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The History of the Skyjacking

The Skyjacking

Just like any good piece of crime fiction, this story begins with; “It was a cold, overcast, rainy November day.” However, this story isn’t fiction. It is the true story of one of the most intriguing and baffling crimes that has occurred in the history of the United States. A crime where the perpetrator told law enforcement he was committing a crime, told them how he was going to do it, told them where they could find him while he was doing it, did it (with their assistance), then vanished, and to this day (almost 37 years after), hardly a trace has been found that he ever even existed.

 

In the afternoon of Wednesday November 24th, 1971, at around 2:00 PM, a man stepped up to Northwest (Orient) Airline (NWA) ticket agent Hal Williams at Portland International Airport in Portland, Oregon (PDX) and requested a one-way ticket to Seattle, Washington (SEA). When the agent asked his name, he said it was “Dan Cooper”. The agent wrote the name on the boarding pass, assigned him aisle seat 18C aboard NWA flight #305, and wrote D. Cooper on the passenger manifest. The man, a (roughly) 45 year old Caucasian with a Mediterranean (swarthy) complexion wearing a dark business suit and carrying a briefcase and a small, brown paper sack paid for the ticket (which cost $18.52 + $1.48 tax) with a twenty-dollar bill, took his seat in the boarding area and waited to board the plane. The scheduled departure time was 2:35 PM PST but the plane was running about 30 minutes late. If the man’s appearance could have a one-word description, it would be “unremarkable”.

 

Flight 305 was a Boeing 727-51 that had begun the day in Washington, D.C. It carried passengers to the Northwest hub in Minneapolis, made stops in Great Falls and Missoula, MT, and continued west to Portland, OR. The flight to Seattle (taking only about 45 minutes) would conclude its day. The jet could seat 94 passengers (66 in coach and 28 in first class) but it carried just 37 customers and six crew members. The flight's pilot was Captain William Scott, 51, who had been flying for Northwest for 20 years. Also aboard were First Officer William "Bill" Rataczak, Flight Engineer Harold E. Anderson, and three flight attendants, Alice Hancock (the Senior Flight Attendant), Tina Mucklow, 22, and Florence Schaffner, 23. Mucklow and Schaffner each had less than 24 months in the air.

 

The TTY transcription of the radio message from Captain Scott (Flight 305) to Northwest Airlines Seattle Flight Operations. (N467US)The plane departed at 3:07 PM PST. As soon as the plane was airborne, Cooper handed a note to Florence Schaffner. Thinking he was just a salesman “hitting on her,” she put the note in her uniform pocket and continued about her business. The next time she passed he motioned for her to come closer and whispered to her, “You'd better read that. I have a bomb." He nodded toward the briefcase in his lap. Schaffner went to the galley, read the note and shared it with fellow attendant Tina Mucklow. They hurried to the cockpit where Capt. Scott had a look. At 3:13 PM the pilot radioed Sea-Tac Flight Operations with this message [paraphrased]; “Passenger is advising he is hijacking. Enroute to SEA. The stewardess has been handed a note requesting $200,000 and a knapsack by 5:00 PM (Seattle) this afternoon. He wants two backpack parachutes and two front parachutes. He wants the money in negotiable American currency. Denomination of the bills is not important. He has a bomb in his briefcase and will use it if anything is done to block his request. Enroute to SEA.” [Editors NOTE See Figure 1 for the near real-time transcription of the message. The discrepancy from the above paraphrased statement is due to the nervousness of the crew and the difficulty of trying to transcribe (on a teletype (TTY), which has no erase or backspace function) while listening to ongoing radio transmissions.]

 

The exact wording of the note Cooper handed Schaffner is lost because he asked for it back and took it with him. He made her dictate the demands and take them to the cockpit. (Therefore, all notes were in the stewardess’ hand). In subsequent FBI debriefs, it was agreed that these are Cooper’s exact words as spoken to Schaffner, "Take this down. I want $200,000 by 5:00 PM in cash. Put it in a knapsack. I want two back parachutes and two front parachutes. When we land, I want a fuel truck ready to refuel. No funny stuff, or I'll do the job."

