Would you jump into a mountain forest for $1,052,000? In the dark? In the rain? In November?
In 1971, one man did. Unfortunately, the cash was stolen and the aircraft was hijacked Boeing 727 with fighter jets and FBI agents in a helicopter following it.
Was he an experienced skydiver or an ordinary criminal attempting an extraordinary theft? Did he survive and escape, or perish in a forest in Washington State? Thirty-nine years later, no one knows for sure.
Thanksgiving Eve, 1971; a man gave the name Dan Cooper to the ticket agent at the Portland International Airport when he bought a one-way ticket from Portland, Oregon, to Seattle. (Later, when a file clerk mentioned to a reporter that FBI agents were looking for “a man named Cooper—a D.B. Cooper,” the misnomer stuck.) Cooper checked no luggage but carried on a briefcase. Other than wearing dark sunglasses in the airport and on the plane, he looked quite average in a suit, tie and trench coat. In those days, all passengers dressed professionally for air travel, and D.B. Cooper blended in seamlessly with others. In fact, after the hijacking, the other passengers could not recall what Cooper looked like.
Once on board Northwest Airlines flight 305, before the plane had even taken off, Cooper handed a flight attendant, 23-year-old Florence Schaffner, a note. Since Cooper was staring at her, she thought he was simply flirting with her, and she put the note in her pocket without reading it. Once in the air, Cooper signaled her over to him and told her that he wanted her to read the note. He also told her to have the crew read it carefully, as well, and follow the instructions. He opened his briefcase slightly to show her a large battery, wires and six sticks of dynamite.
This was no joke and no Hollywood movie. The crew was disturbed and shaken. In an interview for the television program “Unsolved Mysteries,” Schaffner said, “We were very, very, very scared to death. All of us were. I was thinking about dying. That’s all I thought. I was also thinking, ‘I’ll never see my parents, my brothers and sisters.’”
Cooper’s written instructions demanded $200,000 cash (the equivalent of about $1,052,000 today) in small bills, to be delivered in a knapsack, and four parachutes, “two front packs and two backpacks.” The 727 was not to land until the parachutes and cash were ready for him. His demands included that the jet land in an unlit, secluded area of the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (Sea-Tac) with a fuel truck on standby.
On the ground, the airline company had a choice whether to produce the ransom or to try to overpower Cooper using law enforcement, but for the safety of all, the airline immediately agreed to Cooper’s demands. In the meantime, the FBI was scrambling to find any information on “Dan Cooper” to gain a psychological history, but nothing came up.
The cash was quickly collected from several local banks, and McCord Air Force Base in Tacoma, Washington, rushed two military rigs to Sea-Tac. While the 727 was still in flight, Cooper learned that military rigs were waiting for him, but he said they were not acceptable and demanded modern freefall rigs. The crew announced to the passengers that due to air traffic, their arrival would be delayed. The 30-minute flight from Portland circled over Seattle for two hours. The 727 was alone in the sky—air traffic for the northwestern United States had been informed of the hijacking in progress and was diverted from the area.
Although some passengers may have suspected something was amiss, they and the crew remained remarkably calm—as did D.B. Cooper, who sat alone in the back of the aircraft, wearing his sunglasses and chain smoking. He even twice ordered bourbon with lemon-lime soda.
Please Remain Seated While We...
By the time Northwest Airlines flight 305 landed at 5:45 p.m., it was dark. As instructed, the plane landed in an unlit, secluded area. Cooper instructed the attendants not to let any passengers off until he received the rigs and cash and the plane had refueled. He had the attendants close the shades on all the windows. Despite the unusual circumstances, the 36 passengers and crew still remained calm, oblivious to sharpshooters surrounding the jet.
The passengers remained in their seats as the flight attendant carried the parachutes and a large money bag to Cooper in the last row. Cooper then released the passengers and crew, except for one flight attendant, the pilot, co-pilot and flight engineer. As the passengers were disembarking, the co-pilot said to Schaffner, “You better get the hell out. Now.”
Cooper wore gear similar to this when he leapt from the aircraft. Photo by Musika Farnsworth.
Jump Run Instructions for a Boeing 727
Cooper gave the pilot instructions to fly to Mexico City at an altitude no higher than 10,000 feet and no faster than 170 knots (very close to the 727’s stall point), to use manual control and to fly with landing gear down, flaps at 15 degrees and the rear stairway down. The pilot said he was not able to take off with the rear stairway down. Cooper and the pilot argued, but the pilot would not back down. Cooper finally conceded.
The jet departed Sea-Tac with four members of the flight crew and Cooper. Cooper ordered everyone to stay in the cockpit. The last person to see him was the flight attendant, who saw him “tying something around his waist.” These are the last known details of Cooper’s activities. Investigators later discovered that Cooper had opened one of the reserve parachutes, removed the canopy and cut off two suspension lines. The exact method of how he secured $200,000 to himself is unknown, but the money totaled 10,000 individual bills and weighed 21 pounds.
