First things first, The Skies Belong to Us by Brendan I. Koerner is a must-read. I hope that it will become a movie that does not detract from his story, if movies like that are at all possible.
This is not so much a review of his book, but a piece about airline security in general and Koerner’s research and writing help to tell that story too. I came across this book through Cari Gervin's review at Metro Pulse.
One of the distractions in any discussion about airlines, or aviation in general, is the notion that airlines were operating in a Laissez-Faire environment to begin with. This was never the case. US “commercial” airports, from the beginning, were municipal projects. Every passenger, crewmember, maintainer, and janitor who touched a commercial airliner passed through the portals of government to get to the plane. Charter and private flights are a slightly different matter; at least they sometimes operate from private airports, but the privacy ends when the wheels break ground.
In the US, the airlines owned the planes and got to keep the profits, but the state effectively owned everything else. So who was responsible for providing security? This is where Brendan I. Koerner’s “The Skies Belong to Us” is especially interesting. It’s been a long time since I read any good, comprehensive account of the development of aviation in the U.S.—something in which, as a licensed helicopter pilot, I have some interest. Koerner’s is full of interesting hijacking stories, but I want to focus in on a particular outcome of the hijackings. How the spate of hijackings that followed aviation’s golden age in the mid-1960s revealed the kinds of blind spots, rent-seeking and inefficiency that result from the crony-capitalist setup that, even more than the hub-and-spoke model, defines commercial aviation.
The steady increase in incidents began in the 1950s with Czechs and Poles fleeing the Eastern bloc via, where chapter 3 of “Skies” picks up the overall history. Czech officers hijacking three airplanes simultaneously and fleeing to West Germany was one of the last successful European operations to flee to the West. Shortly after those incidents, there were several hijackings from Cuba to the US, with a slight uptick after the Castro regime took full control of the island.
Hijackings from the US to Cuba are the ones most Americans are familiar with, but that era came after almost a decade of hijackings were going in the opposite direction. In cases of hijackings from Cuba, when the planes arrived, Miami advertising executive Erwin Harris would file a court claim on the aircraft, that US courts granted eleven times, based on an unpaid tourism advertising bill from the Batista regime. He won a $4,239,000 judgment against Cuba, but the tiny nation was under the new management of Fidel Castro. An interesting side note, the courts did not bother returning the aircraft to the people who previously owned the aircraft that were “liberated” by Castro when he nationalized everything on the island either. Only one was reported as a military aircraft, “inherited” through the uprising, which would be considered state property under any regime.
In retaliation, Castro threatened to keep aircraft flown to Cuba if the US courts did not stop giving his airplanes away. However, the announcement did not immediately open the floodgates toward Cuba.
On the US side of the water, Congress elevated air piracy to a capital offense in 1961, which had no immediate effect either. There was a bit of a hijacking lull, and then things picked back up, as it were. Between 1968 and 1972, as Koerner points out, there was a hijacking every other week, in spite of the looming death penalty. In 1969, a flood of hijackings to Cuba began. Ironically, the first one was decidedly different from the others. On January 11, 1969, 11th Group Special Forces NCO Robert “Red” McRae Helmey hijacked a Savanna to Miami flight to Cuba, with the intent to kill Fidel Castro with his bare hands. He was released after 109 days of confinement in Cuba, returned to the US where he was acquitted by reason of temporary insanity. Otherwise, hijacking attempts to Cuba were undertaken with the intent of shaking Fidel’s hand, and frequently the hijackers were avoiding felony charges somewhere within flying distance of Havana. Also, the Castro regime decided somewhere along the line to return the airplanes if a fee was paid, in the neighborhood of $7,500. They also joined a treaty with the US in 1971 to return hijackers and the aircraft for prosecution. Finally, two governments agreed that stealing airplanes and kidnapping the people on board deserved an appearance before a judge somewhere.
The issue of sorting out who should get possession of stolen airplanes was sorted out in a very haphazard manner that played out over more than a decade. The only aspect of it that appeared systematic was the edict of dictators in Cuba and Algeria who had no desire to build airplane collections. Castro’s agreement to an air piracy treaty with the US was an on-again, off-again affair. The appeal of a collection of dissidents lost its appeal to Fidel early on too. A few years after establishing a “Hijacker Hilton” to house those who made it to Cuba, his whim changed to putting hijackers in real prison for a while before returning them to where they came from, for more prison. Across the way in Algeria, just about the same thing happened at the same time and the Black Panthers moved to France.
If governments took over ten years sort out whom a stolen airplane should be returned to, a task that a municipal judges perform pretty well all day, how well did they do on securing their own airports? That aspect did not go much better. The system had a built-in turf-war from the beginning.
Municipalities were operating what amounted to a parking lot for cars on one end, connected to a parking lot for airplanes on the other, with ticket counters, seating, ashtrays and a smattering of bars and restaurants in-between.
