mocks it, but there’s no denying how easy it is to get reeled in if you give it a chance. During my high-school years I watched my fair share of Survivor, American Idol, and even The Bachelor. And Dateline, which I know claims to be news, but seriously. Who watches it for the purpose of gathering information? We watch it for the scandal, the drama, the crime.

I don’t watch reality TV anymore, (except for The Great British Bake-Off, which I need, of course). Mostly, I just have other things to do with my time. But I still get my dose of real-life drama through reading. I love thrilling books. And historical crime books combine my love of a good thrill and my love for history. One of my all-time favorite books is Public Enemies by Bryan Burrough. And The Devil In the White City was also great (even if it was a bit gruesome at points). In the same vein, I recently listened to The Skies Belong To UsLove and Terror in the Golden Age of Hijacking, by Brendan Koerner.

Koerner writes of the five-year period of time when plane hijackings occurred as often as once a week. He follows the story of Roger Holder, a veteran of Vietnam, and Cathy Kerkow, who planned the longest-distance hijacking in U.S. history. With their story as the unifying narrative, Koerner peppers the book with countless other stories of hijackings to give a larger picture of the history of hijacking and the slow progression of the airlines and FAA toward instituting airport security.

Some people will find the many stories of hijackings repetitive, but I enjoyed them immensely. They were, honestly, hilarious. I remember an old TV show called “America’s Dumbest Criminals,” and truly, many of these hijackers belong in that category.  For example, one hijacker’s demand included not only a parachute by which to make his escape with the ransom money, but also an instructor’s manual on how to skydive. Destined for success, that man.

I don’t like to give away too much about the books I review, so I won’t say very much about the actually story in the book. But I can say a few things:

  • The characters are fascinating. Cathy and George, primarily, but the other, minor characters, are also really interesting people of their time — political leaders, other hijackers, roommates, family members, etc. I liked learning about them.
  • I learned some things about the history of airlines and the FAA that I didn’t know. Just small nuggets that help me make a little more sense of airports. It’s a pretty minor part of the book, but I thought it was interesting.
  • Cuba! I had no idea that Vietnam war protestors defected to Cuba. I enjoyed learning about the relationship between the two, and also the places where wanted criminals could take refuge. And Castro’s reaction to receiving hijackers.
  • I learned a little about the international reach of the Black Panthers, and their exiled leaders.

I think, though, that what this book does best, even if accidentally, is give a clear picture of how so many social issues are interconnected. In this one story, this one snapshot, so to speak, readers see how issues like race, mental illness, war, national politics, international relations, and corporate greed played into this one episode of American history.

The Skies Belong to Us may not be for everyone. I really enjoyed it, but not everyone in my book club found it as interesting. It takes quite some time to tell one rather short story, but remember: the goal isn’t necessarily to just tell that one story, but to give a picture of that period of history. I listened to it, so that may have helped me stay engaged — I’m not sure if the stories of other hijackings would have seemed repetitive if I had been reading a hard copy.

That said, I think you will enjoy this book if you are an adult who likes crime and adventure, Vietnam-era or flight history, and is used to reading non-fiction.

[Note: There are references to sex, nudity, and drugs, but it is not excessively graphic and Koerner does not condone drug use or extra-marital sex in the book.]

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