Nation/World


An American Legend D.B. Cooper’s Parachute Jump 25 Years Ago Changed The Face Of Air Travel

MONDAY, NOV. 25, 1996

A few minutes before 2 p.m. on Thanksgiving Eve 25 years ago, a middle-aged man of average height, dressed in a dark suit, white shirt, dark glasses and black necktie, handed a $20 bill to a clerk at the Portland airport, asked for a one-way ticket and then boarded Northwest Airlines’ Flight 305 for Seattle.

Identifying himself as Dan Cooper, a name nearly as common as his looks, he carried only an attache case. The 35 other passengers on this routine afternoon flight paid little attention as he walked to seat 18C in the back of the Boeing 727 and sat down. Just before takeoff, stewardess Florence Schaffner sat next to him. He handed her a note.

Watching her stuff the scrap of paper in her purse, he said evenly, “Miss, you’d better look at that note. I have a bomb.”

The message demanded $200,000, a knapsack and four parachutes - by 5 p.m. To dispel any lingering doubts, Cooper opened the attache case and showed Schaffner what appeared to be sticks of dynamite, attached to wire and a battery. She took one look and decided that Mr. Cooper and his briefcase were not some holiday prank.

It was the start of a six-hour odyssey that would take the hijacker and his plane to Seattle, back south toward Portland through a raging storm - and then, when Cooper jumped from the jet’s rear door two miles above the Washington-Oregon border, squarely into the history books as an authentic American legend.

One small jump for D.B. Cooper; one giant leap that changed the face of airline travel, creating a paranoid world of metal detectors, luggage-screening machines, handheld body scanners, photo identification with ticket and baggage matching with passengers. Before Cooper, getting on a plane was as easy as getting on a city bus. After his leap, it became more like getting into Fort Knox.

Almost by accident, old D.B. became a cult figure - no hero to the cops, of course, but even they have an understanding of why he has become a durable part of the American pantheon.

“The whole mystique of D.B. Cooper comes from several things: It was the first skyjacking not headed for Cuba. It was the first one for money and then the skyjacker disappeared without a trace,” said Larry Finegold, a Seattle lawyer who was sitting on Flight 305 that day, wondering why the plane kept circling Seattle - and who, incidentally, is also a former federal prosecutor.

“And it happened at a time - probably a gentler, quieter time - when we hadn’t experienced the kinds of crimes like the Atlanta Olympics bombing, the Oklahoma City bombing or the Unabomber. No one was hurt and he eluded the FBI, which watched this happen under their nose.”

In the end, no one has ever figured out just who D.B. Cooper was - or is. In his enduring anonymity, he has inspired three books, a play, a movie, “In Pursuit of D.B. Cooper” (Treat Williams as Cooper), a song, dozens of D.B. Cooper bars and restaurants, thousands of tips (the FBI has investigated 933 suspects and still gets sporadic calls on the case), TV reruns of the “Unsolved Mysteries” version, and a few copycat hijacks.

Perhaps the ultimate tribute is the annual “D.B. Cooper Days” festival in the tiny Washington town over which Cooper was thought to have parachuted.

Most people think D.B. got away with it - and even if he didn’t, he should have. The Cooper of legend exuded an air of competence, the coolness of a Steve McQueen or Clint Eastwood. After it was over, people marveled at his calm expertise on how the plane worked and the type of parachutes he would need, along with his imaginative escape route.

“This is Robin Hood,” says Jack G. Collins, the federal prosecutor who had the case until he retired one year ago. “He’s foiled the best efforts of the Establishment. Also, this guy had some guts. The plane’s going 170 miles an hour. It’s the middle of the night. And he walks down the ramp of an airplane. I mean, holy smoke!”

There has been only one trace of Cooper since he jumped out of that airplane over the rugged Cascade Mountains. In 1980, an 8-year-old boy found a packet containing $5,880 of the ransom money on the north shore of the Columbia River, just west of the Washington city of Vancouver, across the river from Portland. The boy got to keep some of the bills, Northwest’s insurance carrier got others, and the FBI has 14 of the best ones, to be used at trial in case D.B. is ever caught, not that anyone is dusting off a seat for him in a federal pen some place.

‘My objective was trying to kill him, pure and simple’

On the night of Nov. 24, 1971, however, none of this making-of-a-legend was on the mind of William Rataczak, Flight 305’s co-pilot and the man designated by the airline’s headquarters to deal with the mysterious Dan Cooper, who sat in the back of his plane, chain-smoking Raleigh filter tips.

As the plane circled over Seattle, Rataczak quickly learned he was not dealing with a novice.

Like an artillery commander confidently giving orders on a complex fire mission, Cooper told Rataczak that after the money and parachutes had been delivered, he wanted the pilot to head south from Seattle, depressurize the cabin, fly no higher than 10,000 feet, leave the landing gear down, set flaps at 15 degrees and leave the rear door open. With the exception of the door, which had to be closed for takeoff, he got everything he asked for.

“I was thinking, this guy knows a lot about the airplane,” Rataczak, now a 57-year-old captain and still flying for Northwest, said the other day. “With the gear down and the flaps at 15 degrees, it limits us to about 175 miles an hour. So I wondered, could he really equate flaps-at-15 with 175? The guy’s no dummy.”

