D.B. COOPER - The legend lives on -

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- The legend lives on -

Anyone who had a pulse in 1971 will remember the news bulletins hitting the airwaves like a bombshell on Thanksgiving eve that year. A mysterious middle-aged man described as approximately 6 feet tall, having dark hair and brown eyes, wearing a dark suit and carrying only a briefcase, walked up the Northwest Airlines ticket counter at Portland International Airport and purchased a one-way ticket to Seattle on Northwest flight 305. He paid the fare in cash with exact change: a single $20 bill.

Proceeding directly to gate 52, he boarded the Boeing 727-51 (reg. N467US) and belted himself into seat 18E for the short, 45-minute flight that departed on time at 2:50 p.m. The man used the name "Dan Cooper" to purchase his ticket. The last time he was seen alive was at 8 p.m. that same evening, alone in the rear cabin of the 727. He was preparing to bail out of the aircraft after having hijacked the jet, landed at Seattle, refueled for a supposed flight to Mexico City, procured four parachutes and a canvas bag filled with 10,000 $20 bills.

Twelve minutes later, First Officer William J. Rataczak, who was hand-flying the aircraft at 10,000 feet, felt a subtle, yet distinct non-pilot-induced oscillation around the airplane's pitch axis. At that moment, Mr Cooper departed via the 727's rear staircase somewhere over the town of Ariel, Washington, near the Washington-Oregon border. The term "vanished without a trace" as applied to this event is but a cryptic understatement.

Home for the holidays - almost It was obvious from both his conversations and explicit hand-written notes passed to the crew that Mr. Cooper had a thorough knowledge of the Boeing 727's performance specifications and operational procedures. He had requested a full load of fuel at Seattle (36,000 lbs of JP-4, density unknown) in order to complete a flight to Mexico City, and even knew how much time it would take to pump that much fuel into the tanks. Yet, he jumped within the first 30 minutes of the subsequent flight.

Cooper requested an altitude of 10,000 feet so the cabin could be left un pressurized and thus allow the in-flight opening of the rear stairs. He asked for flap setting of 15 degrees (and eventually 30 degrees), then directed that the landing gear be left extended after takeoff, thus allowing a safe bailout airspeed; the gear door limit speed on the 727 is 270 knots, flap 15 and flap 30 limit speeds are respectively 205 knots and 185 knots. This ploy also would thwart the attempts of alert-scrambled U.S. Air Force Convair F-106s from the 318th Fighter Interceptor Squadron at nearby McChord AFB to "chase" the errant airliner and track his escape. The two jet interceptors tried to remain 3 to 4 miles behind the B727, but never saw a thing.

The hijacker specifically demanded $200,000 in $20 bills, to be placed in canvas bag along with four non-military parachutes -two main backpacks, and two "reserve" chestpacks. The local and State Police, Northwest officials and the FBI could only surmise that he intended to take a hostage with him, and therefore anyone tampering with one of the chutes would be responsible for the death of a hapless passenger or crew member.

After the flight crew informed Cooper of the 1,000-mile range of a 727 with extended gear and flaps, a mutually agreed-on fuel stop at Reno, Nevada, was chosen. This is believed to have been yet another clever ruse by Cooper, to allow the flight to follow Victor 23, an airway over a relatively flat area of farmland midway between Seattle and Portland. It allows minimum en route altitudes for terrain clearance, and could ensure planned arrival over a pre-designated location where, perhaps, assistance (and gateway vehicle) was waiting on the ground.

It was also obvious from Cooper's conversations and demands that he possessed either extensive paratrooper experience, or comprehensive knowledge thereof. His estimated age would have placed him either in the Korean War era as a jumper, or possibly as a paratroop instructor during the Vietnam War, which had begun only seven years the hijacking. How would someone even formulate such a detailed plan of bailing out of an airborne 727 at night ? The answer may just lie in the covert aerial operations of the CIA.

Parajacking 101

During the early phases of the Vietnam War, Air America first used Douglas DC-4s and eventually Boeing 727-100s for its aerial operations in support of the Central Intelligence Administration. The 727s flew missions such as night insertion airdrops into Laos in 1968 from Taklhi Air Base in Thailand. By using an airspeed 190 mph with gear extended and 15-degree flap settings, parachutists could successfully jump from the aircraft's extended rear airstair at an altitude of 10,000 feet. The stunning similarity in flight parameters -even in using cover of darkness for stealth capability- cannot be ignored.

As for the jump itself, it was apparent right from the start that Cooper knew what he was doing. The estimated wind-chill factor at altitude that night was -70F (-57C), so how could he have survived that temperature ? During a post-event interview at Seattle International Airport, a 20-year-old college student named Mitchell reported something rather unusual. Heading home for the holiday and seated across the aisle from Cooper in seat 18A, Michell said he remembered seeing what appeared to be thermal underwear showing below the cuffs of Coopers trousers, overlapping his socks. Additionally, the estimated time of Cooper's free-fall from altitude was approximately 10 seconds - timed to offer the least exposure to the risks of both natural elements and tracking detection.

