Features | Mar 11, 2011
Skyjacker—The Richard McCoy Jr. Story

Musika Farnsworth

Skydivers have a special ability the general public just doesn’t have. Unfortunately, that special ability can be used in devious ways...

He planned a skydive that he thought was brilliant—every aspect of the jump was meticulously orchestrated. But it was a skydive so dangerously ill-conceived that it changed his world forever and left him running for his life.

Richard McCoy Jr. was a 29-year-old Army-trained parachutist and experienced sport skydiver. He was also a Vietnam veteran, National Guard reservist, devout Mormon and married with two children. He taught Sunday school and abstained from coffee, cigarettes, alcohol and gambling. But he didn’t abstain from danger and risk. McCoy had been an Army Green Beret and combat helicopter pilot. In his two tours of Vietnam, he faced extreme risk to save his fellow soldiers. In 1967, he received the Army Commendation Medal for Heroism, and in 1968, he received the Distinguished Flying Cross for a very risky rescue.

Yet once home, he seemed to have no clear plans for civilian life. He had planned to return to Vietnam for a third tour, but this caused great friction with his wife, who would once again have to be solely responsible for their two small children. So McCoy enrolled at Brigham Young University to study his second love: law enforcement.

A helicopter similar to the ones McCoy flew in Vietnam. Photo courtesy of Bell Helicopter.

University Skyjacking Thesis
While he was studying at Brigham Young in the late 1960s, airline hijackings were regularly in the news. This was an era before electronic passenger screenings, yet a time of booming air travel. It was difficult for authorities to strike the correct balance between public safety and the need to process thousands of passengers. The hijackings at this time occurred mostly to protest relations between the United States and Cuba, to obtain political asylum or for terrorism and extortion. But in November of 1971, a different type of skyjacking took place by someone who came to be called D.B. Cooper—one in which the hijacker extorted $200,000 for himself, not a political cause. And most shockingly, he jumped from an airliner in mid-flight.

As a skydiver and pilot, Richard McCoy was interested in these cases and wrote his thesis at the university on the best way to prevent hijackings. During his research, he realized there wasn’t a system to prevent them. In fact, the airlines’ security systems were lacking in many regards. It would be possible—even easy—for someone to once again extort a great amount of cash and parachute out the back stairway of an aircraft. So easy, in fact, that someone with thorough knowledge of airplanes, flight paths, terrain, skydiving, parachuting gear and law enforcement could pull it off.

Life was hard for McCoy, supporting a wife and two small children on his income from the GI Bill. His marriage was in trouble, and he worried about supporting his children. If he could pull off such a heist, he and his family would be set for life. If he didn’t make it … he didn’t make it. Like the risks he took in Vietnam, there was no in-between.

The Plan
Richard McCoy devised a plan in which he would hijack an airliner and collect a ransom larger than D.B. Cooper had. McCoy didn’t know whether D.B. Cooper had survived the jump after his famous hijacking. No one knew. But McCoy had a lot of experience and could pull it off. (Although many feel that McCoy was D.B. Cooper, there has never been any concrete evidence to prove this.)

McCoy carefully typed out his hijacking instructions for the airline crew with each step spelled out. He would give them to the crew in stages. He would bring his own parachute rig, jumpsuit, helmet, gloves, boots, altimeters and stopwatches. Every detail was covered.

In the early morning hours of April 7, 1972, McCoy’s wife drove her husband from their home in Provo, Utah, to the airport. Reportedly, during the hour-long drive, they argued about divorce, money, the children and the $500 he spent planning the heist. His wife didn’t think he would actually do it. Nevertheless, he got on the plane and flew from Utah to Denver, planning to hijack a connecting flight from Denver to Los Angeles.

United Airlines Flight 855
McCoy barely made his connecting flight, even though he had made a successful practice run the week before. This day, the airport was chaotic. A severe snowstorm in Chicago had delayed flights, creating long lines and angry passengers in Denver.

