This week’s Member Pick is a chapter from Brendan I. Koerner‘s new book The Skies Belong to Us, the story of Roger Holder and Cathy Kerkow, who in 1972 hijacked Western Airlines Flight 701 headed from Los Angeles to Seattle. Koerner, a contributing editor for Wired who’s been featured on Longreads in the past, explains:
“On the morning of October 11, 2009, I encountered the 616-word newspaper story that would change my life. It was a New York Times report about a man named Luis Armando Peña Soltren, a former Puerto Rican nationalist who had helped hijack a Pan Am jet to Cuba in 1968. After spending the next 41 years living in Fidel Castro’s socialist ‘paradise,’ he had decided that he could no longer bear to remain apart from the wife and daughter he had left behind. So at the age of 66, Soltren had voluntarily returned to the United States. He had been arrested the moment he stepped off his plane at JFK Airport; he now faced a possible life sentence if convicted of air piracy.
“I was first struck by how much Soltren’s longing for his family had slowly swelled as the years flew by; it had taken him over four decades to muster the courage to risk his freedom for a chance to see his wife and daughter again. (I’ve always been drawn to tales of fugitives and exiles, who must often pay a steep psychological price in order to reinvent themselves.) But the more I thought about Soltren’s predicament, the more I was intrigued by its historical element—namely, the fact that he and two comrades had actually managed to hijack a Boeing 707 to Cuba in the first place. The New York Times piece gave the impression that such crimes were run-of-the-mill during the Vietnam Era. Given the airport security gauntlets we’re forced to endure these days, that seemed an almost unfathomable notion.
“Yet using a little Google-fu, I unearthed a lengthy list of dramatic skyjackings from the late 1960s and early 1970s—a time period I have romanticized ever since watching Mean Streets. There were plenty of fascinating characters who seemed to beg for deeper study, such as the Marine who fled to Rome to escape a court-martial, or the Mexican immigrant who just wanted to give a 34-minute speech about his troubles. But there was one name that tugged at my heart more than any other: Catherine Marie Kerkow.
“Why her? Well, for starters, she was a woman—skyjacking was almost exclusively a male pursuit. She was also high-school classmates with legendary miler Steve Prefontaine. But most important, she didn’t seem to have any obvious reason for getting involved in a spectacular hijacking—she was, by all accounts, just an aimless 20-year-old kid with no political ties, nor any history of criminality.
“So why did Cathy Kerkow turn her back on everything she’d ever known in order to hijack Western Airlines Flight 701? As my infinitely patient wife and kids can attest, my obsession with answering that question has now gobbled up a significant chunk of my life. The Skies Belong to Us is what I have to show for all those countless hours holed up with the keyboard, surrounded by teetering piles of marked-up documents.”
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