While in flight, the crew suddenly felt the air pressure decrease to an ear-popping level, and the control panel lit up, indicating the back stairway was open. It was 8:15 p.m. The Pacific Northwest was experiencing a heavy rain storm with occasional snow flurries. The temperature was about 20 degrees at the jet’s altitude. It is unknown whether Cooper wore his trench coat and carried his briefcase or if he threw them out the door. Wearing a backpack rig and belly-mount reserve over his business suit and holding onto the handrails, Cooper descended the Boeing’s rear steps in his slip-on loafers, standing in the wind and rain at 10,000 feet—and jumped into the night.
Approaching Reno, Nevada, the co-pilot announced over the intercom that they had to refuel in Reno. He repeated the message several times to a silent cabin.
When the jet landed, the crew and authorities were stunned to discover that Cooper, the money, his briefcase and trench coat were gone. Also gone was one backpack parachute and one belly-mount reserve. The fighter jets and helicopter that followed never saw or picked up on radar any sign of Cooper or his parachute.
Loaning Gear to a Friend
Earlier that evening, skydiver Earl Cossey, a master rigger, received a telephone call at home. The call was from a business associate who also happened to be the manager of Sea-Tac International Airport. The airport manager asked Cossey for two backpacks and two chest-mount reserves as soon as possible but could not disclose the reason he needed them. Cossey admits he wondered about the manager’s request, “But I trusted him completely and did as I was told,” he said.
Cossey called his drop zone in Issaquah, Washington, and asked a person who was staying there to collect the rigs and hand them over to authorities. Police rushed the rigs in a patrol car from the drop zone to Sea-Tac International.
Later that evening, Cossey heard on the news that there was a hijacking in progress. He was stunned at the revelation that this was why the authorities had asked for his parachutes. “I thought, ‘Oh crap! There go my parachutes!’ ” Cossey recalled. “I was just laughing at the stupidity of that guy and thought, ‘This guy’s nuts.’”
Agent Ralph Himmelsbach poses for the camera circa 2003. Photo by Jeff Johnson.
Aviation Violation Specialist
The FBI assigned Agent Ralph Himmelsbach of Oregon to the hijacking in progress. Himmelsbach began his piloting career with the Air Corps in the 1940s and, at the time of the hijacking, worked as the FBI’s aviation violation specialist.
Himmelsbach and his team noted the time of the last verbal contact with Cooper and when the jet’s pressure gauges indicated that the back stairway bounced shut and opened again (likely as a result of Cooper jumping from it). According to their calculations, this gave them an exit point over rural and densely forested Ariel, Washington. In Ariel, 50-foot-tall fir trees cover steep hills, rolling down to the 12-mile-long Lake Merwin.
News of the hijacking hit the airwaves and newspapers across the United States. The narrow country roads in Washington filled with cars and RVs as people searched, alongside the authorities, the very difficult terrain. The authorities scoured the entire area, searching for parachute fabric, broken trees, broken branches, money or clothing. A “white object” was seen floating in Lake Merwin, but this turned out to be a false lead.
Everyone was looking for D.B. Cooper, his parachute, a shoe, the briefcase—and especially the money. In 1971, $200,000 (in convenient $20 bills) was an immense amount of money. One wealthy investor was convinced D.B. Cooper and the cash lay at the bottom of Lake Merwin and used a private submarine to search the lake floor inch by inch.
Not one item was found. And not one clue surfaced as to who Dan/D.B. Cooper was—although most thought he was probably a skydiver.
Skydivers Under Investigation
FBI Agent Himmelsbach says, “Many innocent citizens found themselves the focal point of FBI interest because of a change in lifestyle, participating in the sport of skydiving, a past history of parachuting or just an attitude of thrill-seeking that made someone else suspicious.” Investigators questioned about two dozen skydivers, but they were either too young to be D.B. Cooper or had an alibi for the night of November 24.
In 1971, USPA membership was growing quickly, and the public was becoming more and more exposed to skydiving. USPA had recently released a film called “This is a Sport?” that sold to members for $100 and to non-USPA members for $150. Jumpers commonly used military surplus gear, wore motorcycle helmets for safety and used a stopwatch next to the belly-mount altimeter for altitude awareness. Cooper’s fate after the hijacking was very controversial among skydivers. Agent Himmelsbach recalls, “Skydivers were mixed as to their opinion of the potential success of the jump.” At the time no one was even sure that a jumper could survive the leap from a jet.
Military experts advised Agent Himmelsbach that Cooper may have buried his gear as soldiers are trained to do, referencing a manual called “101 Uses of a Parachute for Survival.” However, no one knew how Cooper had prepared. Himmelsbach says, “It’s unknown whether Cooper had survival gear such as knife, compass, food or matches in his pockets.”