After a painfully long wait at the ticket counter under the alias James Johnson, McCoy rushed to his gate with little time to spare. He had a few carry-on bags and a separate unsealed manila envelope that contained the typed and sequentially arranged hijacking instructions. Then an announcement came over the airport intercom: “James Johnson, please proceed to a white courtesy phone.” Panicked, McCoy searched for the nearest phone, thinking it was his wife trying to contact him with crucial information. He had wasted his time; they were calling for a different James Johnson.

After this diversion, McCoy barely had time to reach the plane for boarding. He was one of the first passengers to board and was careful to hold his boarding pass at the very edges to avoid leaving fingerprints. His seat number was 20D, in the back of the jet. As soon as he boarded, he went to the restroom—according to his calculations, he had five minutes to change into his disguise.

In the tiny restroom, McCoy changed from his brown suit and shoes to the flashy “mod” clothes of the era: a green flowered shirt, an untied blue tie, a red-and-blue-striped sports jacket and black-and-white saddle shoes. He applied dark-toned makeup to his face and neck. He also donned a wig, since he knew he had to disguise his most notable feature: his ears. (He had been teased about them relentlessly; his nickname was Dumbo, even at the university.) In order to hide them, he wore his sister-in-law’s elastic headband under the wig. Unfortunately, the wig, recently dyed black, was stiff and unruly. As he tried to plaster it down with water and hairspray, black liquid ran down his face and onto his makeup.

Panic in the Restroom
As he quickly worked on his disguise, he heard an announcement echo through the cabin: “Attention ladies and gentlemen. Has someone aboard Flight 855 left a manila envelope in the boarding area?”

McCoy froze—he knew his hijacking instructions to the crew were in that unsealed manila envelope. He knew that if someone had peeked inside to find a name, he would be arrested if he tried to claim it. However, if no one claimed it and the crew then looked inside to find a name, all 85 passengers aboard—including him, with his disguise, parachute, helmet and jumpsuit—would be held and interrogated.

McCoy cracked the restroom door and saw the stewardess walking down the aisle, holding up the manila envelope for everyone to see. He grabbed several cloth towels and covered as much of his face as possible, while coughing and choking as if he were already airsick. Standing in the restroom door, he said nothing but waved his hand and gestured at the stewardess, who promptly handed the envelope to him without a word.

His grooming, including darkening his moustache and sideburns with mascara, took longer than he’d planned. When the plane was ready for departure, a stewardess had to knock repeatedly on the restroom door to tell him to be seated. She then went to find a male member of the crew to help. As McCoy finished up, the plane lurched forward, taxiing to the runway, and the second officer shouted, “Get out of there at once. We’re ready for takeoff.”

McCoy took his seat in 20D wearing mirrored sunglasses, and to ensure he left no fingerprints, he wore gloves. As he looked around the cabin, the flight crew seemed familiar. With a deepening sense of dread, McCoy realized this was the very same flight crew as on that morning’s flight and that he was on the same 727 as earlier. He was even sitting in the same seat as earlier, when he was in his business suit and without gloves. His fingerprints were everywhere!

In the meantime, the captain had been informed of the suspicious behavior of the gentleman in 20D. However, he still headed for Los Angeles but arranged an unscheduled landing in Grand Junction, Colorado, where FBI agents were on standby at the terminal.

A Boeing 727-100, similar to the Boeing 727-200 McCoy hijacked.

Change of Flight Plan
The two businessmen on either side of McCoy also found him extremely suspicious. One stated, “I instinctively knew that something just wasn’t right.”

Only a few minutes into the flight, the captain announced they were making an unscheduled landing to address a hydraulic problem but assured the passengers that it was not an emergency. McCoy turned to the man next to him and whispered, “That’s not why we’re stopping in Grand Junction.” The passenger looked down to see a .45 caliber handgun pointed at his chest. McCoy gave the dismayed businessman an index card that read, “This is a hijack. Move forward and get a stewardess.”

