The year was 1972. Roger Holder was a former soldier, traumatised by what he'd seen and done in Vietnam. Cathy Kerkow was an intelligent but aimless young woman adrift in San Diego's bohemian demi-monde. Together, they took a plane to Algiers.
It wasn't a scheduled destination, but Holder convinced the pilots that a change of course was in order by claiming his attaché case contained a bomb and that he had henchmen on the plane eager to detonate it. The couple had originally planned to fly to Hanoi as a gesture of solidarity to North Vietnam. Then, by some unexplained means which apparently made sense at the time, they would end up contentedly sheep farming in the Australian Outback. But after a great deal of thought, a lot of powerful marijuana and extensive consultation of a book on popular astrology, Holder decided that the couple's destiny lay in North Africa.
The long, enthralling and bizarre tale of what Roger and Cathy did that day and what happened to them as a result forms the centrepiece of Brendan I Koerner's The Skies Belong to Us. But the book as a whole is about an altogether bigger wild ride, the one which saw an explosion of skyjacking begin in the United States in the 1960s and persist until a stunned government and airline industry began to put in place the measures that have ended up making today's airports ongoing experiments in the concept of maximum security.
Why did people hijack airliners in those innocent days, long before it occurred to Osama bin Laden and friends that they could be used as instruments of mass murder? Let us count the reasons. Some did it out of half-baked but sincere commitment to political causes. Some did it out of sheer exuberance. Some were clinically insane. A surprisingly large number were teenagers making an unexpected flanking movement in the perennial adolescent war against parental restriction. One fellow was annoyed at how much he was being charged to go to agricultural college. Another wanted independence for Hawaii. Some did it to raise ransom money. Some were drunk. Some got drunk in mid-hijack, like the gang who emptied the whole plane minibar over the course of a five-airport jaunt around the Lower 48.
The largest number seemed to be working off obscure and long-lasting personal grievances against persons or institutions entirely unconnected with the world of aviation. Their aim was to force people in authority to listen to them while they made long, rambling speeches. Wherever they forced the plane to go, the final destination they had in mind was the press conference. If that was followed by the penitentiary, it was still a price worth paying.
"Though the men and women who hijacked planes would claim dozens of different motives," writes Koerner, "they all shared a keen sense of desperation - a belief, however deluded, that only the most extreme of measures could redeem them."
In the years following the Second World War, hijacking was the exclusive preserve of people trying to escape communist Eastern Europe for the West. To the extent that these cases were noticed, they slotted neatly into Cold War propaganda narratives. So it was a matter of acute embarrassment for the United States government when its own burgeoning legions of hijackers increasingly began to demand that they be flown to Cuba.