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A Field Guide to the Long History of Skyjackings

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For those of us obsessed with them, stories about skyjackings offer retro fascination, criminal ingenuity and daring, and, in some cases, wackiness. Skyjackings have been around as long as aviation itself, and continue to this day. But they are most associated with their peak in the 60s-70s, when air travel evoked a sense of glamour (well-coiffed stewardess and Dungeness crab served on china). In this so-called “Golden Age” of skyjackings, global political turmoil produced many cults, revolutionary groups, and malcontents. These are colorful characters, who saw skyjackings as financial or political opportunities. While it was shockingly easy to hijack a plane back then, there were very well-planned attempts, and many wildly, stupidly bold ones. Skyjacking stories hit us on psychological and visceral levels. They reveal the repressed risk inherent to air travel. When we fly, we are vulnerable, and cede so much control to others. They also show what minimal conveniences airlines use to maintain a fragile semblance of civilization, and how horrific it would be to be stuck on a plane without them. Skyjackings are nightmares not necessarily because they’re violent, but because they can drag on—for hours, days—sometimes months. Good will tends to run out with the last of bags of peanuts, and after no one on board has showered for 48 hours.

Beyond these fun and thrilling aspects, skyjacking stories also offer more complex pleasures. The sheer variety of skyjackings (and skyjackers) means they raise many questions: not only of crime and law, but also of geopolitics, ethics, social and cultural change. They also inevitably involve questions of identity, memory, loss and trauma. Skyjacking stories are freshly relevant, as the schizoid political climate of the 60s and 70s seems closer and closer to our own.

This is a guide to the surprisingly diverse literature on skyjackings. It’s organized historically: starting with books that cover the first hijackings, and moving into more recent cases and interpretations.

Introduction: Origins to the Golden Age

Your essential introduction to skyjackings is Philip Baum’s Violence in the Skies (2016). It is comprehensive in its historical and geographical scope. Baum starts with the beginning of aviation, when skyjackings were just a way to steal airplanes, or to seek political asylum. Baum works in aviation security, but he writes well, and covers lesser-known cases from before and after the “Golden Age.” He tells the incredible story of the first-known skyjacker, a gay Hungarian aristocrat named Baron Franz von Nopsca Felsö-Szilvás. A renowned paleontologist who seriously lobbied to become King of Albania, he got desperate after the loss of his family fortune. In 1919 he hijacked a plane so he and his lover could start a new life in Vienna. Baum is fascinated by the idiosyncratic characters—Mexican opera singers, union leaders, etc—involved in skyjackings, and their often interesting (and sometimes violent) subsequent fates. (Another highlight is the too-good-to spoil story of Greek politician Vasilis Tsironis, who hijacked an El Al flight in 1969, and brought his family along with him.)

The best overview of skyjacking’s “Golden Age” comes from Brendan I. Koerner’s The Skies Belong to Us: Love and Terror in the Golden Age of Hijacking (2013). Koerner really contextualizes the phenomenon. He details many cases, giving us a sense of the assortment chancers, dissidents, and disaffected loners who thought that skyjacking could send a message, get them rich quick, or give them to a better life in an idealized foreign country. He also covers the airlines’ astonishing refusal to enact even the barest security measures (like metal detectors), even as incidences of skyjackings increased rapidly. All this is a backdrop to the story of Roger Holder and Cathy Kerkow, who, through both mishaps and dumb luck, pulled off the longest-haul hijacking of an American plane. He paints a moving portrait of Holder, disabused by both American racism and his military service, whose fervent political beliefs and mentally illness combined to hatch his plan to get a plane and take Angela Davis (then on trial for weapons possession and conspiracy to murder) to Vietnam. (He was not the only skyjacker who considered liberating Davis.) His girlfriend Kerkow, a party girl with loosely left-wing beliefs, was his second-in-command. Things, of course, didn’t go as planned, and they ended up in Algeria hanging out with Eldredge Cleaver and other exiled Black Panthers. They fled to Europe, where they mingled with aristocrats, the literati, and movie stars. Koerner narrates the twists and turns of their story admirably, particularly that of the elusive Kerkow. (It is, by far, the best portrayal of a female hijacker in all these books.)

“No Funny Business”: D. B. Cooper

No figure is more synonymous with the Golden Age of skyjacking than that unknown highwayman of the air, D.B. Cooper. On the day before Thanksgiving in 1971, Cooper skyjacked a Boeing 727 headed from Portland to Seattle. (He claimed to have a bomb in his attaché case). After he got his $200,000 ransom and 4 parachutes, Cooper released all passengers and instructed the pilot to chart a course to Mexico City. Somewhere over southwestern Washington, Cooper opened the airstair and jumped from the plane. Despite an extensive FBI investigation and a slew of suspects over the years, Cooper has never been found.

