Did he get away?

November 28, 2014

It was a dark and stormy night on Wednesday, November 24, 1971. Thousands of air travelers throughout the Pacific Northwest were heading home for the Thanksgiving Holiday and all was routine until the news bulletin hit the airwaves like a bombshell. A Northwest Airlines Boeing 727 had been hijacked on a flight from Portland, Oregon to Seattle, Washington. A lone hijacker with a bomb in his briefcase demanded $200,000 and four parachutes in exchange for allowing all 36 passengers to leave the aircraft before it was flown to Mexico. The airplane sat sequestered on a distant ramp at Seattle-Tacoma Airport for nearly five hours surrounded by a veritable sea of law enforcement vehicles and personnel, plus ground support equipment and two fuel trucks pumping 36,000 pounds of JP-4 into the 727’s fuel tanks. So how did all this happen?

On the afternoon of that Thanksgiving Eve, a mysterious middle-age man described as approximately six feet tall with dark hair and brown eyes, wearing a dark suit and carrying only a briefcase, walked up to the Northwest Airlines ticket counter at Portland International Airport and purchased a one-way ticket to Seattle on Flight 305. He paid the $20 fare in cash with a single $20 bill, proceeded to Gate 52, boarded the Boeing 727-100 and belted himself into seat 18E for the short 45-minute flight which departed on time at 2:50pm. The man used the name Dan Cooper to purchase his ticket – the name of a daring fictitious cartoon character of that time period. The last time Dan Cooper was ever seen alive was at 8:00pm that same evening, alone in the darkened rear cabin of the 727 preparing to bail out of the jetliner with two of the four parachutes and a canvas bag filled with 10,000 $20 bills.

It was obvious from his conversations and explicit hand-written notes passed to the crewmembers that Mr. Cooper had a thorough knowledge of the Boeing 727. He requested a full load of fuel in Seattle to complete the clever reuse of making a flight to Mexico City, and even knew how long it would take to pump that much fuel into the tanks. Cooper requested the jet fly at 10,000 feet enabling the cabin to remain unpressurized and allow the opening of the rear airstair inflight. He asked for an initial flap setting of 15 degrees, then 30 degrees as well as having the landing gear remain extended inflight. This was to allow a safe bailout speed below the gear door limit on the 727-100, and thwart any attempts of alert-scrambled U.S. Air Force Convair F-106 Delta Darts from nearby McChord AFB to chase the errant airliner and track Cooper’s escape. (Two jets tried to remain three miles behind the 727, but never saw a thing.)

He specifically demanded $200,000 in $20 bills to be placed in a canvas bag along with four non-military parachutes – two main backpacks and two smaller chest-pack reserve chutes. State Police, Northwest officials, and FBI personnel could only surmise that Cooper intended to take a hostage with him. Therefore anyone tampering with the chutes would be guilty of attempted murder of a hapless passenger or crewmember. When the flight crew informed Cooper that the 727 had a limited range of only 1,000 miles with gear and flaps extended, a mutually agreed-on fuel stop at Reno, Nevada was chosen. This was yet another clever reuse placing the route-of-flight on FAA Victor Airway 23 over an area midway between Seattle and Portland, using minimum enroute altitudes for terrain clearance, and ensuring a planned arrival over a predetermined point where perhaps assistance and a getaway vehicle lay waiting.

It was also obvious that Cooper possessed either extensive paratrooper experience, or knowledge thereof. His estimated age would have placed him in the Korean War, or possibly as a paratroop instructor during the Vietnam War, and this is where an odd connection with the CIA first emerged. Night insertion airdrops from DC-4s and then 727s were routinely flown by that agency out of Takhli Air Base in Thailand during the conflict. By using an indicated airspeed of 160 knots with gear extended and flaps set at 30 degrees, agents could successfully jump from the aircraft rear stairs at an altitude of 10,000 feet. The stunning similarity in Cooper’s requested flight parameters – even using the cover of darkness to avoid detection – could not be ignored, and every crewmember of those Air America 727s was given a lie-detector test the very next day after the hijacking. All 15 crewmembers passed with flying colors, however, no pun intended.

The Jump

It was apparent that Cooper knew what he was doing. The estimated wind chill factor at altitude that night was minus-50 degrees F, so how could he have survived in that temperature? During post-flight passenger interviews at SeaTac, a 20-year-old college student from the University of Oregon named Bill Mitchell reported seeing something rather unusual. Seated across the aisle from Cooper in seat 18A, Mitchell noticed what appeared to be thick cream-colored thermal underwear visible below the cuffs of Cooper’s trousers and overlapping his socks. The estimated ten-second free fall from 10,000 feet would have been survivable with the limited protection that underwear provided.

Another issue was the physical risk to a jumper without heavy boots or a helmet landing with an extra 25 pounds of money strapped to his body. Upon examination of the remaining two parachutes after the jet landed in Reno, it was discovered that Cooper had ingeniously torn a length of parachute riser from one of the unused chutes to make a tether for securing the canvas money bag to his waist. Like tethered military survival kits used by military pilots ejecting from stricken aircraft, that heavy bag would have struck the ground seconds before Cooper did, providing ample warning of impact and time to execute the energy-absorbing PLF, or parachute landing fall.