The evening of the hijacking, Cossey received another call from authorities after the jet landed in Reno, and he then learned what happened to his gear. Cossey explains, “The skydiver staying at the loft had grabbed two of my personal backpacks and two chest packs from the drop zone. One was my B-4 sport rig and the other was my Pioneer NB-8, a Navy emergency chute used for pilots.” Over the phone, Cossey learned that Cooper took his NB-8 pilot emergency backpack and that his freefall rig remained in the aircraft.
Cossey explained, “When I learned which rig was missing, I thought, ‘Oh, this guy’s crazy.’” The Navy emergency rig was specifically designed for pilots for emergency bailouts at potentially low altitudes. The round canopy did not have a sleeve or diaper to stage the opening, ensuring an extremely fast opening. “That rig has a bad opening shock. It’ll just rip your crotch apart,” Cossey said bluntly.
Aside from the opening shock, Cossey was unsure whether Cooper was even able to pull the ripcord. He explained, “The ripcords for the sport rigs were bent up so you could easily see and grab them. The Navy rig’s ripcord is designed to lie very flat so that it doesn’t catch on anything. If Cooper was wearing his raincoat, I don’t know if he’d even be able to find and pull the ripcord in the dark.”
Unlike the freefall rig, the Navy rig was significantly thinner, made of slick nylon and had absolutely no padding in the leg straps. “The differences in the rigs were obvious” Cossey said, “and anyone with any skydiving experience would definitely take the sport rig.”
However, Cossey noted, “If he had military experience, he may have used the military rig because that’s what he was familiar with. If he didn’t have any experience, he probably did some awful maneuvers going out of that plane. I’ve seen jumpers spiral violently and never recover. I don’t know if he would have even been able to regain his senses.”
Investigators also discovered that in his rush to grab the rigs, the skydiver in the loft accidentally grabbed the drop zone’s dummy reserve, marked with a large “X” and red closing flaps. The DZ used the dummy reserve for students to practice deploying the reserve by scooping the canopy out of the container and throwing it in the air and over their heads.
Cossey explained, “For the dummy rig, I cut the reserve in half and sewed the panels together so that when the student threw it out, I could just fold it up and put it back in the container in half the time. That reserve was half the density of a regular reserve, and it was obvious to anyone with experience that it wasn’t a normal reserve.” Nonetheless, the regular reserve remained in the aircraft, and the dummy marked with an X was gone. Cossey personally thought Cooper removed the dummy reserve, stuffed the cash in its container and wore that on his chest as he jumped.
Changes to Air Travel and Investigations
In the 1970s, most airline passengers simply walked to the gate and boarded with their carry-on luggage. (Some airlines and airports did have pre-boarding screenings, and sky marshals flew on many routes because hijackings for political purposes were common.) Because of the D.B. Cooper case, in January 1973 the FAA initiated carry-on luggage searches and electronic weapon detectors. Three months later, the U.S. Senate approved a measure to restore the death penalty for federal crimes such as hijackings.
The very evening of the hijacking, Agent Himmelsbach predicted others would try the same feat—and he was right. According to Himmelsbach, “Half a dozen hijackers tried to pull off the same caper in the months following Cooper’s extortion but none got away with it. They either were killed in the jump, overpowered by crew or authorities, or captured once on the ground.”
Because of these attempts, Himmelsbach advocated for a device that prevents stairs from being lowered while an aircraft is in flight. That mechanism, called the “Cooper vane” after the infamous hijacker, is now installed on all aircraft with back staircases.
Due to the Cooper case, Himmelsbach also initiated a change to FBI procedures. It is now mandatory that only FBI agents who are experienced pilots interview hijacked airline pilots. The agent questioning the pilot of flight 305 was not a pilot himself and may have changed the outcome of this case. Nine years after the hijacking, on the day of his retirement, Himmelsbach visited with flight 305’s pilot. During their conversation they realized the jet had actually drifted in an easterly direction because it was flown manually. Himmelsbach now thinks Cooper exited 40 miles east of where they initially thought he did. That new location is Washougal, Washington. However, Washougal also was (and still is) rural and heavily forested, with steep mountains that run down to the Columbia River.
To Be Continued...
The D.B. Cooper case is still open and active, and the FBI continues to receive information and leads.
D.B. Cooper was the first person ever to hijack an airliner for personal gain and the first person to jump from a jetliner. The case of Northwest Airlines flight 305 is the only unsolved hijacking in the world. But investigators are still unearthing the secrets of D.B. Cooper.
Next month: Part two of “The Secrets of D.B. Cooper” will explore the investigations that took place during the months and years following the hijacking and will look into recent developments, discoveries and theories regarding the case.
Reference: Himmelsbach, R., & Worchester, T. (1986). NORJAK: The Investigation of D.B. Cooper. West Linn, Oregon: NORJAK PROJECT.
About the Author
Musika Farnsworth, A-20569, has been jumping since 1992 and has a Bachelor of Arts in social sciences. She can usually be found at the DZ knitting between loads. Her other interests include ballet, sewing, piano and motorcycles. She wrote a very popular article on the D.B. Cooper case for the November 2003 issue of Parachutist and updated that piece for this series.