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The Skies Belong to Us: Love and Terror in the Golden Age of Hijacking Paperback – June 17, 2014

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Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

Embedding a 1972 skyjacking in the technical and international contexts of the phenomenon, Koerner recounts the incident through the life of its perpetrator. Like the protagonist of his previous title, Now the Hell Will Start (2008), Roger Holder was a black soldier with grievances against the army. Mining Holder’s paper trail in military, police, and legal records, and ultimately interviewing Holder himself, Koerner sets the scene when hijacking crept into Holder’s mind as a spectacular solution to his problems. Bringing his white girlfriend, Catherine Kerkow, along, he grandiosely aspired to strike a blow for revolution. He demanded money, the release of Angela Davis, and transport to Hanoi. Changing plans as his crime transpired, Holder instead settled for Algiers, intending to unite with Black Panther leader Eldridge Cleaver. Wearing out their welcome, Holder and Kerkow drifted to France, where the vogue for radical chic—their case was toasted by Joan Baez and Jean-Paul Sartre—still flourished. Following the threads to Holder’s death in 2012 and Kerkow’s disappearance, Koerner crafts thorough research into a perceptive, riveting presentation. --Gilbert Taylor --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.


A New York Times Book Review Notable Book
Selected as a Top Ten Book of the Year by Dwight Garner, New York Times
A Boston Globe Top Nonfiction Book of 2013
An Outside Best Adventure Book of the Year
A Slate Staff Pick of 2013
ALA 2014 Notable Book
A Google Play Best Book of 2013
A San Francisco Chronicle Recommended Book of 2013
A KQED Best Book of 2013

“This material, naturally a great yarn, is handled exceedingly well… Koerner has a rare empathy, and by acknowledging the fullness of [this] strange story, he suggests a deeper truth about the nature of extremism.” New York Times Book Review

“Such pure pop storytelling that reading it is like hearing the best song of summer squirt out of the radio. Both the author and his subjects are so audacious that they frequently made me laugh out loud.” —Dwight Garner, New York Times

“Brilliantly evoking the atmosphere of the era with its bubbling racial tensions, Vietnam War disillusionment, and marijuana fug, The Skies Belong To Us weaves a vivid retelling of America’s longest-distance hijacking and its globe-spanning, stranger-than-fiction aftermath with the history of this most mediagenic of crimes... As The Skies Belong To Us so entertainingly and insightfully demonstrates, even a recent historical era can seem not merely like a different time, but like a different planet.” The Daily Beast

“The free-wheeling, hijacking-crazy days of the 1960s and early '70s come to life vividly in Brendan I. Koerner's evocative new page-turner The Skies Belong to Us: Love and Terror in the Golden Age of Hijacking. With abundant research and a sharp eye for the absurd, Koerner transports us to a time long before anyone thought of crashing planes into buildings, when people took over airplanes for all sorts of weird reasons that were only occasionally political.” Los Angeles Times

“Thrums with the revolutionary, paranoid energy of the era.” Boston Globe

“Koerner's book is original and riveting, relying on extensive information derived from Freedom of Information Act requests, newspaper reports, and original interviews… These descriptions, which form the bedrock of the book, are amazing.” Bookforum

“Skillfully re-creates this tumultuous impressive job of research that includes interviews with many of the central players in the drama...a gripping portrait of a chaotic time.” Washington Post

“Koerner captures the tenor of the times with a splendid and stylish tale.” San Francisco Chronicle

“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… Where Skies hit me wasn't merely in its text, but in the profound implications of its story on our contemporary issues.” —Anil Dash

“Brendan Koerner tracks the duo's adventures, from their mingling with Black Panthers in Algeria to schmoozing with celebs in Paris. Predictably, their sojourn soured.”
Mother Jones 

“The level of detail in The Skies Belong to Us is outstanding, and it’s these quirky pieces that make the book so mesmerizing… essential reading for anyone interested in aviation or the cultural history of the ’60s and ’70s, but honestly I don’t know how anyone could read this book and not find it enthralling.” MetroPulse