 

Flight Ops alerted Seattle police, who in turn alerted the FBI. The feds placed an urgent call to Northwest Orient's president, Donald Nyrop, requesting his decision on a course of action. Nyrop ordered full compliance with Cooper's demands, (probably) hoping to avoid the negative publicity that a disaster aboard an NWA flight would bring. The $200,000 was a small amount compared to the damage (physical and public relations) a negative outcome could cause.

 

[Editor’s NOTE: I recently received an e-mail from Jim A. who was a Northwest employee for 37 years, and a personal acquaintance of Donald Nyrop. This is what he had to say about the motivation for Nyrop's decision:

 

"I can tell you that that is flat out unequivocally wrong. The last thing on his mind was publicity, whether positive or negative. He was concerned first and foremost with the safety and well-being of the PEOPLE on board, the crew and passengers, and secondly, about the aircraft itself. And he didn't hesitate in his decision for even a split second, there was nothing else for him to even consider. Anybody who knew Nyrop knows this is so, and I've heard it from "the horse's mouth" on a couple of occasions. Unfortunately, he passed away just a couple of months ago, so he's no longer able to tell you himself. (FWIW, I always had a love-hate relationship with the man, so I'm not saying all this to somehow glorify him!)]

 

Capt. Scott sent Schaffner back to the hijacker. She sat in Cooper's aisle seat. He had moved to the window. Cooper opened his briefcase wide enough to give her a glimpse of its contents. She saw wires, a battery like a flashlight battery, except it was about 8 in. long and as thick as a man’s wrist. Also, there were eight red cylinders in two rows (each about 1 in. in diameter and 6 in. long) that might have been sticks of dynamite. Cooper told her to tell the pilot to stay aloft until the money and chutes were ready in Seattle. She hurried back to the cockpit with the latest message.

 

At 3:57 PM, the pilot announced to the passengers that they were experiencing a slight mechanical difficulty that would delay their landing at SEA. Very few of the passengers were ever aware that a skyjacking was in progress.

 

At 3:58 PM, Flight 305 advised Flight Ops that they had not notified Air Traffic Control (ATC) of their predicament and requested that Flight Ops make that notification for them.

 

The hijacking crisis crew on the ground, including Seattle cops, FBI agents, Northwest employees and Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) officials, had roughly one hour to meet Cooper's demands. The money was provided by Seafirst Bank, which is now Bank of America. The money had been earmarked for situations such as these and was always on hand. It had been photographed and serial numbers recorded by their security so the FBI did none of this.

 

The money was then transported by SeaFirst bank security to a Seattle police detective who then drove it to the airport and handed it over to NWA. The money was bundled in various counts so that no bundle was the same. Each bundle was secured by a rubber band and different counts so that it appeared the money was hastily gathered.

 

The Seattle Police Department worked on the two sets of parachutes. The search for suitable parachutes was more difficult than acquiring $200,000 cash. The chutes were actually secured through NWA's Seattle flight operations. The flight operations manager called an individual from Pacific Aviation, who in turn called an individual he knew who had two back packs. This person put the two back packs in a cab and the cab driver delivered them to Boeing Field and then onto Sea-Tac by private car. The chest chutes were picked up in Issaquah at Seattle Sky Sports and transported to Sea-Tac by the State Patrol.

 

Cooper's hijacking note did not spell out his plan to skydive with the loot, but the authorities were able to deduce his intentions. They puzzled over his request for two sets of chutes. Did he plan to take along a passenger or crew member as an airborne hostage? The question negated any thoughts of sabotaging the parachutes.

 

Cooper's manners and temperament have been the subject of some disagreement. By the FBI's account, he was boozy and rather raunchy. Ralph Himmelsbach, an FBI investigator on the case, said the hijacker used "filthy language" and was "obscene." Yet Mucklow, who spent more time with Cooper than any other crew member, has described him as a gentleman. She said, "He seemed rather nice. He was never cruel or nasty. He was thoughtful and calm." One example was Cooper's request that meals for the crew be brought on board once the jet was on the ground in Seattle.