A stewardess calmly walked to the last row of seats as instructed, and McCoy handed her an envelope containing instructions, a live .45 caliber cartridge and a pin from a World War II hand grenade. Typed on the outside of the envelope were the words, “Grenade-Pin Pulled. Pistol Loaded.”

Inside, in all capital letters, were McCoy’s typewritten instructions:


In reality, once the handler has pulled the pin of a hand grenade, he would have to hold the lever closed continuously. Once he releases the lever, the fuse burns for four seconds before detonation. It’s unknown whether the flight crew believed McCoy actually pulled the grenade’s pin, but they presumably felt that it was no time to guess.

Over the intercom, the pilot announced a slight change to the passengers—the alleged hydraulic problem would be looked at in San Francisco instead. At this point, McCoy instructed all passengers in rows 19 and 20 to move to first class. In first class, the stewardess quietly asked a doctor if he had a medical bag with him … just in case. She told him that they were being hijacked and about the grenade. The doctor said he did have a medical bag but added, “I’m afraid I wouldn’t be much help to you or anyone else if that hand grenade blows up back there with this plane full of people.”

Takes One to Know One
Two of the passengers on board were a correctional guard and a long-haired man, about 6 feet 2 inches tall and 200 pounds. The long-haired man wasn’t handcuffed, but he was a fugitive being transported to San Quentin State Penitentiary.

The fugitive had noticed that McCoy boarded the aircraft in a business suit and exited the restroom with his face darkened and a telltale bulge under his jacket. He knew something was up before takeoff. Once McCoy cleared the rows nearest himself, the convict repeatedly looked back at him and smiled, waved and nodded. Irritated, the corrections guard snapped, “Sit down and shut up.”

The convict then dutifully sat quietly, looking straight ahead, until he felt a hand on his shoulder. McCoy said to him, “Young man, today’s your big day. After the 10 o’clock news, everybody in the country will have seen your face on television.” McCoy then gave further typed instructions to the convict to deliver to the captain. McCoy tasked the convict with carrying the parachutes and cash he was requesting onto the jet.

Some of the passengers were aware that a hijacking was in progress and were frightened. The atmosphere was slightly chaotic. The stewardess found a passenger, a candy salesman, crouched in the aisle with a camera. He had borrowed it from another passenger, knowing that if he captured a great shot of the action, it could make the cover of a national magazine. McCoy noticed his antics and merely lifted his arm up, silently showing him the grenade, and the stewardess ushered him back to first class.

At San Francisco International
In San Francisco, McCoy instructed everyone to remain on the jet until the cash and parachutes arrived. The crew was silent as the passengers wondered why they were not disembarking. A middle-aged businessman shouted to the stewardess, “For God’s sake, girl, what on earth is going on here? I have a business meeting in Los Angeles later today!”

Finally, the captain announced, “We have people aboard this plane—more than one, we think—who want to use it for awhile … want the plane for their own personal use. They have asked for a sizable amount of money, and we can assure them now that it’s on its way. They are armed, so stay calm. Please stay in your seats and make no effort to interfere in any way. United Airlines is doing everything it can to get the money and other things they asked for aboard, so it shouldn’t be much longer. Thank you and please bear with us.”

The ground crew was working unusually slowly, trying to stall. The fuel truck was there but not fueling. Three men in coveralls were removing luggage piece by piece. McCoy noticed that two of the ground crew were wearing black business shoes under their coveralls—obviously, they were undercover agents and forgot the detail of their shoes. He could also see snipers on the roof of the terminal. SWAT teams, hostage negotiators, armed federal agents and marksmen with infrared scopes surrounded the jet. McCoy expected this—he had been a Green Beret, and their six primary missions are unconventional warfare, foreign internal defense, special reconnaissance, direct action, hostage rescue and counter-terrorism.

Cash and Parachute Gear
Skydiver and rigger Perry Stevens of Stevens Para-Loft in Oakland, California, was at home when FBI agents contacted him for the requested gear. It was obvious to him that an experienced jumper was requesting these rigs and altimeters. He prepared two backpack rigs and two belly-mount reserves, inserting the radio transmitters agents gave him. A Coast Guard helicopter flew the rigs to the waiting 727.