“The ratio of astonishing facts to words per page makes this book a terrifically fun summer read.” —Kathryn Schulz, New York

“[A] cracking new book.” New York Post

"Both a fascinating look into the psychology of America and a detailed portrait of the lives of two of the era’s key players, Koerner has put together a brilliant piece of narrative non-fiction that often reads like an exciting caper.” RVANews

“The true story of young lovers who commandeer a flight from LAX to Seattle and get away with one of the biggest skyjackings in American history.” Los Angeles Magazine

“A thrill-ride… Koerner’s chronicle of these events is exhaustively researched and staggering to behold.” Ask the Pilot

“Hard not to like... Koerner captures the kinetic energy of the criminals on the lam and the syrup-slow lifestyles they lead after the engines are shut off and everyone is led off the plane.” Boing Boing

“Brendan I. Koerner has meticulously reconstructed one of the maddest and most fascinating crime stories in American history.  The result is a riveting and illuminating book that will hold you in its spell.”
David Grann, author of The Lost City of Z

The Skies Belong to Us is one of the most exciting and fascinating books that I've read this year.  It recreates a time when American skyjackings were so common – and casual – that they occurred every week, and brings you into the thrilling heart of one of the most audacious hijackings in history.  I couldn't stop reading, and what's most amazing is that it's all true.”
Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit

“Brendan I. Koerner has turned an odd, nearly forgotten aerial-hijacking episode into an astonishing, hilarious, and un-put-downable true-crime narrative. I had no idea that any story could connect the Eldridge Cleaver of the Sixties with the TSA miseries of today's air travel, but The Skies Belong to Us does that and much more. This is a marvelously entertaining, instructive, and humane book.”
James Fallows, National Correspondent for The Atlantic and author of China Airborne

“Besides being a can't-put-it-down page-turner and an evocative recollection of a forgotten slice of history, The Skies Belong To Us feels uncannily relevant today in its depiction of how political forces can impede rational solutions to criminal violence.”
—Benjamin Wallace, author of The Billionaire’s Vinegar

“A thrill ride through the turbulent times when airline hijackings were a weekly occurrence, The Skies Belong to Us is true-crime writing at its best.  Fast-paced and hard to put down, Brendan I. Koerner’s historical page-tuner artfully reconstructs one of the most astonishing skyjackings of Vietnam War era while telling a larger story of politics, money, and how air travel became what it is today.” —Nick Turse, author of Kill Anything That Moves

“A riveting, highly readable tale of terror in the skies.” —Kirkus Reviews

“Koerner crafts thorough research into a perceptive, riveting presentation.” —Booklist

“Gripping… A fascinating look at the history of skyjacking. The odyssey of Holder’s life before and after his act of terror, aided by his lover, Cathy Kerkow, makes for a compelling read.” —Publishers Weekly

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Broadway Books (June 17, 2014)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0307886115
  • ISBN-13: 978-0307886118
  • Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 0.7 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 9.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (172 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #142,605 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Brendan I. Koerner is a contributing editor at Wired and the author of The Skies Belong to Us and Now the Hell Will Start, the latter of which he is currently adapting for filmmaker Spike Lee. A former columnist for both The New York Times and Slate who was named one of Columbia Journalism Review's "Ten Young Writers on the Rise," he has also written for Harper's, The New York Times Magazine, ESPN the Magazine, and many other publications. Visit him at and follow him at @brendankoerner.

Customer Reviews

This is a well written, well researched book.
The book is a wonderfully exciting story that proves that truth can be just as exciting and interesting as anything that Hollywood comes up with.
S. Power
Anchoring Koerner's tale: the amazing story of the hijacking of Western Airlines jet in June 1972 by Roger Holder and Cathy Kerkow.
Andy Orrock

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

25 of 27 people found the following review helpful By MJS on June 2, 2013
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
A book that opens with dueling quotes from Virgil and Ghostface Killah is bound to have an expansive point of view. The Skies Belong to Us does not disappoint. Part history of "The Golden Age of Hijacking" (Koerner's term) and part story of two unlikely hijackers, all informative entertainment.