Another issue was the physical risk of a jumper without heavy boots or a helmet landing with 25 pounds of money strapped to his body. Upon examination of the remaining parachute equipment after the plane stopped at Reno, it was discovered that Cooper had ingeniously ripped six feet of parachute riser from one of the unused chutes, and tethered the money sack from his waist. This allowed the sack to hang below him as he jumped , striking the ground in advance, and giving him just enough warning to brace for impact and execute the energy-absorbing PLF (parachute landing fall) maneuver. This is exactly what military pilots learn in survival training, with their emergency gear carried in packs tethered below them. Specific techniques are also taught for open land, water, power line and tree landing.

While the entire cockpit crew flew the hijacked flight to Reno, two of the Flight Attendants deplaned with the 36 passengers who were released as promised when Cooper got his money and parachutes. Only F/A Tina Mucklow was in the cabin on that flight. She was the last person to ever see Cooper alive.

Where did the name "D.B. Cooper" come from ? A Dan Cooper bought the ticket. When the FBI ran a search of people with paratroop experience living in the Portland or Seattle area with the last name of Cooper, a D.B. Cooper indeed came up on the list. That particular man 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's checking out one D.B. Cooper. Jabin sent his tip out on the wire service, and when it hit the next morning's headlines, a legend was born.

The rest of the story

In any good mystery, there is either a "smoking gun" (physical evidence) or a "red-herring" (circumstantial evidence to throw you off the trail). This story has many of both. A massive three-week long manhunt was mobilized that included state and local law enforcement, the Air Force, and more than 400 National Guardsmen. They covered every square inch of two large counties with a search so thorough that not one, but two bodies were discovered. Everyone thought that they had found Cooper, but the dead turned out to be a hiker and a murder victim; both had been listed as missing persons for years.

A large mysterious swatch of fabric was found high in a tree, and a parachute strap was located as well. Everyone thought they had found remnants of Cooper's chute, but the material turned out to be from a weather balloon, and the strap was part of a drag chute jettisoned from an F-4 Phantom. With the exception of a small data plate ripped from the 727's rear door during the bail out, not a shred of evidence -or any sign of Cooper himself- was ever found.

Then, on Sunday, February 10, 1980, the ultimate red herring was uncovered 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 on the riverbank. Their eight-year-old son,stumbled upon several packs of wet, rotted, and decomposing $20 bills mired in the sand: 290 of them, to be exact. Authorities were alerted, and the FBI quickly matched the serial numbers to the D.B. Cooper money. The only physical evidence of the hijacking had been found at last. Now there were still just 9,710 bills missing.

Immediate speculation swirled around three possibilities, none of which were ever proven. The first was that the money ripped away from Cooper when he hit the 727's slipstream, and simply fluttered to earth. Nice try, but how would three of the packets wind up touching each other in the sand ? The second theory was that Cooper landed safely, and eventually planted the money as a decoy before he made his ultimate get-away. Third was that Cooper died in the attempted bailout, or had been killed on landing, and the money just floated downstream by itself. Some even speculated that Cooper landed in the river and drowned. But where was the canvas bag ?

As in all good mystery stories, the red herring gets blown away before the final chapter. The Columbia River serves as a major shipping channel for the region, and has to be constantly dredged to maintain ship's draft clearances. The sand in which the money was found had been dredged up from the bottom of the Columbia River several months before Ingram's amazing discovery. It took eight years for the $5,800 in evidence to turn up, but no one will ever know exactly where its deceptive journey began.

No one ever made it out of an airplane with money again ? Believe it or not, in 1972 there were three successful bailouts of copycat "para-jackers", and although they did make it out of the planes (all 727s), they were all captured, imprisoned, or in one case, ambushed and shot dead. All 727s rear stairs were subsequently fitted with a mechanical wedge that aerodynamically locked the door from the outside while aloft, preventing any further hijacking attempts. The ingenious device, retro-fitted to earlier-built 727s was simply called the "Cooper Vane".

The legend lives on

Cooper wasn't a terrorist, or member of some whacko right-wing mob. He wasn't a loud political extremist, macho para-military brute or radical psycho. He was, allegedly, just an average guy, firm in his demands, but always courteous. Remember, no one was killed or even hurt during the escapade. Just inconvenienced.

Furthermore, he didn't steal $200,000 from Northwest Airlines, or even from a bank. He ultimately stole $200,000 from some big insurance companies (less the $20,000 deductible plus crew and operating costs that were paid to Northwest).

If you don't believe this story is still big today in American folklore, travel to Ariel, Washington, on Thanksgiving eve. You'll be amazed to see the "D.B. Cooper Days" celebration, centered in a tiny backwoods country establishment built in 1929, the Ariel General Store and Tavern. Hosted by owner Donna Elliott, the annual weekend party attracts hundreds of D.B. Cooper fans from all over the country (the town itself only claims a population of 50). Many hope that Cooper will actually show up one year so they can buy him a drink. Then again, he'd probably buy them drinks -with $20 bills, of course.

-- Cherri (jessam5@home.com), April 23, 2001


Cherri...lived in the Cascades on the Washington side of the river at the time. Thanks for story. Enjoyed reading it all again. Yes, I have been to a D.B.Cooper party. There are very warm feelings for the guy in that area. Sort of looked upon as a Robin Hood tho I never heard of anyone getting a share of the $.

-- Taz (Tassie@aol.com), April 24, 2001.

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