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If You Only Read 1 Airline Book This Summer, It Should Be…

Well, if you haven’t read Thomas Petzinger’s Hard Landing and you’re an airline fan, then you should go out and get it right now. It’s the best airline book I’ve read – a detailed, though still interesting, history of the airline industry with a focus on the whole distribution aspect. I know that sounds horrible, but if this is an industry that interests you, it’s a must-read.

But for this summer, you should hop out and get The Skies Belong to Us: Love and Terror in the Golden Age of Skyjacking by Brendan Koerner. I couldn’t put it down (OK, I could put it down, but I really wanted to pick it back up when I did.)

People complain about the so-called indignities of flying now, with security lines and having to buy a sandwich, but I think most of us have either forgotten or never knew about the airplane hijacking epidemic in the U.S. between 1968 and 1973, where (on average) an airplane was hijacked almost every week. In 1969, an insane year for hijacking, 82 aircraft were taken over, with 8 flown to Cuba in January of that year, alone.

The book presents a detailed history of the hijacking of an aircraft to Algiers, and intersperses that with shorter accounts of some of the more interesting hijacking stories from that era. It was not unusual for two unrelated hijackings to occur over the same time period, forcing authorities to try to determine whether the hijackers were working in cahoots (generally, they were not).

Before 1974, airports did not have x-ray machines so people would literally just walk onto a plane with guns in their bag. The FAA wanted to have airports install x-ray machines, but airlines fought repeatedly to keep x-ray machines out of airports because they believed people would not fly if they had to deal with the hassle of going through security.

Airlines put the kibosh on most security measures until a hijacking where the hijacker threatened to fly the plane into a nuclear facility in Tennessee. That incident, coupled with Cuba’s surprise to decision to sign an extradition treaty whereby hijackers would be sent back to the United States, ended airline opposition overnight.

But the story that most struck me was this: during a (routine) hijacking of a Western Airlines plane, hijackers requested to be flown to North Vietnam. Because they were on a narrowbody aircraft, they had to be switched to a plane that could make a journey of that length. A call was made to the chief pilot for Western who volunteered to fly the hijacked plane himself, then recruited 2 other pilots to go with him. The chief flight attendant for the airline was also called, and she volunteered to work the hijacked flight to North Vietnam, and called several other flight attendants who volunteered to work the hijacked flight.

Think about that – those crews volunteered to work a flight where they believed (falsely, it turned out) that a team of hijackers had guns and bombs on board and fly to a country that was at war with the United States. Incredible.

It’s a great summer read…enjoy.

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  1. The hijacking book is only $12.99 in Kindle, which might be a good deal for some. I just ordered the paperback from Amazon Prime.

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