A single man, an immense amount of cash, four parachutes and a jump from an airliner. Where does the largest manhunt in the United States lead when authorities don’t have a clue as to who the suspect might be?
After the 1971 hijacking of Northwest flight 305, months turned into years, and the FBI still had no evidence as to who D.B. Cooper was or what happened to him.
Then in 1978, a hunter deep in Washington’s forests found a Boeing 727’s stairway placard. It was from flight 305. A year later, a young boy digging a fire pit along the Columbia River in Vancouver, Washington, found $5,880 in deteriorated bundles of $20s. The serial numbers matched Cooper’s ransom. Since then, no one has found any other currency that seems to be part of the $200,000 stolen during the hijacking, either in the forests of the Northwest or in circulation.
The case, code named “Norjak” by the FBI, is still open and active, and the agency continues to receive information and leads. Each lead is carefully investigated, evidenced by the fact that the FBI’s case file is literally more than 10 feet long.
FBI Special Agent Larry Carr, who took over the Cooper case in 2008, poses by the Columbia River. Photo courtesy of the FBI.
FBI Launches New Search
The D.B. Cooper incident is the only unsolved hijacking in the world. While the FBI has never closed the case, the search was revitalized in 2008 with the assignment of Agent Larry Carr as the new lead investigator. Carr appealed to the public for new clues or information, and the FBI released photos of the found ransom money and the reserve canopy, container and clip-on tie that Cooper left behind in the plane, as well as maps outlining the aircraft’s flight path, in the hope that someone would unearth a memory.
Upon revitalizing the search, the FBI released these photos of the clip-on tie Cooper wore and some of the found ransom money. Photos courtesy of the FBI.
“Evidence of absence,” a term the FBI uses to show that a claim is unlikely or false, is often invoked when there is an absence of evidence when evidence should be present. Sometimes what didn’t happen can reveal considerable information. No one has found any evidence that D.B. Cooper was a skydiver. In fact, Cooper does not appear to have had much familiarity with skydiving equipment. He chose to jump an older, unsteerable parachute; he jumped without a helmet and with slip-on loafers on his feet; and he jumped without a reserve.
Regardless of Cooper’s expertise and his chances of survival, with so many years passing, the FBI is now focusing on finding out who D.B. Cooper was rather than apprehending him. But based on “evidence of absence,” one theory about Cooper has changed from the initial investigation: Authorities now state that D.B. Cooper probably was not an experienced skydiver since he made so many “amateurish mistakes” and since no evidence indicated that he was a regular jumper.
In March 2008, two months after the FBI went public with the case again, a property owner plowing a section of land in Amboy, Washington, revealed part of an old canopy. Amboy is near the original search location of Ariel and is also very rural with forested wilderness.
The old canopy, found deep in the dirt, was made of silk. Master rigger Earl Cossey, who provided his personal rigs to authorities for Cooper’s use during the hijacking, examined the canopy and stated that it absolutely was not the one used in the unsolved case. He pointed out that it could not be because, among other reasons, the parachute Cooper used was made of nylon.
This false lead, which many thought might be a hoax, seems to have an explanation. In December 1945, Marine Lieutenant Floyd Walling was flying a Corsair from Portland, Oregon, to Seattle, Washington, when he encountered stormy weather. His instruments failed, and he bailed out of the aircraft, deployed his pilot’s rig and landed safely in the forest. He was rescued days later, no longer in possession of his gear. It is impossible to definitively say the canopy is the same one that Walling used, but a local military historian and a member of the armed services search team say it most likely is.
The FBI is not the only one investigating this case. Several private citizens have spent years, thousands of dollars, and countless resources trying to solve the mystery.
In 1980, when a young boy found the $5,880 in deteriorated ransom money along the Columbia River, attorney and former FBI Agent Richard Tosaw suspected that Cooper probably landed near that site. In 1982, Tosow arranged to have the river dragged from the area where the cash was found, down to Portland, Oregon, along the jet’s flight path. A 12-foot-wide grappling hook called the “Cooper Scooper” raked the river. It pulled up a bone, rope and cloth-covered nylon, but there was no indication that the items were from Cooper’s gear or that the bone was even human.