 

Investigators surmised that Cooper was native to the Seattle area or was born in the Northwest and had spent some years around Puget Sound. The Northwest agent at PDX had discerned no regional accent when Cooper bought his ticket. Cooper had recognized Tacoma from the air while the hijacked jet was circling and he knew that McChord Air Force Base was 20 minutes from Sea-Tac (based on a comment he made to Mucklow).

 

At 5:37 PM, the flight was notified by NW Flight Ops that everything was ready for their arrival. The plane landed at 5:47 PM.

 

On the ground at SEA, the plane was refueled, the money and parachutes were brought onboard, the 36 other passengers were allowed to leave the plane, and two flight attendants (Hancock and Schaffner) were allowed to leave the aircraft. Cooper kept Tina Mucklow behind to assist him with lowering the aft stairs. Cooper thought the aircraft could take off with the aft stairs in the lowered position. When the pilots convinced him that was not possible he said he would open them after they were airborne.

 

During the time on the ground at SEA, Cooper gave instructions to the pilots as to where to go and also gave then some flight condition parameters. He wanted to go to Mexico City, fly at no higher than 10,000 ft. with the wheels lowered, the flaps set to 15 degrees, all lights turned off, and no landings in the US. The flight crew advised him that they would have to refuel at least once before reaching the Mexican border. He wanted to go to Phoenix, AZ, but the crew felt that would be marginal so he agreed to a refueling stop in Reno, NV.

 

The plane was airborne at 7:34 PM. After Tina showed him how to operate the aft stairs, Cooper directed her to go to the cockpit, close the curtains between first-class and coach, and stay in the cockpit. As she closed the curtains, she observed him tying the moneybag (it was not a backpack as he had requested, but rather a canvas bag) around his waist or possibly to the harness. At 7:42, when the plane was about 14 nautical miles (NM) south of SEA, the pilots got an indicator light indication the aft door was open.

 

At 8:12 PM, the pilots noticed the plane was oscillating as if Cooper was on the aft stairs. The oscillations were not felt after 8:13 PM. At this time, the plane was over Clark County, Washington about 25 miles north of the Columbia River, near Vancouver, WA and Portland, OR. He was never seen nor heard from again.

 

The plane continued to Reno, NV where it landed at 11:02 PM with the open aft stairs dragging down the runway making sparks. The aircraft was parked at a remote location while the crew tried to contact Cooper on the intercom. After about 5 minutes and getting no response, the crew ventured into the cabin and found it empty. The FBI and law enforcement then took over the aircraft and designated it a crime scene.

 

Some Interesting Notes:

 

*    None of the flight crew or NWA Flight Ops crew knew the Boeing 727 could be flown with the aft stairs extended. It was only after much consultation with Boeing experts that they were aware it could be done. Also, Flight Ops advised the 305 flight crew that the ability of a person to jump (successfully) from a 727 with a parachute was nil.

 

*    While the plane was still on the ground at SEA, Ground Control (part of the Control Tower staff) advised the pilots of Flight 305 that they had been asked to relay a message from The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Chief Psychiatrist in Washington, DC. The message was; “He believes the second parachute is for the stewardess to use with him to go out, and after he leaves the airplane will be blown up.” [sic]

 

 

The Hunt for D. B. Cooper

So little is known about the man calling himself “Dan Cooper,” asking for and getting $200,000 and four parachutes from Northwest Airlines ($20,000 deductable and $180,000 from their insurance carriers), commandeering a Boeing-727 airliner and jumping from it at 10,000 feet over western Washington. To this day, no one knows where he went, where he came from (before purchasing the ticket at PDX), or his real name!

 

Text Box: Now that name is one of the most recognizable names in American folklore.

