It is difficult to like a book about an unlikable character and in Howard Hughes there was much not to like. Had he not had the cash machine of the Hughes Tool Company, he would have been one of those people who drifted through life never quite putting it together in either their personal or professional lives. In his later years, he either would have been institutionalized (in one era) or living on the street (in another). Nevertheless, this author and this reader pull it off and make the experience of listening to this life a fascinating experience. I will never forget the Howard Hughes instructions on opening a can of peaches.
Brendan Koerner has tapped into a fascinating piece of US history – what he calls the “golden age of hijacking” on US planes. Hundreds of planes were hijacked in America in the late 1960′s and the early 1970′s, and many planes were hijacked on the same day by coincidence. Koerner paints the picture of a time totally opposite of flight today. There was little security at airports, there were no bag checks, and passengers could pay for their flight after they boarded. In our post-9/11 world, envisioning this former era is near impossible.
The story here focuses on Roger Holder and Cathy Kerkow, a pair of skyjackers who committed the longest hijacking in American history. I felt the details of their specific story sometimes dragged here – Koerner spends a lot of time covering their pre- hijacking and post-hijacking lives. I began to lose interest with all the meandering details – other than the fact that they hijacked a plane, I’m not sure if either of these people lived a life remarkable enough to write about.
Where The Skies Belong to Us shines in its portrayal of this Mad-Max-in-the-sky time period. The sheer number of successful skyjackings from the 1960′s and 1970′s are astonishing. The young flight industry’s attempts to deal with security on planes while also rushing to accommodate the demands of each plane hijacking are almost humorous. The naivety here is remarkable – at one point, the head of the FAA discuss the impossibility of searching each passenger pre-flight. I found the variety of skyjackers and their motives to be more interesting than the specific story of Holder and Kerkow. There were a variety of reasons people skyjacked, and a huge spread of types of people involved, and many of the skyjacking plans were simple and poorly executed (yet often successful). As with the best non-fiction today, this story is too bizarre to make up.