The only place where passengers got any scrutiny at all was where the airlines got down to business at the gate, to see if they had a boarding pass, verified by head-count on the plane by the flight crew. Well into the 1980s, when I worked at a ticket counter and gate for Continental, all you needed was a ticket and a seat assignment to get onboard after the metal detectors. Identification was only needed for the ticket purchase, if a check or credit card was used. If you were flying on a small regional carrier, there was no metal detector screening either.
In the 1960s and ‘70s, the FAA studied the problem, solicited suggestions from the public, and summarily rejected, mostly for good reason like the idea of building a fake Havana airport in Key West to fool the hijackers into thinking they made it all the way. There was a back and forth with the feds wanting to take the lead, and having their budgets fluffed through increased tariffs on airline tickets. Airlines resisted the long lines and high prices approach with some success, for a while.
In a failed, but well played attempt at predatory crony capitalism, the American Automobile Association wholeheartedly supported the increase in airline ticket prices as well as the vision of every airline passenger in America standing in a line for roughly the same amount of time they could have driven to their destination (p.77).
The celebrated November 1971 Dan Cooper hijacking and ransom (along with several copycats) resulted in creation of a device called the “Cooper vane,” installed on all 727s to prevent Cooper style in-flight exits via the rear stairs. Oddly, the FAA “demanded” they be installed on all Boeing 727s, without any word if there was one peep of resistance by Boeing or the airlines.
In 1968, airlines were putting their own armed guards on airliners, which did not manage to coincide with the flights that hijackers attacked. In 1969, Eastern Airlines began using metal detectors on their own, along with FAA developed passenger profiling, to protect its lucrative Florida routes, without any edict from the FAA forcing them to do so. The feds began stationing more Air Marshals in Florida too. In July 1970, the FAA instituted metal detector and X-RAY screening in New Orleans, backed up with a call to the US Marshals for anybody deemed suspicious.
A potential turning point occurred in 1972, when airline pilot unions worldwide struck for one day, on June 20th, demanding more security for their flights. Some airlines talked of training their pilots and engineers to carry side arms onboard. Later, in July of the same year, Vietnamese national and recently graduated University of Washington Fisheries Management major Nguyen Thai Binh attempted to hijack a San Francisco to Saigon flight to Hanoi. That attempt ended during a refueling stop in Saigon, when an armed passenger (a retired San Francisco police officer) was requested by the captain to “Kill* this son of a bitch!” and shot Nguyen five times with his .357 Magnum. The pilot summarily kicked the body out the door to the pavement below for news crews to film.
One might think that these events, action on the part of the airlines to protect their own property and customers, even actions by the passengers themselves, was a step in the right direction. The courts were not holding the airlines responsible for the safety of their passengers, but airlines were concerned to the point they did not want anybody (besides the hijackers) injured or killed on their airplanes. However, a couple of other hijackings interrupted that progress.
One was the focus of “Skies,” with the June 1972 hijacking of Western Airlines flight 701 (Los Angeles to Seattle), by Roger Holder and Cathy Kerkow. In that plot, Holder used a briefcase and a diagram of a bomb as props, along with a ruse that he was being victimized by the Weathermen. Their plot was to fly to San Francisco, pick up Angela Davis and $3 Million, continue to Hanoi, and give it all to “the cause” in North Vietnam.
In reality, Angela Davis did not want to go to Hanoi, the banks were closed, and the couple only got $500,000. Holder changed the plan on the fly, and the couple went to Algeria instead. Both the plane and the money were returned to their owners by the Algerian dictator, who had some pending oil business he did not want to jeopardize with bad US relations.
It was like an elaborate version of a simple plan outlined in chapter three of Abbie Hoffman’s “Steal This Book” as the last item in the Airlines subsection:
|"Steal This Book" Chapter 3, Airlines|
and Holder had a copy of that very book in his carry-on bag during the hijacking (p. 121). Holder guessed correct that Algeria was hostile enough to provide sanctuary, even if they were not hostile enough to let the couple or the Black Panthers keep the loot.
The other event that really set off national security alarms was the November 1972 hijacking of Southern Airways flight 49. The Flight 49 plot evolved into a threat to drop hand grenades and/or crash the plane into the nuclear reactor building of Oak Ridge National Labs in Tennessee. By December, the FAA had regulations in place to take control of airport security, and make the airlines pay for it directly. All passengers had to undergo physical screening (metal detector, luggage x-rays, and more) by early 1973. Essentially a national expansion of what they were doing in New Orleans for three years.
All of those measures stemmed from the reaction to a threat to crash an airliner into a building, and the people using the service, the passengers, paid for them all. All tasks were performed by private security firms rather than government employees, yet they were directed by government edict and enforced by the federal bludgeon.
All were a reaction, in 1972, to the threat of crashing an airliner into a building.
Update: WikiLeaks actually has a cable about the couple from April 1975.
Ⓐ Steve Ⓐ