When Roger Holder and Cathy Kerkow eloped, they didn’t just jump on a plane: they hijacked it. The Skies Belong to Us author Brendan Koerner explains how they landed the craft but crashed the affair.
Zola: How did you first become aware of the story of Roger Holder and Cathy Kerkow and their skyjacking of Western Airlines Flight 701?
Brendan Koerner: In October 2009, I read a brief New York Times story about a man named Luis Armando Peña Soltren, a former Puerto Rican nationalist who had helped hijack a Pan Am jet to Cuba in 1968. After spending the next forty-one years living in Fidel Castro’s socialist “paradise,” he had decided that he could no longer bear to remain apart from the wife and daughter he had left behind. So at the age of sixty-six, Soltren elected to voluntarily return to the United States. He was, of course, arrested the moment he stepped off his plane at JFK Airport, on charges that carried a possible life sentence.
Soltren’s story intrigued me for a couple of reasons. For starters, I’ve always been attracted to tales of fugitives and exiles—my first book was about an American soldier who killed a commanding officer during World War II, then fled into the Burmese jungle and married into a tribe of headhunters. But I was also just amazed that Soltren had managed to hijack a plane in the first place—something that seems fairly unfathomable in this day and age of the infuriating TSA gauntlet.
Inspired by Soltren’s case, I started looking for other stories of other Vietnam Era hijackers who had managed to dodge justice for years. In the course of my search for those kinds of characters, I stumbled across the names Catherine Marie Kerkow and Willie Roger Holder—the two figures who became my great obsession.
Zola: While you were never able to track down Cathy—who disappeared from France in 1978—you did extensively interview Roger before he died in 2012. Was he eager to participate in the project or did he take some convincing?
BK: The toughest part about interviewing Holder wasn’t coaxing him to open up, but rather simply finding him. I didn’t track him down until the early summer of 2011, by which point I’d already started writing large chunks of the book. His name had essentially vanished from public records after the early 1990s; I only located him thanks to an unredacted Social Security number, combined with his fortunate habit of updating his voter registration information. Those records yielded an address in San Diego to which I mailed a letter and a copy of my first book. About two weeks after I did that, Holder called me to ask about the project. He was understandably a bit wary at first, but it didn’t take long for him to invite me out to California to meet. His longtime girlfriend played a big role in convincing him that this book was his best chance at having his saga recorded for posterity.
Zola: The book cites dozens upon dozens of other skyjackings from that same era, some featuring dramatic parachute escapes and deadly FBI shootouts. So what made Roger’s and Cathy’s story stand out? Why, out of all those skyjackings, did you feel theirs was most deserving of a book-length account?
BK: First and foremost because they basically got away with it. Skyjacking was a crime with an extremely low success rate—once you seized control of a plane, your odds of attaining a happy ending were absurdly low. But Holder and Kerkow didn’t end up in prison or with snipers’ bullets buried in their brains; instead, they escaped the country with a half-million dollars in cash.
I was also drawn to the fact that this is a story of star-crossed love. A big reason that Holder and Kerkow were blind to their escapade’s risks is that they were so smitten with one another. But that love evaporated in the years that followed, as life on the run took its toll on the couple. There was something irresistibly bittersweet about that intense arc in their relationship.
Zola: Though 9/11 hangs over the book, there isn’t a single direct mention of it. Did you decide this before beginning the book or was that a choice you made in the course of writing?
BK: That’s definitely a choice I made quite late in the writing process. When I first started thinking about this book, I figured that I’d probably have a chapter in which I detailed precisely how our present-day security situation was connected to what had occurred in the so-called Golden Age of Hijacking. But once I reached the final chapter, my gut told me that explicitly invoking the 9/11 attacks would seem gratuitous, maybe even exploitative. I ultimately decided to flick at the connection, but to make it as subtle as possible. Some readers have taken issue with that decision, but I’m at peace with the way I handled the specter of modern terror.
Zola: While the book primarily concerns skyjacking, it also offers much insight about post-traumatic stress disorder. Had Roger not witnessed the atrocities he had as a soldier in Vietnam, do you think he’d still have considered skyjacking?
BK: That’s a really difficult question to answer with any degree of certainty. What I know for sure is that Vietnam was this phantom that stayed with Holder throughout his life—it was our number-one topic of conversation, even more so than the hijacking itself. He had very complicated emotions about his time in combat—pride in his service, disgust at some of the things he had witnessed, and regrets over the way his military career had disintegrated. That was a lot of internal conflict for him to deal with, and it made it very hard for him to readjust to civilian life—especially since he had to live on the edge, given the fact that he was AWOL and thus wanted by the authorities. Holder was in a desperate place as a result, and skyjacking provided him with an opportunity to completely reinvent himself in an instant—for better and for worse.
Zola: The book also delves into the intricacies of political asylum, particularly in France, where Roger and Cathy lived openly after the skyjacking and even hobnobbed with the country’s cultural elite. What could Edward Snowden learn from their story? What advice would you give him?
BK: Life in exile may seem glamorous from afar, but it can be a real grind as the months turn into years, and then the years into decades. Once the spotlight fades, even the most notorious fugitive must face a vexing challenge: what comes next? After being the center of the world’s attention, a nine-to-five gig can seem rather dreary. Perhaps Snowden should follow the lead of a few notorious American hijackers who found some measure of contentment by transforming themselves into do-gooders. An excellent example of this path is Melvin and Jean McNair, a couple who helped hijack Delta Airlines Flight 841 to Algiers in July 1972; they now operate an orphanage in Caen, France.
This article originally appeared on Zola Books.