On Thanksgiving Day the FBI began searching for known felons by the name of Dan Cooper. It was a long shot, but most criminals make one mistake or the other that enables law enforcement to capture them. They were checking, just in case the hijacker was foolish enough to use his real name. In Portland, OR a wire service stringer overheard a records clerk mention that the FBI was checking on a known felon named “D.B. Cooper” in conjunction with the Northwest Airlines hijacking. The man was cleared of any involvement in the case, but the word had already gone out on the wire that the FBI was seeking the hijacker, one D. B. Cooper. Now that name is one of the most recognizable names in American folklore.

 

As soon as law enforcement took over the plane in Reno, NV and declared it a crime scene, they began to gather evidence. The evidence they gathered (that is known to the public) consists of eight filter-tipped Raleigh cigarettes, the plastic cup that held the bourbon he asked the stewardess for, a narrow, black, clip-on tie with the tie-clasp attached, two of the four parachutes that he had been given and sixty-six finger prints that did not match passengers or crew.

 

While the hijacking was in progress (after leaving SEA), two F-106A fighter jets from the 318th Fighter Interceptor Squadron at McChord AFB were dispatched to give chase and attempt to determine when and where Cooper jumped. This was a dismal failure due to poor visibility and the fact that the planes were ordered to keep distance between themselves and the hijacked 727. This was because a recent incident involving fighter planes chasing a civilian aircraft had ended in a collision and death.

 

Somewhere around Red Bluff, CA, a Lockheed Hercules C-130 with the 41st ARRS, out of Hamilton Air Force Base, California, intercepted Flight 305. The HC-130 stayed “in trail” of the B-727 until it landed at Reno, NV.

 

The weather prevented a ground search until Thanksgiving Day. The area searched was huge, and the search did not yield any meaningful results.

 

In early 1972, several massive searches involving many law enforcement agencies and over 400 soldiers from Ft. Lewis, WA revealed nothing. The primary search area was just south of the Lewis River (separating Cowlitz County from Clark County). Data was gathered by conducting some tests, using the actual pilot from Flight 305 and a 200 pound sled equipped with a parachute. The sled was dropped from the plane flying along the same path as the night of the hijacking. Because of this data, the search area was narrowed to a line from Highland, WA to Green Mountain, WA.

 

By the end of 1972, most of America had forgotten about D. B. Cooper. The FBI had not. Even though the trail had rapidly grown cold, the FBI continued to follow up on every lead brought to them by the public or spinning off from other investigations, including the case of Richard Floyd McCoy, Jr. It would be a long, long time before any new clues were discovered.

Seven Years and (Finally) One New Clue

 

The hunt for D B Cooper had gone on for seven years. In those seven years most of America and the rest of the world had forgotten about the Northwest Flight 305 Skyjacking (NORJAK) and D B Cooper. America had undergone many changes since 1971. A vice president had been impeached, a president had resigned under threat of impeachment, and the Viet Nam war was over. America was pre-occupied with the news of the day and the good life in the United States.

 

Text Box: Then on a cold February day, a boy named Brian Ingram was smoothing the sand to prepare a fire-pit on a small beach on Tena Bar, located on the Columbia River.The news events that had America thinking about anything but D B Cooper were: Korean Air Flight 902 was shot down by Soviets, David Berkowitz, the "Son of Sam" killer in New York City, was sentenced to 365 years in prison for six killings, and the first so-called test-tube baby, Louise Brown, was born. The music America was listening to was Poco, Eagles, Loggins and Messina, James Taylor, Souther, Hillman and Furay Band, Steely Dan, Hall and Oates, along with the Doobie Brothers.

 

It was no wonder, in November of 1978,that no one took much notice of a woodsman and hunter, Carroll Hicks, who found a placard off of the door of a Boeing 727 in the forest near Toutle, WA. Hicks and his hunting partner were in the habit of picking up trash left in the forest by others as they hunted or scouted the area. He found the thin piece of plastic, stuck it in his pocket and didn’t think much about it. When he was taking the trash out of his pockets and putting it in a trash can, he noticed the writing on the partial placard giving instructions for opening the aircraft’s aft stairs. Hicks contacted authorities and turned the placard over to them. It was identified as having come from N467US the aircraft hijacked by D B Cooper.