Cooper became a folk hero because of the daring of his crime. He also was an anomaly: his white, middle-class, apolitical non-descriptness, and his seeming expertise in aviation and parachuting, distinguished him from the pack. I regret to inform you that the definitive non-fiction account of the Cooper case has yet to be written. Most of the recently published, readily available books make the case for an individual suspect. Few are well-written, fewer still are convincing. Any serious attempt to reckon with the case is hampered by two things: a dearth of physical evidence, and the high likelihood that Cooper, whoever he was, did not survive the jump.

In my opinion, the Cooper case is a “print the legend” story if there ever was one. So the best book I can recommend is Elwood Reid’s’s novel D.B. (2004). Reid gives us the ending we want: Cooper survives the jump, and has a series of picaresque adventures, including hanging out with a cult devoted to the utopian cooperative philosophies of the architect Buckminster Fuller. Reid perfectly captures Cooper’s white, male middle-aged observations and desultory interactions with the burnout fringes of the counterculture. Reid’s language really captures the mentality of the man we imagine Cooper to be. He perfectly evokes the characters, ideas and lingo of the period—his style it has a bit of the neo-hardboiled, compulsively readable style of James Crumley. He wisely understands Cooper as an avatar of his strange and turbulent era.

Terrorist Skyjackings: The PFLP

The most high-profile, and most feared, terrorist skyjackers were the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, or PFLP. Wadie Haddad, the leader of the PFLP’s military wing, believed that, since they could never match Israel in military might, skyjackings were the most effective (and spectacular) means to draw national attention to the Palestinian cause. PFLP members were some of the best-trained skyjackers. In desert camps, they were not only taught to fly planes, but were also drilled in security measures and local laws in various destinations. The PFLP executed several skyjackings, with varying degrees of success.

The best book on PFLP skyjackings is Operation Thunderbolt (2015) by Saul David. It tells the story of the PFLP’s hijacking of an Air France flight bound from Tel Aviv to Paris in 1976. The flight finally landed at Entebbe airport in Kampala, Uganda, where the terrorists were welcomed and supported by president Idi Amin. The remaining 107 hostages (one woman, incredibly, managed to get off the plane by faking both a pregnancy and a miscarriage) were left to bunk at an Entebbe airport terminal, with the Israeli passengers ominously separated from the rest. Meanwhile, in Jerusalem, there was a heated debate between then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who favored negotiation with the PFLP, and then-Defense Minister Shimon Peres, who insisted military intervention was the only option.

David is an historian of Africa, but he also has a great eye for character and human drama. In Murder on The Orient Express, Hercule Poirot famously notes that a train is a fascinating a cross-section of humanity. The same is true of this particular ill-fated flight, and David includes many incredible details of the evolving relationships between diverse characters, which become both closer and more strained as they are stuck together in strained circumstances for days on end. (Skyjackers never seem to prepare for the amount of tension that will mount when people don’t have free and regular access to clean toilets). No other skyjacking book better details these alliances and annoyances that develop between hostage. His description of the daring rescue attempt eventually attempted by the Israelis reads like a taut thriller.

Thrills and Chills: Popular and Literary Fiction about Skyjackings

Thrillers are an offshoot of the skyjacking genre. The sheer frequency and wildness of skyjackings in the “Golden Age” inspired the fertile imaginations of pulpy authors. Even one Nancy Drew book—The Sky Phantom (1976, #53)—put her on the case of a highjacked plane. As wacky as the premises of these thrillers sometimes are, fiction was not often that much stranger than truth in this era. My personal favorite of these is 1979’s The Vatican Target, by Barry Schiff and Hal Fishman. Its bold premise is that PFLP-style terrorists skyjack a plane on which the Pope is traveling to a conference. (This is something that some terrorist groups actually contemplated). The conceit is quite a good bit of satire: the terrorists conclude that the only way to get the West to pay attention to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is by taking a prominent Christian hostage. As part of their complex plan, the terrorists also kidnap the families of the flight crew, setting parallel plots in motion. The (unnamed) Pope meets the situation with benevolent equanimity, but also a surprising sense of humor. A bitchy TV star starts scripting the anecdotes he’ll tell Johnny Carson about the trip. Most of the airplane plot is a showdown between the head terrorist—the ultra-competent, super-cool Fadia—and the experienced, just-shy-of-retirement captain Mallory, who meets the crisis with a revived sense of purpose. When Fadia insists that the plane land on a Jordanian airstrip during a sandstorm, Mallory (in cahoots with Israeli air traffic control) concocts a plan to land at a nearby Israeli airstrip instead. This leads to a cockamamie scheme (a bizarro version of the Entebbe raid) where Israeli soldiers put a lot of Jordanian flags up at the Israeli airstrip and dress in Arab military garb. The characters are well-sketched and fun, and the dialogue snappy. The plot gets bogged down with details of the nuts and bolts of aviation, but it leads to a satisfyingly action-packed conclusion. The fun is marred by the kidnapping subplot, where an earnest attempt at a feminist portrayal of Mallory’s daughter, Jane, that goes entirely off the rails when she falls in love with one of her kidnappers. Yet overall, Vatican Target is enriched by a refreshingly sophisticated generous understanding of its era, and its characters’ varying political commitments.

