Fidel Castro had no patience for these crazy Americans coming with planes with their various motives. So as an American you basically faced one of two fates when you went to Havana with a stolen plane.
One, you would be put in a South Havana dormitory called Hijacker House, where you were given about 16 square feet of living space with a cot, and they give you 40 pesos a month, (and) you kind of have to fend for yourself. It was a really awful life.
And if the government really didn't like you -- for example, if you were violent on board the plane or if you robbed any of the passengers -- they would actually send you to these gulags in the south of the country where you would harvest sugar cane. And the conditions there were just absolutely nightmarish.
There was a hijacker named Anthony Bryant who wrote a memoir after spending about 11 and a half years in prison in Cuba for taking a plane. The details he has in that book are just really shocking about the treatment of prisoners there.
CNN: If I traveled to Cuba today, would I see any remnants of that time when Cuba was a hijacker destination?
Koerner: Well, you certainly would, because there are still some hijackers living there. Most came back, but there actually are still a few who decided stay there. Some of them make their living as tour guides, or translators or fixers for journalists. There are still people there who went there in the '60s or '70s and never came back.
CNN: Who was Capt. Eugene Vaughn?
Koerner: Eugene Vaughn was a Pan Am 747 captain, and he was running a route from San Francisco to Saigon with stops in Honolulu and Manila and Guam, I believe.
On the way to Southeast Asia, one of Vaughn's passengers was a South Vietnamese native who had just graduated from the University of Washington and was on the way home. He decided to hijack the plane and take it to Hanoi to protest the bombing of North Vietnam.
They land in Saigon and the captain went back and basically tackled this hijacker.
Another of the passengers was an ex-cop from San Francisco. Vaughn knew the ex-cop was armed and Vaughn had him shoot the hijacker to death. The captain then literally picked up this hijacker and took his body to the rear exit of the plane and threw the corpse onto the tarmac. He said he did it because he was so offended that this guy, who would challenge his command, would remain on his plane -- even while dead. He just had to get him off the plane.
When he returned back to the U.S., a lot of people hailed Vaughn as a hero, because this was a moment in America during the skyjacking epidemic when the public was really through with it. They were really finished. It was no longer quaint or funny when people were hijacked. There were actually deaths involved and there was a lot of terror going on.
That was kind of a turning point in the epidemic when it became clear the public wouldn't put up with this anymore.
CNN: What takeaways can you offer modern-day travelers based on what you've learned while writing this book?
Koerner: When you're going through security -- and we all have our complaints about what the TSA is doing, and certainly a lot of those complaints are valid -- but I think we need perspective about what life was like when we had no security, or very poor security.
There are reasons why things are the way they are. And we can certainly have debates about the efficacy of certain techniques and tactics. But I think we also have this other perspective. There was a time when there was no security and we had this awful, awful crisis. And I think it would be even worse today if we stripped away a lot of security.