In an era when going through airport security demands a level of intimacy that would ordinarily require several dinner dates, it’s mildly shocking to realize that security measures were once so lax that for a brief period of time, the American skies served as a playground for an aerial version of Grand Theft Auto. As Wired contributing editor Brendan Koerner details in The Skies Belong to Us, over an 11-year period from 1961 to 1972, 159 commercial airlines were hijacked across the U.S., sometimes as frequently as twice a week. (On especially exciting days, two separate hijackings might even happen simultaneously.) The identities of the skyjackers, as the New York Daily Mirror dubbed them, were diverse: from former mental patients to wealthy white heiresses to radical Marxists. They were seen as something between outlaws and heroes, latter-day pirates propelled by the loss of late-sixties idealism and aided by the airline industry’s reticence to impose strict—or any—security measures. (Airlines feared it would cost them customers; the government more or less acquiesced.) The Skies Belong to Us takes readers through this heady age via two of its more successful protagonists, but before getting to them, allow me a quick survey of the period’s highlights.
Excepting a bizarre incident in 1954 in which a “giant teenager” unsuccessfully attempted to hijack an American Airlines flight, the threat of skyjacking was so far off the government’s radar in the late fifties that it forgot to make hijacking a crime when it passed the Federal Aviation Law in 1958. The first wave of hijackings began in the spring of 1961, when a deranged Miami electrician diverted a flight from Key West to Cuba in order to warn Castro about a fictitious assassination attempt. The man was arrested upon arrival, the passengers were treated to lunch in Havana, and the flight was delayed by three hours before landing safely in Key West.
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