William Herrick’s Love and Terror (1980), attempts a more literary investigation of skyjacking and the psychology of the terrorist. It is loosely inspired by an ill-fated plot by the Red Army Faction (or Baader-Meinhof group.) They hijacked a Lufhtansa flight in 1977 in a desperate bid to release their leaders from prison. (A West German counter-terrorist group stormed the plane, killing 3 of the 4 terrorists and rescuing all the passengers. The imprisoned RAF leaders died by suicide shortly after.) Herrick reconstructs his fictional skyjacking through the recovered diary of one of the terrorists, the coolly single-minded Viktor K. The diary maps the political evolution that led young anti-fascist Germans, who rebelled because of their horror at their parents’ collaboration with the Nazis, came to justify holding Israeli Jews hostage in a skyjacking. Herrick does his due diligence recreating the Marxist intellectual debates preoccupying German students at the time. But he ultimately falls into a clichéd depiction of these young terrorists as glamorous and sex-crazed. The terrorist Gabriele—the daughter of an ex-Nazi steelworks mogul, who works out her daddy issues with forensically planned bank bombings and rough sex—is a simply ludicrous character. (For all its pulpiness, Vatican Target does a better job depicting a German female terrorist.) This is a shame, because the book is poignant and profound when it provides the testimony of three elderly Israeli hostages from the flight. They were soldiers, spies and resistance members during the Spanish Civil War and World War II. Interactions with the young terrorists make them recall their alternations between Communist, anarchist and anti-Fascist beliefs, and the moral and ideological compromises they made in the fog of war. They compare their younger selves to these terrorists, who one of them calls her “swinish children.” It is convenient to draw a strict line between the leftist thought that fueled principled resistance to fascism in the 30s and 40s, and the left-wing philosophy guiding terrorist groups in the 60s, 70s, and beyond. In highlighting uncomfortable connections between these, Herrick at times creates a devastatingly human look at tumultuous, traumatic decades of European history.

“The Worst Day We Have Ever Seen”: 9/11

No skyjacking has been deadlier, or as impactful, as the terrorist attacks on 9/11. It transformed geopolitics, as well as air travel, for decades, in ways we are still dealing with now.

In 2001, the Federal Aviation Administration was aware of the increasing likelihood of a new kind of skyjacking, where planes would be used as weapons for suicide missions. Yet they had developed no new protocols for such a scenario, and did not alert personnel to the potential danger. Flight control and law enforcement were accustomed to the skyjackings of the past, where the protocol was nonviolent compliance. When they heard the first reports of irregular flight paths of planes coming out of Boston’s Logan airport (the flights that would eventually hit the Twin Towers), authorities did not grasp the seriousness of the situation. Even as they received reports of crew and passengers being stabbed with box cutters (which were then permitted on airplanes), many still felt the situation could be peacefully resolved.

Garrett M. Graff’s The Only Plane in The Sky (2019) is an oral history of the day itself, with some codas and afterwords. Graff assembles an incredibly compelling narrative, with cinematic cross-cutting between phone calls from crew and passengers on the doomed planes and the many aviation professionals attempting to figure out what was going on. This inexorable, compelling narrative ends in horror as passengers and citizens on the ground see and hear planes flying by their buildings, and then finally crashing into them—first the Twin Towers, then the Pentagon. A final flight, United 93 crash landed in a field in Pennsylvania, after the passengers, aware of what had happened to the other planes, stormed the cockpit and fought the terrorists. (The phone calls and testimony of the loved ones of these passengers—United 93—are especially heartbreaking.) Graff weaves these stories together with clarity and restraint, and situates them dramatically within the stories of the crash sites and first responders, as well as the testimony of a wide cast of characters—Congresspeople, chefs, and schoolteachers—affected on that day, directly or tangentially.

The oral history format of Only Plane in the Sky means that statements from many powerful figures who made (or didn’t make) decisions that day go unchallenged. Anthony Summers’ and Robyn Swan’s The Eleventh Day (2011) is a thorough, essential investigation of the day itself. It investigates lingering questions of what happened in the sky on 9/11. They reveal a stunning inability of National and regional air control systems to communicate and coordinate. It is not clear if, as then Vice President Dick Cheney has claimed, an order was given to shoot down passenger aircraft to prevent them from crashing into buildings. Questions also remain about President George W. Bush’s movements on Air Force One over the course of the day. The Eleventh Day is stunningly lucid and well reported, and does a noble job distinguishing between the highly implausible conspiracy theories about the events of the day, and the genuine gaps and contradictions in the official record.