Authorities obtained the ransom money through Wells Fargo Bank. Each serial number was recorded, and the money was counted twice.

The passengers, crew and McCoy remained locked in the aircraft for two-and-a-half hours before the money and rigs were carried on board. Fueling hadn’t even started yet. The pace quickened when the angry captain demanded things wrap up. In frustration, McCoy hand-wrote his last instruction:


The evacuation of the 85 passengers was the most dangerous part for McCoy. This was the opportunity for armed federal agents to sneak on board and hide in the aircraft. The stewardess, who had been levelheaded and calm during the entire hijacking, noticed that McCoy was distracted by the evacuation. She also noticed that, unlike all the other notes, McCoy forgot to ask for this one back. She folded it up and tucked it in her bra.

Lonely Cabin
There was no time wasted once the last passenger was off. The jet turned and prepared for takeoff almost immediately. It was 7:30 p.m., and the skies were dark. The cabin was also dark, as McCoy had instructed, except for a small light near the aft restroom.

The rig McCoy carried on board was borrowed from a friend. It’s unclear where this sport rig was placed for the takeoff from San Francisco, but at 3,500 feet, its spring-loaded pilot chute popped out, striking the stewardess and almost knocking her out of her seat. McCoy had no idea why it deployed during the empty aircraft’s very fast ascent. It’s most likely that the ripcord snagged on something, since the rig was probably not equipped with an automatic activation device, as they were rare in 1972.

McCoy desperately tried to reclose the container. He did not plan to use the rigs delivered by the FBI from Stevens Para-Loft. He suspected they would be bugged and had planned to throw them out of the jet as a diversion. Now he had no choice but to use one. (The delivered canopies may actually have been safer, since they were larger than the one he brought and the weight of the money was much greater than he expected.)

McCoy opened the bags of money for a thorough check. In later interviews with authorities, McCoy said he nearly had to choke himself not to scream at the sight of the immense amount of cash. ($500,000 is equivalent to $2,607,236 in today’s dollars.) Even though many were 100s and 50s, he could not believe the sheer number of bills there were. It soon occurred to him that some or all of the money might not be real. Or that all of it might not be there. But he had to trust that it was.

McCoy then crawled through the aisles with a penlight and his gun, searching the aircraft for hiding agents. He found none. One stewardess remained in the dark cabin, and the remaining crew members were in the cockpit. There was a fish-eye peephole in the cockpit door because, thanks to the D.B. Cooper hijacking five months earlier, all 727s had since had them installed. But McCoy knew that: During the flight, he had placed a piece of tape over it.

McCoy opened the aft door to the outside and used the instrument panel to release the stairs. The captain could feel the severe drag of the stairs in the airstream. The stewardess stood at the front of the cabin. Freezing air rushed in, and oxygen masks fell from the ceiling in the cabin and the cockpit. The captain felt the jet swing, and the instrument panel lit up in red, indicating the door was open.

Erratic Flight Path
The United Airlines captain flew the plane following McCoy’s detailed instructions: 180 knots at 14,000 to 16,000 feet, depending on the mountains and terrain. The captain struggled; flying the depressurized Boeing 727 was not terribly dangerous, but flying it so slowly was. McCoy’s instructions also included reaching visible landmarks at specific altitudes and certain times while flying in a zigzag pattern to shake trail planes.

Two Coast Guard C-130 Hercules aircraft followed from a distance and were in radio contact with the captain of the jet; they too struggled with the slow airspeed. Federal agents were anxious to close in, but the captain asked them not to—the possibility that McCoy would jump and leave the grenade on the aircraft to detonate was too frightening.

Moments later, a transmitter indicated that a parachute had left the plane. The agents radioed the captain and asked permission to close in. But the captain again said no. The crew could see parts of the cabin through a small gap between the cockpit door and the doorjamb, and they saw shadows of movement. It was possible that McCoy was still aboard and had forced the stewardess to jump, since the transmitter could not indicate who used the parachute.

