This Heartthrob Marine Became an Italian Folk Hero For Hijacking a Plane

This Heartthrob Marine Became an Italian Folk Hero For Hijacking a Plane

By Khalid Elhassan
This Heartthrob Marine Became an Italian Folk Hero For Hijacking a Plane

Airplane hijackings today are no light matter, especially when carried out by terrorists seeking to extract political concessions by executing hostages until their demands are met. Worse, of course, are when the hijackings are carried out by nihilistic nutjobs, who seek to use the airplanes as weapons of mass destruction in order to inflict massive casualties and mayhem, as occurred with the terror attacks of September 11th, 2001.

However, there was a time in the 1960s and early 1970s, when hijackings were not viewed as sinister preludes to something horrific. Instead, in those more innocent days, hijackings were often viewed as mere annoyances, and the hijackers – or at least some of them – were often seen as fascinating figures or romantic rebels. It was a time when many distrusted the establishment, which translated into many people embracing outlaws. Some hijackers, such as Raffaele Minichiello, were lionized as folk heroes, whose deeds elicited sympathy and calls for understanding, rather than horror and condemnation.

Raffaele Minichiello. We the Italians

The Age of Hijackings

Starting in the 1960s, hijackings became something of a fad in the United States, sometimes occurring on nearly a weekly basis. In an era before universal airport security checks, it was easy to bring a firearm, or even a bomb, onto an airplane. Airlines more often than not gave in to the hijackers’ demands, hoping to get their airplanes and passengers back safely. Illustrative of how easy hijacking was the case of two unlikely misfits: a Vietnam veteran named Roger Holder and a 20 year old party girl named Cathy Kerkow. In 1972, they took over a Western Airlines flight to Seattle, and a few missteps, they escaped overseas with over half a million dollars in ransom money.

All in all, between 1961 and 1972, more than 150 flights were hijacked in American airspace. With rare exceptions, such as a drunk and somewhat deranged oil worker who sought to hijack a plane from California, and head to Arkansas in a cockamamie bid to reconcile with his estranged wife, most hijackers headed to Cuba. Most expected a warm welcome in the communist island, but were sorely disappointed. Fidel Castro feared the American adventurers landing in his country as dangerous and often delusional figures, who posed a threat to the revolution. As the Cuban dictator saw it, the American hijackers were either psychopaths, or CIA spies.

Hijackers who made it to Cuba were interrogated at length by the security police, then either sent to chop sugar cane in work gulags, or left to live hand to mouth in a decrepit Havana dormitory. Hijackers who headed to more prosperous nations usually had an even more difficult time than their Cuba-bound counterparts. Governments in developed countries, well aware the hijacking epidemic was viral in nature, feared that allowing one hijacked flight to land on their soil would encourage a host of copycats.

Hijackers Roger Holder in Paris, 1977, and Cathy Kerkow, 1972. New York Times

For example, when Roger Holder and Cathy Kerkow hijacked Western Airlines flight 701 in 1972, they ended up on an international odyssey, before they were finally able to get off the aircraft and plant their feet on terra firma. Their misadventures took them, among other places, to Switzerland, where the authorities refused to allow the plane to land in Geneva. As one Swiss official put it, they did not want their country to become the “Cuba of the Alps”, a destination of choice for hijackers. They eventually ended up in Algiers.

As a result, happy endings for hijackers were rare. However, a few who had compelling personal narratives, managed to beat the odds to land on their feet. For example, early in the Cold War, a group of Czech soldiers hijacked three airplanes and flew them to West Berlin. There, they claimed political assylum, and justified their actions on grounds that they sought to save themselves from a Stalinist purge. There was little chance that Western officials, eager for stories that confirmed the narrative of evil communism, were going to turn them away, so the Czech hijackers were granted asylum. Another hijacker who beat the odds with a compelling narrative, albeit one that was markedly different from that of the Czech hijackers, was Raffaele Minichiello.