Tosow spent a significant amount of his own money, at least $10,000, investigating the case. His search focused on the parachute. “My theory is that the parachute would be easiest to find because it’s 28 feet across and with nylon cords and a canvas harness,” Tosaw said. Tosaw also believed that Cooper had skydiving experience in the military and thus was probably a strong swimmer, too. He believed if Cooper had landed in the Columbia River, he would have been able to remove his gear and money and swim to shore.
Though Tosaw’s search was fairly thorough, non-jumpers investigating a parachuting scene may not know what to look for and may not recognize a ripcord handle or a spring-loaded pilot chute. And it’s unknown whether Cooper even deployed the Navy pilot emergency rig he wore. Furthermore, as most experienced jumpers know, even a large, cutaway canopy is not always obviously visible from an airplane or the groun, and can be very hard to find even when its general whereabouts are known.
Jumping from a Jet Airliner
Since Cooper was the first person to ever jump from a jet, no one at that time knew how it would affect a person or parachute rig. Skydiver Rob Anderson started jumping in 1972 and recalls, “The news coverage and first documentaries said jumping from a jet might be enough to kill him. They thought it was not humanly possible to exit from a jet because of the speed, altitude and the way he was dressed.” Indeed, not too many years earlier, before the advent of skydiving, most people believed that a jumper would lose consciousness during any type of freefall.
Even today, most people do not know what it’s like to jump from a jetliner. Would the wind blow off and disorient a person who was walking down the aft stairs?
Anderson reflected on the hijacking when he boarded a Boeing 727, the same model that Cooper jumped from, at the World Freefall Convention in Quincy, Illinois, in the mid-1990s. Anderson explained the instructions jumpers received before boarding for the four-minute ride to altitude this way: “We were instructed to be completely geared up before boarding; helmets on and goggles on. We all had to make sure all our gear—closing flaps, riser covers, shoes, shoelaces—were completely secure.”
Jumpers at the convention had a choice of exiting on a slow pass of 134 knots or a fast pass of 182 knots. Anderson says “I went on the slow pass at 155 miles per hour. The aft stairway was removed. I was surprised how small the opening was. You couldn’t get two people to jump together.”
Jumpers were advised to exit with arms and legs in, almost in a fetal position. Nonetheless, the exit was much different from what Anderson expected, and he was caught off guard. “The first thing you noticed after exit was the heat from the jet engines and the smell of jet fuel. There was a dead void, then the blast from jet steam. It felt like I was being tackled from behind.”
Over several years, Anderson made a total of six jet jumps. “During the first jump I had to fight to settle down and get stable after exit. It took me a good 1,000 feet to get stable. [Successive] jumps were no problem once you knew what to expect.”
At Perris Valley Skydiving in California, Ted Farnsworth also jumped a jetliner, though it was a DC-9 with the aft stairs intact. He said, “You could stand on the stairs and not be knocked off. While it is turbulent on the stairs, the stairs themselves protect you from the direct windblast.” Even with 30 years of skydiving experience, Farnsworth said, “I was shocked at the force of the exit and surprised how unstable I was. It felt like falling face first 10 feet onto a mattress.”
Exceeding Terminal Velocity
According to Cossey, the owner of the rig that Cooper used, the Navy emergency canopy was designed to open very quickly and at potentially low altitudes. Cossey said that the ripcord on the Navy rig was difficult to locate, but when pulled, the opening shock was severe and “would rip your crotch apart.” Even if Cooper found the ripcord that dark night, would the canopy have fully deployed at his estimated exit speed of 170 knots (195 mph), or would it have shredded upon opening?
Jerry Baumchen (who was himself once questioned by the FBI in their hunt for Cooper) is an active master rigger who for 20 years served on the FAA’s Technical Standard Orders (TSO) Committee for the manufacture of parachute components. Baumchen said, “The opening would have been hard, but it wouldn’t have necessarily shredded the canopy.” If Cooper deployed on exit, he would have gone from 170 knots to about zero in less than 300 feet. Baumchen added, “Velocity is the killer. The force on the body goes up exponentially as velocity increases.” So it’s possible that even if the canopy opened properly, the opening shock could have killed Cooper.