Down the Rabbit Hole: Post-9/11 Fiction

The shock of 9/11—its rupturing of our sense of reality itself—inspired compelling fiction inspired by the skyjackings of an earlier era. They have conspiratorial views of history and geopolitics, and paranoic uncertainty about truth and identity.

Heidi Julavits’s The Effect of Living Backwards is a postmodernist, Pynchon-esque depiction of an unusual skyjacking, which turns into a brain-teaser examination of truth, morality and identity. Abstract and playful, the story actually takes place after 9/11 (called “The Big Terrible”), but the skyjacking is more old-school. Two competitive, co-dependent sisters are on a skyjacked plane to Morocco. However, this is no run-of-the mill skyjacking, but rather an experimental training exercise cooked up by a shadowy organization called the International Institute for Terrorist Studies. The Institute has split into two factions—the Incursionists and the Brain Worms—who have warring ideas about terror prevention. The sisters and the other passengers are test subjects, submitted to ethical whirligigs as the skyjackers chart when passengers will act altruistically and when will instinctively saving their own skins. Alice our narrator—the shy, insecure sister—realizes that “this was merely a game, where to lose was not to die but to be humiliated before a planeful of strangers.” Sorting through shifting truths and allegiances, Alice discovers repressed, perverse desires, like her compulsive need to control or one-up her sister.  She finds the skyjackers’ ethical games “distressingly addictive, particularly when you’re forced into them at gunpoint.” These ethical mindfucks force strange encounters between many characters with strange, traumatic backgrounds. But the backbone of the story is the relationship between the sisters: how much of it is real, and how much does it conform to conventional morality when placed in extremis.

Jeanette Turner Hospital’s Due Preparations for the Plague is similarly obsessed with conspiracies and the ethics of terrorism and counter-terrorism. It concerns the aftermath of a 1987 skyjacking. All the children were let off the plane, while the adults (it seems) died in the subsequent explosion. United via the Internet, the child survivors also connect with other individuals connected to the flight, like the son of the passengers, whose late father was a spy who left him a cache of documents about the crash. As these survivors try to put together the pieces, Turner Hospital flashes back to the skyjacking itself, from the point of view of different adults who were on the flight. There are strange links between them—as in The Effects of Living Backwards, we soon suspect that this hijacking is not what it seems. Despite its conspiratorial hijinxs and philosophical monologues, Turner Hospital makes her characters feel fully human, capturing the terror of being on that plane, and the lingering loss and trauma that comes from being pawns in a geopolitical game.

Present Day: Mind Games

As we move farther away from 9/11, using idea of skyjacking as a pretext for philosophical discussion seems more palatable. Ferdinand von Schirach’s hit play Terror (2015) makes a skyjacking the occasion for an ethical debate. In this courtroom drama, a fighter pilot is on trial for shooting down a highjacked plane, killing 164 people. The case, however, poses a moral quandary, because the plane was headed towards a football stadium full of 70,000 spectators. It’s an intensified version of the famous trolley problem: “Are there situations in our lives where it is right, proper and prudent to kill people? And indeed: where doing anything else would be absurd and even inhuman?” The legal battle between the prosecution and defense becomes an intellectual inquiry into whether we should obey the letter or the spirit of the law. Should we act for the greater public good, or always uphold the dignity of each individual human life? The taut scenes of examination of cross-examination gradually reveal details of the case that could change the spectator’s mind about the verdict. (The defense ministry never gave an order to evacuate the stadium, despite having ample time to do so; the passengers were preparing to storm the cockpit when the plane was shot down.) Both defense and prosecution pose a series of “what ifs?” that make us think through when, if ever, it would be justifiable to sacrifice one life to save others. It’s a well-structured drama that see-saws you back and forth on the question of guilt or innocence. The testimony feels emotional enough to give personal, human weight to the intellectual exercise. The play has two possible endings, a conviction and an acquittal. At each performance, the audience votes to decide the pilot’s fate.

“Maybe we’re being too theoretical here,” says the pilot on trial for his life in Terror. Twenty years later, we still feel the aftershocks of 9/11, but a skyjacking story can still work. as a fun night out of the theater. Skyjacking stories are about both escapist entertainment and political, historical and ethical questions. It will be interesting to see what new trends emerge in the genre.

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Michael Neff
Algonkian Producer
New York Pitch Director
Author, Development Exec, Editor

We are the makers of novels, and we are the dreamers of dreams.

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