Why did Cooper ask for his ransom in $20 bills? Because cashiers do not check serial numbers on a $20 bill at a grocery or convenience store. All basic needs such as food, gas, clothing, and even medicine can be easily purchased with $20 bills. Another question is where the name D. B. Cooper originated. As mentioned, a Dan Cooper purchased the ticket, but when the FBI ran a search of people with former paratrooper experience living in the Portland or Seattle area with that last name, a D. B. Cooper indeed came up on the list. That individual was proven to be out of the state that fateful night, but a UPI reporter named Clyde Jabin called a local detective who informed him of the FBI checking out a D. B. Cooper. Jabin sent that information out on the wire service, and when it hit the local headlines the next morning, a legend was born.

Northwest Flight 305 was operated with a six-year-old Boeing 727-100 registered as N467US, originating from Washington National Airport that morning and landing at Minneapolis-St. Paul. A fresh crew took the aircraft to Missoula, Montana and Spokane, Washington before landing in Portland for the final leg to Seattle. Captain William A. Scott was in command of the aircraft assisted by First Officer William J. Rataczak and Flight Engineer Harold E. Anderson. Flight Attendant Alice Hancock tended to First Class passengers, while Florence Schaffner and Tina Mucklow handled the main cabin. The entire cockpit crew flew the hijacked flight to Reno, but Hancock and Schaffner (who took the first cryptic bomb note from Cooper) deplaned with the 36 passengers released as promised when Cooper got his money and parachutes. Only Tina Mucklow remained in the cabin on that flight. She watched him calmly smoke a cigarette before the jump, and was the last person to ever see Cooper alive.

Twenty minutes after departing Seattle, with the aircraft flying at 160 knots at 10,000 feet, trimmed and configured exactly as Cooper demanded, F/O Rataczak who was hand-flying the airplane, felt a subtle but unmistakable jolt as Cooper egressed the rear airstair which then bounced up and hit the fuselage due to air loads. The jetliner was somewhere over the small town of Ariel, Washington near the Washington-Oregon border, and Cooper simply vanished without a trace as the mystery began to unfold.

The Rest of the Story

Following the hijacking, a massive three-week manhunt was mobilized that included state and local law enforcement, the Air Force, and more than 400 members of the Washington National Guard. Collectively, they covered every square inch of two large counties with a search so thorough that two missing bodies were discovered – a lost hiker and a murder victim, both of whom had been listed as missing persons for many years.

Those bodies were just the first of many seemingly promising clues that led to dead ends for the FBI. Another was a large swatch of fabric found high up in a tree with a parachute strap lying nearby. It turned out that the material was from a weather balloon and the strap was identified as being part of a drag chute jettisoned from an F-4 Phantom jet fighter years earlier. With the exception of a small data plate ripped from the open airstair door of the 727 during the bail out, not one shred of physical evidence – or any sign of Cooper himself – was ever found.

Then, on Sunday, February 10, 1980, the ultimate fake-out clue of this case took place on the banks of the Columbia River. The Ingram family was spending a holiday weekend in Vancouver, Washington, and was about to enjoy a picnic lunch on the river bank. Their eight-year-old son Brian stumbled upon several packs of wet, rotted, and decomposing $20 bills mired in the sand. Two-hundred and twenty $20 bills to be exact. Authorities were alerted and the FBI quickly matched all the serial numbers to the D. B. Cooper money. Finally, physical evidence of the hijacking had been located at last, although there were still 9,780 bills still missing.

Immediate speculation swirled around three distinct possibilities. First was that the money had somehow ripped away from Cooper when his body hit the jet slipstream and then fluttered to earth. (How would three packets wind-up touching each other in the sand?) Second theory was that Cooper had landed safely and then planted the money as a decoy before making his getaway. Third was that Cooper died in the attempted bail out, or had been killed on landing, possibly even drowning in the river, and the money floated downstream by itself.

None of those theories were valid, however. What happened was a result of the Columbia River serving as a major regional shipping channel that must be constantly dredged to maintain ships draft clearances. The sand in which the money was found had been dredged-up from the bottom of the river several months before Brian Ingram discovered the packets. It had taken eight years for that $4,400-worth of evidence to turn up, but no one will ever know the origins of its deceptive and circuitous journey.

As might be expected, copy-cat hijackings began three months later, although none were successful. Two parajackers were quickly captured and eventually imprisoned, and one was ambushed and shot dead after he landed. In February 1972, a United 727 was taken over by a man named R. LaPoint in Denver, Colorado. The following April, Army veteran R. F. McCoy hijacked yet another United 727 in Provo, Utah. Finally, an M. J. Hanley jumped from an American Airlines 727 near Peru, Indiana in June.

Following this last attempt, the rear stairs on all Boeing 727s, Douglas DC-9s, and Sud Caravelles flown in the U.S. were fitted with an ingenious spring-loaded weather vane-type device that remained open on the ground, but turned 90 degrees from air loads in flight, physically locking the door shut from the outside. This simple yet effective mechanism is still in use today. It is named, most appropriately, the Cooper Vane.