Brendan I. Koerner has captured one of the strangest eras in aviation history in his book, "The Skies Belong to Us: Love and Terror in the Golden Age of Hijacking."
A contributing editor to Wired, Koerner will sign his book July 19 in Savannah. It is the real-life story of Roger Holder and Cathy Kerkow, who hijacked Western Airlines Flight 701 on June 2, 1972.
Koerner's interest was piqued in October 2009, when he read about a hijacking suspect who was arrested 41 years after he returned to the U.S. from Cuba.
"I've always been attracted to stories of fugitives and exiles," he says.
His first book, "Now the Hell Will Start: One Soldier's Flight from the Greatest Manhunt of World War II," was printed in 2006.
"It's about an Army deserter in Burma who married into a tribe of headhunters," he says. "I'm intrigued by the story of a man on the run."
When Koerner began doing research on hijackings of the 1960s and '70s, he was stunned at what he found.
"I was overwhelmed by the sheer number of hijackings in that era," he says. "It was pretty much a roster of men. Then one day, I came across a mention of a 20-year-old woman named Catherine Kerkow.
"She was from a small town, and had no obvious reason to turn her back on her whole life," Koerner says. "The more I learned, the more fascinated I became."
What followed was a four-year process that included reading 4,000 documents from the FBI and U.S. State Department.
"I tried to reach everyone I could who was still alive who was involved in the drama," he says. "It was a very painstaking, laborious process."
IF YOU GO
What: Book signing with Brendan I. Koerner, author of "The Skies Belong to Us: Love and Terror in the Golden Age of Hijacking"
When: 7 p.m. July 19
Where: The Book Lady Bookstore, 6 E. Liberty St.
Holder, a troubled ex-soldier, and Kerkow, a masseuse he had known since childhood, hijacked a plane at the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. Their scheme was to trade the passengers for radical Angela Davis, then on trial for murder.
Instead, the two ended up in Algiers with $500,000 in ransom, where they joined a commune of exiled Black Panthers, headed by Eldridge Cleaver. Later, they escaped to Paris and during a holiday to Switzerland, Kerkow vanished.
"She and Roger were living separately in Paris," Koerner says. "Their romance had ended in the late 1970s."
Eventually Holder was arrested, but Kerkow is still considered a wanted fugitive by Interpol. Although the book focuses on the couple, Koerner also details the stories of other hijackers, including one who demanded to be taken to Italy, where he was lionized as a folk hero and chosen to star in a spaghetti western.
One of the biggest surprises Koerner uncovered during his research was the variety of hijackings committed and the lack of security that allowed them to happen.
"People were able to demand so many things and the airlines complied with them," he says.
The first hijacker to demand ransom was Arthur Gates Barkley in 1970.
"He was an unemployed truck driver who was embroiled in a tax dispute. He demanded $100 million," Koerner says. "The airline didn't know what to do, so they gave him $100,000, hoping it would mollify him."
Instead, the action made hijackers realize they could ask for money and get it. They were abetted by lax security at airports.
"I have no memory of a world without metal detectors," Koerner says. "But back then, sometimes a person could walk almost onto the plane without a ticket or ID.
"Security was lax and the airlines liked it that way because it made it easier. They were afraid if they made flying difficult, people wouldn't want to fly anymore."
Instead, passengers were so tired of the constant hijackings, they welcomed increased security.
"When they started screening, the passengers embraced it because they were sick of the out-of-control hijackings," Koerner says.
A native of California, Koerner has lived in New York City for several years. His wife spent a year at the Savannah College of Art and Design.
"I have a lot of love for Savannah," he says.
His first book continues to attract attention.
"Spike Lee has optioned my first book and entrusted me to adapt it and write the screenplay," Koerner says. "He takes notes in pen and goes through page by page.
"He's given me a master class in telling stories and how to structure them," Koerner says. "I've been writing a long time, but I'm still trying to hone my craft."
At the present time, Koerner has no writing projects in front of him.
"I'm taking a much-needed vacation at the end of month," Koerner says. "Nothing is as creatively fulfilling for me as writing, but for now, I need to hit the re-set button."