Koerner's shows the evolution of hijacking in the United States during the 1960s from the use of threats and deception to secure a means of transport to Cuba to the use of threats and deception to secure unwieldy amounts of cash to the 1970s innovation of using threats and deception to secure unwieldy amounts of cash and transportation to Algeria. Occasionally someone will use a hijacking as a form of protest but aside from the rare instance of a mentally ill person acting out of delusion it's all cash or Cuba.

The airlines priorities are clear: aircraft, passengers and future revenue. It's not that the airlines would risk passenger safety to protect a 707, they're just convinced that main concern of hijackers is, to quote Tattoo, de plane, de plane. Airlines see passenger priorities as convenience first, safety second. In their eyes, given a choice between having their carry on bags x-rayed and an unscheduled trip to Havana, passengers would rather have their inconvenience be of the unexpected nature. Koerner depicts the power struggles between the airlines and the FBI and the White House over how to stop the hijacking epidemic as reminiscent of a parent trying to get a teenager to clean his room: lots of excuses, promises and reasons why it just cannot be done.

The French government and for a surprisingly long time even the American people viewed hijacking as a form of social protest slightly more annoying than a sit-in.
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Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
The story of Roger Holder and Cathy Kerkow is a dreadful, monotonous tale of mental illness, poor decision making, and excessive pot smoking. I have some sympathy for Holder, as he was clearly traumatized by his time in Vietnam, and may have had some mental issues even before then. Kerkow, on the other hand, is an amoral young woman who appears to have just done whatever she pleased because it pleased her at the time.

If the book truly focused on them, it would be a 2-star read at best. Happily, they are merely the ugly rebar scaffolding for the better 2/3 of the book, an account of the progression of skyjacking in the US, how the people and government responded, and how we got to the lull we've been in since the early 80s (2001 excepted, of course).

It's a shade before my time, but i had no idea that skyjackings used to be a weekly event. The trend had been so completely extinguished by the mid-80s that i think most people born after 1980 or so would probably find the whole history of it surprising.

The author's tightly-written prose takes the reader through summaries of dozens of skyjackings, how they related to each other, how future attempts built off them, how they affected international relations, what laws passed or failed. Intercut with these are slow, plodding chapters about Holder and Kerkow. It may not be the author's fault, as it seems Holder's major pastime was having psychiatric breakdowns and smoking vast amounts of pot. Even during the skyjacking they committed, Holder repeatedly stops for smoke breaks. I doubt it did much to curb the tension in the plane at the time, but it sure does break the flow of the story for readers after the fact.
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful By Superfast Reader on August 19, 2013
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
From 1968-1973, hijacking, once a largely anomalous and relatively peaceful act, grew into an epidemic of such proportions that weekly hijackings became the norm. In The Skies Belong to Us, Brendan I. Koerner traces the history of skyjacking from an act of rebellion rooted in the mystique of Cuba into a wildly successful and life-threatening act of piracy that was seemingly unstoppable due to the airlines collective intractability over the necessity of airport security screening procedures.

Koerner's insightful historical and cultural analysis feels fresh and current, avoiding the fusty "those were the good old days" miasma that so many works about or set in the 1960s/early 1970s seem to be mired in. The historical figures who appear in the book (Angela Davis, Eldridge Cleaver, and Fidel Castro to name a few) come to life as real people, not just symbols of the revolution. Koerner writes history like it's a thriller, and even knowing that the hijackings of this time period never hit 9/11 proportions doesn't spoil anything at all in terms of suspense and sheer narrative pleasure.

Koerner focuses on a pair of hijackers: Roger Holder, a bookish black man with paranoid tendencies who'd gone AWOL after too many tours in Vietnam, and Cathy Kerkow, a blonde, exuberant, feisty girl of 21 whose hijacking suitcase consisted of a bikini and sandals and not much else. She must not have completely understood Holder's plan, to use the plane to "rescue" Angela Davis, an high profile black intellectual on trial for kidnapping, and deliver the avowed Communist (and enemy of California governor Ronald Reagan) to Hanoi where they would all be welcomed with open arms as heroes in the struggle.
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