Jumping Without a Reserve
All indications are that D.B. Cooper did not have the use of a reserve when he jumped. Of the two reserves and containers that had been provided to Cooper, the non-functioning dummy reserve was gone. When he jumped, Cooper left behind on the Boeing 727 jet a modern (for the time) container and main canopy, as well as a reserve from which he had cut some lines.
In 2008, the FBI released these photos of the reserve canopy and container that Cooper left behind when he jumped. Photos courtesy of the FBI.
Cossey believes that Cooper used the dummy reserve container to carry the money. Since the Navy pilot rig Cooper jumped with did not have attachment rings for a reserve, Cooper may have tied the container down with lines cut from the reserve he left on the plane. A flight attendant was the last person to see Cooper, and she reported that he was “tying something around his waist.”
It is unknown whether Cooper was able to get all the cash in the reserve container. He demanded only “negotiable currency;” the authorities provided the ransom in $20 bills. The bundle of money consisted of 10,000 individual bills bundled in rubber bands; it weighed 21 pounds. Cooper may have put bundles in his briefcase and carried the briefcase with him as he exited and tried to deploy, but there is no evidence to indicate this. The briefcase was gone when the plane landed, but Cooper may have just thrown it out the door.
Jumping without a reserve may not have had much effect on the outcome of Cooper’s jump, since the likelihood of a round canopy malfunctioning is probably not any greater than the chance of a malfunction on one of today’s canopies. More important may have been the exit point. Sport rigs from that era had steering capabilities, but the rig Cooper jumped with was an emergency Navy pilot rig. It had absolutely no steering capabilities.
Although Cooper’s exact exit point is unknown, all possibilities contain vast areas of 100-foot-tall fir trees, lakes and water. USPA’s Director of Safety & Training Jim Crouch said, “Tree landing procedures have remained largely unchanged, even from the days with round canopies. I think more emphasis was placed on tree and water landing procedures in the days of rounds because [those type of landings] were much more common then.” He goes on to state, “The real danger in a November water landing in colder climates would be hypothermia and the difficulty of swimming [or] treading water in very cold water. Of course the weight of the rig and a bag of cash would just make it that much more difficult to handle, but the cold water would be the biggest concern.”
Though the hijacker known as D.B. Cooper may have perished in the Northwest woods, the case is still open and active, and the FBI continues to investigate. Recently, DNA evidence has allowed the agency to at least eliminate some possibilities. But even with modern technology, the identity of the hijacker remains one of the enduring secrets of D.B. Cooper.
Next month: Many people have claimed to be Cooper, and many more have denied and been cleared of involvement in the crime. Investigators have explored a myriad of theories as to the identity of the hijacker. Part three of “The Secrets of D.B. Cooper” will take a look at some of the personalities surrounding the Cooper case.
About the Author
Musika Farnsworth, A-20569, became interested in the D.B. Cooper case when she learned that retired FBI Agent Ralph Himmelsbach, the first lead investigator on the case, kept his personal plane at her home drop zone’s airport. When interviewing Himmelsbach, she found out that all of Cooper’s possible exit points are within a few miles of her house. She often rides her bike along the Columbia River where some of the ransom money was found and says, “I can’t help but wonder as I look out, what else could be trapped under those swirling waters?”
Have an old $20 and want to know if it’s “Cooper cash?” Check out the “D.B. Cooper Loot Serial Number Searcher” at tinyurl.com/5fbt96.
In 2008, FBI Agent Larry Carr produced a video tour of the D.B. Cooper evidence, including the original plane ticket made out to “Dan Cooper,” the parachutes left in the plane and Cooper’s clip-on tie. You can view the video here: tinyurl.com/23j94p2.
The FBI website’s “Reading Room” features a large number of files accessible to the public through the Freedom of Information Act. The files on the D.B. Cooper case can be reviewed here: tinyurl.com/269hae6.