 

This find, while interesting to the Seattle office of the FBI, really didn’t say much about the hijacking. The FBI knew the route the plane had traveled and the partial placard was found along that route. Once again, the trail leading to the arrest and conviction of the now notorious D B Cooper had grown cold.

 

Then on a cold February day, a boy named Brian Ingram was smoothing the sand to prepare a fire-pit on a small beach on Tena Bar, located on the Columbia River. He had asked his father (Duane Ingram) for permission to build a fire there on the beach. He gathered some wood and then began to smooth out the sand. As he rubbed his arm across the sand he encountered three “lumps” the lumps turned out to be three bundles of decaying money. They put the money in a bread sack and the next day they called the police. One telephone call led to another before Dwayne Ingram finally ended up speaking with an FBI agent. He was asked to read the serial numbers on the bills if any were still legible. Ingram read the top $20 bill on one of the bundles. The agent's tone changed, and he asked Ingram if he and his wife, Patricia, could bring the money to their office. At that moment the FBI realized they were staring at part of the Cooper ransom, $5,880 of the original $200,000.

 

Modern-day amateur sleuths have spent a lot of time trying to understand how that money got from the suspected jump site near Lake Merwin, down to a sandbar on the Columbia River. Many think it was transported by natural processes, traveling down the Washougal watershed and entering the Columbia east (upstream) of where the money was found, some think it might have be transported by a human (maybe Cooper himself) and placed there for reasons unknown.

 

The problem with the “natural transport” theory is that, according to a researcher (known to Sluggo only as “SafecrackingPLF”) there is no way the money could have been washed into the Columbia upstream of the find if the dropzone (DZ) was where the FBI believed it to be. He believes the DZ was somewhere south and east of the currently accepted location, or the money would have entered the Columbia downstream of where it was found. You can’t have it both ways.

 

The professional investigator in the case FBI Agent Larry Carr, had this to say; “"If this case is ever solved, I believe the money is ultimately going to be the key piece of evidence,” Carr said; "I believe that money was still in the original bag up until about 1979, a year before Ingram found it on that beach.”

 

Investigators and researchers alike know that the beach was filled with sand from an August 1974 dredging of the Columbia River channel. In addition, the entire basin flooded a few years later. "There's no way that money would have survived had it not been in that bag all that time,” Carr said. "It probably ripped off his waist shortly after jumping from that plane. I suspect the rest of the money eventually washed out into the ocean. "What's really exciting for us is, based on all these factors, we now believe our original search area was off. We now think the search area is further south.”

 

Other than occasional reports of people claiming to be DB Cooper, or calls made to the FBI suspecting a relative, friend, co-worker, or acquaintance of being him, not much has happened.

 

In April of 2007 the FBI put the right guy on the case when they gave Larry Carr the D.B. Cooper file. Carr became the latest special agent to inherit the 36-year-old Cooper portfolio. He still has other FBI duties that are more important, more serious and matter more to the general public safety. But none of them interest him like NORJAK. Carr has long followed the case, and he raised his hand when the Seattle office needed a new agent to supervise. "It's a hobby of mine," he said. "I'm fascinated with it."

 

Today, Carr's primary duties involve acting as the coordinator in the Seattle office for bank robberies and running the Puget Sound Violent Crime Task Force. But he follows the D.B. Cooper case by reading blogs and forums and fields whatever queries come to the office.

 

Carr recently raised the public profile of the Cooper investigation, hoping to reinvigorate public interest and a resurgence of efforts to find him. The office opened more of the files to public inspection, allowing the news media to photograph evidence and revealing for the first time that six years ago, the FBI obtained a sample of D.B. Cooper's DNA taken from the necktie he left behind.

 

The tie was kept as evidence for samples of his hair and other fibers. But in 2001, the Seattle office sent it to the FBI lab in Quantico, Va., for testing and found a DNA sample. The technology wasn't available in 1971, of course, and not every Cooper wannabe gets a DNA test. But the sample was used to eliminate one candidate as a suspect.

