Friday, February 23, 2024

"Take this plane to Cuba": The golden age of hijacking

I remember the phrase "Take this plane to Cuba" from my primary school years in the late Sixties and early Seventies. You would, as I recall, hear it as a punchline in comedy sketches or see it as a caption on newspaper cartoons.

To understand why the phrase was so widely known, you can read a 2016 article on Vox by Libby Nelson:

The hijacking of EgyptAir Flight 181 on Tuesday morning, when a man claimed to be wearing a suicide vest and demanded to be taken to Cyprus, was surely terrifying for the 64 people on board. But after it came to a conclusion on a Cyprus runway with the arrest of the hijacker, the safe release of the passengers, and no bloodshed, what was most striking was how retro the whole drama seemed.

Before 9/11, this is what hijackings were like: Individuals driven by personal gain or idiosyncratic requests diverted planes to places they weren't supposed to go. These hijackings ended with inconvenience, not with mass tragedy.

And this type of hijacking happened with stunning frequency in the United States. Between 1968 and 1972, more than 130 American airplanes were hijacked. Sometimes there was more than one hijacking on the same day. In a 2013 book, The Skies Belong to Us, Brendan I. Koerner, a contributing editor at Wired magazine, dubbed the period the "golden age of hijacking."

The hijackers, or "skyjackers," wanted flights to communist Cuba, or millions of dollars in ransom, or maybe just an outlet for their rage and frustration. And for years, airlines largely gave in, fearing that customers would find metal detectors at the airport more off-putting than the possibility of a midair diversion.

That site also has the video of a (not terribly funny) Monty Python sketch that I have posted above.

Or, as I first did, you can listen to the podcast American History Hit's episode on D.B. Cooper & the 70s Hijacking Craze.

L.P Hartley was right: the past is a foreign country.

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