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How The Recent EgyptAir Hijacking Conjured U.S. Skyjacking Epidemic

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Passengers leave a Southeast Airlines plane in Key West, Fla., on July 1, 1968, upon returning from Havana after their airliner was forced to fly to Cuba. The pilot, a Cuban refugee living in Miami, was held on the island to stand trial as a deserter. In the foreground are Mrs. Charles Evans and her 19-month-old daughter, of Fort Worth, Tex.

When a man claiming to have on a suicide vest demanded to be flown to Cyprus this week, it wasn't terrorism as we know it. Instead, it was reminiscent of the skyjackings once commonplace in the U.S.

In his book, The Skies Belong to Us: Love and Terror in the Golden Age of Hijacking, Brendan Koerner writes that from 1961 to 1972, nearly 160 planes hijacked in the U.S. Those early hijackings all had one thing in common: Cuba.

"The only thing these hijackers wanted was transportation to Cuba, which of course at that time was forbidden," Koerner tells NPR's Renee Montagne.

Interview Highlights

On how cockpits were once equipped with maps of Cuba's airport

The airlines approach to this was risk management. So wherever you were flying in the U.S., your pilot would have a map to the Caribbean in the cockpit. And the Swiss embassy in Havana, which handled American interests there, actually had these pre-printed forms that they would file on behalf of American airlines to request that the stolen jets be returned at once.

On an idea to create a fake Cuban airport in Florida

There were many kind of zany ideas that were floated. One that sticks out in my mind is to make all the passengers on all flights wear boxing gloves so they couldn't hold guns.

But one that they took quite seriously at the FAA was this notion of building a fake Havana airport. The idea would be that pilots would tell the hijackers "Hey, we're complying with your demands. We're flying to Havana," land at this fake international airport and have the FBI arrest the hijackers immediately. They took it quite seriously but concluded, perhaps correctly, that it would be way too expensive.

On pre-airport security days

Certainly for the bulk of the epidemic until the very end, there was a certain nonchalance that people treated these hijackings with. A lot of times people figured, "OK, I'll go down to Havana, I'll spend the night in a hotel, I'll come home maybe with some cigars and some rum and I'll have a great story to tell." The reason people felt this way is because there wasn't really a lot of violence at first. The airlines complied totally with all the hijackers' demands thinking that's the way to ensure safety for everyone. But over time, of course, things did start to spiral out of control.

I think the real landmark event in this epidemic was in November 1972, three men took this plane and threatened to crash it into a nuclear reactor in Tennessee if they were not given $10 million. Fortunately they were mollified by $2 million. But pretty shortly after that the airlines realized that they could no longer put off better security and starting Jan. 5, 1973, that was the first day that everyone, regardless of who you were, had to walk through a metal detector and have their bag checked prior to boarding.

I think it's hard for us to process in this day of lengthy TSA security lines, how easy it was to get on a plane in the late '60s and early '70s. You could literally walk from the curb, out of your car, into the terminal and you would not show anyone your ID, a ticket, not have your bags or your body checked by anyone.

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