 

For the FBI the case isn't exactly a top priority. But maybe, new public notice could turn something up. He'd like to see hydrologists use satellite imagery and maybe find out where the bundles of Cooper cash found in 1980 came from. Tracing them back to the creek or river could lead them to the body. And be quite clear, a body is what Carr thinks was the result of Cooper's leap into the night.

 

All the speculation that Cooper was some kind of aviation-parachuting wizard just doesn't hold up, Carr said. First of all, any experienced skydiver would have looked out the window at Portland International Airport and postponed a parachute jump. It was too cold, too dark and too stormy to have much chance of success.

 

He never asked for any specific dollar denomination for the ransom. The FBI gave him $20s, which weighed about 25 pounds. But an experienced jumper would have asked for $100s, which would have weighed far less, Carr said.

 

Cooper never asked for any special equipment that would have helped him survive such a nasty night, no special type of parachute or special clothes. He jumped wearing a trench coat and loafers. He apparently never checked his chutes before jumping or might have realized one was sewn shut, something an experienced jumper would have noticed.

 

And he never requested a specific route. He first wanted to go to Mexico City, but when the pilot said he couldn't get that far, he settled on Reno. But he never specified what route for the plane to take. Why jump at night over the high Cascades instead of another route friendlier to a parachute jump? Carr asked.

 

The hijacker, he said, didn't seem to think through the most important part of the hijacking: the jump. The only conclusion when you look at the facts is that this guy wasn't an expert."

 

The picture Carr has created for Cooper is a guy with just enough knowledge of aviation and skydiving to think he knew what he was doing. Maybe it was a guy, Carr speculated, who had been laid off by the aviation industry, maybe not by Boeing but a subcontractor. Only seven months earlier, in April 1971, the aviation industry in Seattle was so depressed that two real estate agents put up a billboard saying, "Will the last person leaving Seattle - turn out the lights."

 

Carr thinks that maybe the hijacker, unemployed, saw the spate of successful airliner hijackings in those days and figured they looked easy. Airlines, after all, had a policy of cooperation because most of them were political and ended after a brief visit to Cuba. Everybody knew that. Carr speculates, He was probably smart, probably annoying and probably difficult to work with. This was one of those individuals who had a little knowledge and thought he knew everything. But then came the jump.

 

He was not prepared for the violence about to occur. Freezing rain hit him at 200 mph, he can't see ground. He must have realized; “Wait a minute, I don't know as much as I thought.” His loafers were ripped off, the satchel flies away, chaos is occurring.

 

He panicked, Carr said, and probably never tried to open his chute. This guy wasn't an expert at anything, Carr said; "He winged it."

 

In late March of 2008 the D B Cooper amateur sleuths and researchers were abuzz. Reports surfaced on March 25th that there might have been a major break in the NORJAK case. The FBI in Seattle had begun analysis of a long-buried parachute of the same type used by skyjacker D.B. Cooper.

 

The children of a Clark County contractor found the parachute buried in a field that their father has recently plowed for a road. The chute was conical shaped, dirty and deteriorated. Agent Carr said the parachute was found near the center of the original jump zone identified by searchers in November 1971, between the towns of Ariel and Amboy, Washington. 

 

The Clark County property owner says the plow blade unearthed something. He didn't notice it at first, but later his children, playing there, saw some cloth sticking above the earth. They pulled on it, and more cloth came out. They kept pulling, until the chute's shroud lines appeared. They cut them and notified the FBI in Seattle. Part of the chute remained buried in the field needed to be dug out with heavy equipment.

 

After digging out the harness and consulting with Earl Cossey, the Master Rigger who packed all four of the chutes given to Cooper, it was determined that the parachute was not one of the chutes used in the NORJAK hijacking.

 

The NORJAK research community went back to “Defcon 4” and continues to plug along, hoping that one day, someone will find something to help solve the crime.

 

For information about individuals who have been suspected of being D B Cooper, go to the “I Am D B Cooper” page [Here].

 

 

This page was last revised: January 8, 2011