Indeed, a rig did exit the aircraft, but neither McCoy nor the stewardess was in it. McCoy threw it out the door, along with a duffle bag containing his makeup, mirrored sunglasses and wig.

Gearing Up
At this point, McCoy sent the stewardess to the cockpit. He struggled to change back into his white shirt and brown slacks. He shaved off his mustache and sideburns and put an olive-green thermal jumpsuit over his clothes. He changed into lace-up army boots and put on his helmet and gloves, but he was slow and uncoordinated. He was tired—the hijacking had been in progress for 10 hours—and in the freezing air of an open cabin at 14,000 to 16,000 feet, he may have been hypoxic.

The week before, McCoy had flown his National Guard helicopter and precisely calibrated his altimeter. A stopwatch secured to the rig next to this altimeter would help him maintain altitude awareness.

Into a large duffle bag with metal handles, McCoy loaded the money, his friend’s rig, the .45 firearm (which had been empty the entire time) and the hand grenade (which was fake). He geared up and connected the duffle bag to the harness where a belly-mount reserve would have been.

The duffle bag weighed approximately 70 pounds and was 3 feet long and 3 feet wide, hanging between his legs. McCoy was an Army parachutist, but it is unknown how many jumps he had made and how many were freefalls. McCoy later reported that he had made three high-altitude jumps with the Army that “didn’t go well,” but it is unknown what he meant by that. Reportedly, he began sport jumping the year before the hijacking and had made at least 30 to 40 jumps in that time. When he had the money, he would jump in Utah with a friend at Alta Parachute Club, located on a small airstrip built in the 1940s.

Exiting at Night
In later interviews with curious investigators, McCoy explained his jump, stating that he stood geared up in the open doorway for a very long time before descending the aft stairs. It was almost midnight, the sky was black, and the wind was freezing, yet his hands were sweating. Finally, he was able to collect his wits, take a deep breath and step outside onto the stairs.

As he stepped out, the entire stairway dropped two feet under his weight. Knocked off balance with his 70-pound duffle bag between his legs, he grabbed the right handrail and wrapped both arms around it, desperately holding on. The stairs shook and vibrated. The noise from the jet engines on either side of him was horrendous. He checked for his penlight on the pocket of his jumpsuit—it was gone. Then he saw it rolling on the steps next to him and was able to retrieve it. In the dark, he could see the highway lights of I-15 between Provo and Salt Lake City below him. He could not see the search planes that were following. McCoy became momentarily disoriented as the aircraft moved dizzyingly, until he realized the jet was banking, following his previously issued instructions.

The Jump
Richard McCoy descended the steps. On the last step, he took a deep breath and stepped out, feet first, into the dark...

To be continued. The conclusion of “Skyjacker—the Richard McCoy Story” will appear in the April issue of Parachutist.

About the Author

Musika Farnsworth, A-20569, has been jumping since 1992 and has a Bachelors of Arts in social sciences. She lives in Vancouver, Washington.


Rhodes, B. & Calame, R. (1991). D.B. Cooper The Real McCoy. Salt Lake City, Utah: University of Utah Press.

(1972, April 24). Crime: The Real McCoy. Time in partnership with CNN. Retrieved from http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,943370-1,00.html.

Richard McCoy, Jr. (n.d.) in Wikipedia. Retrieved July 2010, from http://wikipedia.org/wiki/Richard_McCoy_Jr.

FBI Famous Cases; Richard Floyd McCoy, Jr. – Aircraft Hijacking. Retrieved July 2010 from the FBI Federal Bureau of Investigation website: http://www2.fbi.gov/libref/historic/famcases/mccoy/mccoy.htm.

D.B. Cooper (n.d.) in Wikipedia. Retrieved July 2010, from http://en.wikipedia.og/wiki/D.-B.-Cooper.

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