It seems hard to imagine now, but in the 1960s and 1970s, huge numbers of scheduled airflights were hijacked, most of them by lone nutters armed to the teeth.
It was, literally, a different age. Internal flights in the U.S. were incredibly cheap and security was non-existent. Nowadays, as we all know, you can’t take a pair of nail scissors on an aeroplane and a tube of toothpaste is assumed by all security services to be full of Semtex. (Is there such a thing as minty Semtex?)
But then your average hijacker boarded with at least one powerful gun, possibly a grenade or two and sticks of dynamite strapped around his waist. He wanted $500,000 and a parachute, and was preparing to jump out of the plane’s aft entrance, because anyone jumping out of the front entrance would be sucked into the jets and killed rather unpleasantly. (Ugh.)
FBI composite sketches of Dan Cooper, who hijacked a Northwest Orient Airlines Flight in 1971
The hijacker, the man who made all this possible, was a man who called himself D. B. Cooper, but was almost certainly called something else. He jumped out with $200,000, worth $1.5million in today’s money in 1972 and was never heard of again.
FBI agents searched for a big hole and a squished Cooper at the bottom of it, but found nothing. They kept looking for him for 40 years, before they closed the case and rendered it ‘unsolved’.
He was the undoubted inspiration for countless half-witted wannabes, all male (but, of course), most of them between the ages of 25 and 45 and many of them doomed to die in a hail of bullets.
I Am DB Cooper film poster, released in 2002
The man writing about all this is John Wigger, an academic from the American Mid-west whose previous books have been about U.S. Methodists and the dodgy evangelists Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker.
Although much of this happened 50 years ago, a lot of the protagonists are still alive and gave him detailed interviews.
The result is an incredibly rich stew about the Great Age Of Hijacking, with more detail than anyone could possibly hope for.
We learn what these people were wearing, the cars they drove, the weapons they favoured, and although favourite yogurt flavours haven’t come up yet, I’m keeping an eye out.
One important revelation is that hijackers usually sat in the very back row of the plane, because you could sit anywhere you wanted in those days.
Not only was it more convenient for the loo, but it would cause maximum damage to the plane if you happened to explode a bomb there.
Convenient, too, for the aft staircase, when you made your escape.
Who were these nutters, then? Many had a history of emotional trauma, often in the form of PTSD from military service, and previous brushes with the law and time in prison.
Recovered money from skyjacking case in the Pacific North West
They had experienced a recent setback, a triggering event that made them desperate to set things right.
They were daring but not criminally sophisticated. They constructed elaborate plans and spun ruses involving secret devices and associates on the ground.
Above all, they wanted to feel respected and thought (wrongly) that hijacking a plane would be the quickest route to this.
One hijacker, Richard McCoy, though, was ‘middle America personified’. ‘He was very conservative in manner, dress and speech,’ said a fellow student.
As was the case with other hijackers, this one had the ability to suspend conscience, to shut out the larger consequences of what he was doing.
He was caught, sentenced to 45 years in prison, escaped and died in the usual hail of bullets when the FBI caught up with him.
The bureau, curiously, provide whatever comedy the book has to offer. So, at one point, the men refuelling the plane all had ‘shiny black shoes’ and neatly trimmed hair.
They might as well have been wearing fedoras, which were still de rigueur for J. Edgar Hoover’s men in the early 1970s, decades after they had gone out of fashion.
One agent drives a car from the 1950s, which looked like an ‘upside-down bathtub on wheels’. Snipers keep nearly shooting stewardesses, who are always getting in the way.
The hijacked Northwest Airlines jetliner 727 sits on a runway in Washington in 1971
It’s actually a small miracle they ever caught anyone. ‘By 1972, the decision-making process regarding hijackings was divided between the FBI, the airline, the FAA, airport security and local police.’ It was the classic bureaucratic shambles.
These days, of course, you’d do very well to get on an airplane with a bottle of water, let alone the gelignite and firearms that were so popular back in the day.
I can’t help wondering whether something hasn’t been lost along the way, although at least you know where you’re flying to now: there’ll be no sudden detours to Cuba.
Wigger’s hugely entertaining book travels a previously unexplored byway of aviation history and is probably best read on dry land, just to be absolutely sure.