I grew up in Western Oregon during the 1970s and ’80s, which means I also grew up knowing who D.B. Cooper was.
In a manner of speaking, anyway.
To be precise, the only people who actually know D.B. Cooper’s true identity are the man himself and, possibly, some of his friends and relatives.
(And Cooper very well might be dead.)
Nearly half a century has passed since a man in a business suit hijacked a 727 flight from Portland to Seattle and then parachuted from the airliner over Southwestern Washington the day before Thanksgiving 1971, with $200,000 in $20 bills strapped to his body. Yet even after all that time, Cooper’s actual identity, and what became of him, persist as one of the great mysteries in America’s crime annals.
(The skyjacker actually bought his ticket using the name “Dan Cooper,” but a garbled phone call led to his being identified in an early media report as “D.B.” and “D.B.” he remains.)
Thirty years after Cooper’s caper, America was again transfixed by skyjacking.
The Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks were quite different, of course, having in common only the commandeering of commercial aircraft.
In the Cooper case nobody, except possibly Cooper himself, was killed.
Yet aside from these two episodes, separated by more than a generation, I wonder whether many Americans know much about the history of skyjackings in their country. In particular I wonder whether any significant number of my compatriots realizes that there were a few periods when airliners were hijacked more often than banks were robbed.
I certainly did not.
Thanks to my ignorance, I was predisposed to be captivated by Brendan I. Koerner’s 2013 book, “The Skies Belong To Us: Love and Terror in the Golden Age of Hijacking.”
I read the Baker County Library’s copy a few years ago and found it an unusually compelling work of true crime, a genre that is among my favorites. When I saw a nearly pristine hardcover earlier this year at the Library’s winter book sale — this being in the halcyon, pre-pandemic period — I could hardly pass up the $1 bargain.
My second reading — and no good book deserves only a single go-through — both refreshed my appreciation for Koerner’s narrative skill and further piqued my interest in a topic that seems to me curiously underrecognized.
Considering how many tens of millions of us are so accustomed to X-ray screening and other airport security measures that we scarcely think of the procedures except as annoyances, it strikes me as passing strange that the rashes of skyjackings Koerner writes about aren’t more deeply ingrained in our history.
For a nation that will forever be scarred by memories of 9/11, the reality that at times in the past airliners were hijacked in America’s skies almost literally on a weekly basis — and on a few occasions more than one in a single day — seems like rather more than a footnote.
If nothing else, because many of the skyjackers from the 1960s and ’70s whom Koerner writes about were motivated at least in part by their opposition to the Vietnam War, I would have thought their actions would join campus protests and urban riots as symbols of that raucous era.
But I do not believe this is the case.
Certainly the skyjacking that dominates “The Skies Belong To Us” — the June 3, 1972, crime perpetrated by Roger Holder, a disgruntled Vietnam veteran, and Cathy Kerkow, who grew up in Coos Bay — is nothing like as well-known as, to name just two incidents, the 1968 Chicago riots or the Rolling Stones’ disastrous free concert at Altamont, California, in 1969.
Part of the explanation is obvious enough — no one died in the skyjacking that Holder and Kerkow pulled off.
And although neither of the pair disappeared as Cooper did — indeed, both government officials and the media knew their final destination was Algiers, Algeria — Holder didn’t return to the United States for 14 years, having spent most of the intervening time in France.
Kerkow remains a fugitive, her whereabouts, and even whether she’s still alive, unknown. Kerkow, who would be 68, is still wanted by the FBI for air piracy.
If somebody hijacked an airliner today, I feel certain that, in the absence of a war or an impeachment, the crime would be the lead news story even if nobody was hurt.
This level of publicity would reflect both the extreme rarity of skyjacking in the past two decades and the lingering effects of 9/11.
Yet consider this excerpt from “The Skies Belong To Us” — “Between 1961, when the first plane was seized in American airspace, and 1972 ... 159 commercial flights were hijacked in the United States. All but a fraction of those hijackings took place during the last five years of that frenetic era, often at a clip of one or more per week. There were, in fact, many days when two planes were hijacked simultaneously, strictly by coincidence.”
This stunning statistic prompts the obvious question of how the skyjacking epidemic could continue so long when we know that security measures such as X-raying baggage — technology available during most of that era — can prevent most hijackings.
Koerner answers that question in great detail.
I was especially fascinated to learn that in 1972, the peak year of what Koerner brands the “Golden Age of Hijacking,” when more than 30 planes were taken over, U.S. Sen. Richard Schweiker of Pennsylvania introduced a bill to require airlines to mandate every passenger walk through a metal detector.
The Senate passed an amended version of Schweiker’s bill 75-1.
But after intense lobbying by the airlines, which argued that mandatory screening of passengers wasn’t feasible, the bill died in the House of Representatives.
The airlines’ reluctance to endorse a law designed to protect their customers’ lives might sound contrary to the industry’s interests but it’s easily enough explained — the number of passengers continued to rise despite the increasing odds that a person’s flight to, say, Seattle or San Francisco would instead land in Havana or Algiers.
Koerner’s book is a treasure both as a work of history and of true crime. But I think its greatest contribution is to highlight the stark changes, over a relatively modest period, in an activity — commercial air travel — that is authentically American in much the same way that freeways and shopping malls are.
I suspect almost any reader would find it fascinating that flying, an intensely regulated and regimented way to travel, was, little more than a generation ago, so loosely controlled that most anybody with a pistol or a road flare, or even a briefcase that allegedly contained a bomb, could turn a 747, at least for a while, into his own private Air Force One.
And I used to think it was amazing that airline passengers were allowed to smoke cigarettes.
Jayson Jacoby is editor of the Baker City Herald.