As for parachutes, Cooper got four, which made everybody wonder. Rataczak thought that maybe the hijacker was going to take a few of the flight crew with him and then, in horror, he thought, what if the FBI decided to summarily end the hijack by sabotaging all four parachutes.

“We really got concerned with the possibility that we were going to get bogus parachutes,” Rataczak said.

The plane at last stopped circling Seattle - it was clear Cooper knew where he was because after glancing out a window, he asked why the plane was over nearby Tacoma - and landed on a remote section of the runway. Cooper ordered the flight crew to get the “airstairs” over to the plane. Given his constant use of aviation jargon, the crew thought he may have worked for Boeing or was a pilot. Finally, the hijacker released the passengers.

By 7 p.m., the plane was fueled, the parachutes were on board and the money was at hand. The agents had managed to find the $200,000 in the vaults of Seattle First National Bank, where it was kept available for humanitarian emergencies. Lucky for them that batch of cash was there - each of the 10,000 $20 bills had already been microfilmed, making the money easily identifiable should any of it be spent.

The plane took off again a few minutes after 7:30 p.m. The hijacker sent stewardess Tina Mucklow up to the cockpit, then started negotiating with Rataczak on where to take the plane. Mexico City was out, Rataczak said, because the plane would not get there with the fuel-gobbling drag of the wheels and flaps slowing it down. Instead, he suggested going down the Pacific coast to San Francisco.

“I wanted to get him out over the ocean, so if he jumped, he would drown,” Rataczak said. “He was threatening our lives and my objective was to kill him, pure and simple.”

But Cooper, smelling something wrong, told the co-pilot to file a new flight plan - down Victor-23, an inland airway that goes south along Interstate 5 toward Portland, then on to Reno. Preparing to make his unscheduled departure from Flight 305, Cooper carefully scooped up his cigarette butts, made sure he had all his handwritten notes and strapped the money satchel to his body, using cords he cut from one of the surplus parachutes.

By 7:45 p.m., a light on the airplane’s dashboard indicated that Cooper, alone in the cabin, had lowered the rear stairwell. But the wind kept bouncing the ramp back up, so Rataczak increased the flaps to 30 degrees, slowing the plane to under 170 miles an hour.

At 8:12 p.m., “we felt a little bump and the air pressure changed,” Rataczak said.

“I got on the radio to air traffic control and said, ‘I think our friend just took leave of us. Mark the point on your radar.”’ And that was the last fix on D.B. Cooper.

Did he jump with a faulty chute?

Cooper and his cash literally disappeared, plummeting to earth like a “greased anvil,” as one of his biographers, Richard Tosaw, later put it. The Air Force had sent up two F-106 fighter planes to chase the 727 and try to keep Cooper’s parachute in sight. But the fighters were too fast and had to keep making giant S-curves in the sky to stay behind the 727.

“The F-106 drivers never saw him,” Rataczak said. “It was blacker than the ace of spades out there. They just saw a flash of light from us and then he just vanished.”

There was also an Air National Guard helicopter, carrying FBI agent Ralph Himmelsbach and frantically trying to keep up with the 727. But the chopper was too slow.

For the next few weeks, hundreds of federal agents, helped by Army troops, searched through thick brambles and brush in the area near Cougar and Ariel, Wash. Sometimes, they would find bones, but they were too old to be Cooper’s. A small submarine searched nearby Lake Merwin.

Agents tried to figure out the vagaries of parachuting and whether D.B., in another life, had been a skydiver. They know that when he got the parachutes, the first thing he did was to check the packer’s card - the written certification by the person who packed the parachute. This is something routinely done by experienced skydivers.

Himmelsbach says Cooper strapped on one parachute, took along another and left two on the plane - and, he says, one of the two Cooper took was a dummy chute, inadvertently snatched up at a local skydiving supply store when agents were dashing around the Seattle area, rounding up money and parachutes. That chute’s panels had been sewn shut and it was intended only for demonstrations at ground level. Did D.B. jump with a faulty parachute, one that would not open?

‘He’s probably in a river or a swamp or a tree.”

And, the question everyone kept asking, and still keeps asking, if he jumped with a good parachute: Was he killed in the fall, or did he make it?

Earl Cossey, a junior high school algebra teacher and veteran parachutist - he figures he’s made about 4,000 jumps - packed the parachutes Cooper used. (In one of the conflicting details of the story, Cossey says the unusable parachute was still on the hijacked airplane when it landed in Reno, sans Cooper, hours later.)

“It’s easy to survive if you’re experienced,” Cossey said of jumping from a 727 at 10,000 feet. “As you leave that last step, you’re going to be in that wind velocity and you’ll probably do somersaults for a while. Then you slow down to about 120, the falling speed of a human. You’re falling belly to the ground. You regain your senses, reach in, grab the ripcord, fall, land and live happily ever after.”

But Cooper was wearing a raincoat, a suit and alligator-pattern loafers.

So, Cossey says, “He steps out there and goes ass over teakettle and every way but up. He’s heading for the earth at over 100 miles an hour. He’s probably in a river, or a swamp or a tree.”

Himmelsbach is no fan of Mr. Cooper. He does not wallow in the D.B. lore.”He’s a sleazy, rotten scumbag and I hope he died a miserable, wretched death,” he said.

Concrete evidence is what Himmelsbach likes, the kind that surfaced in February 1980, when Brian Ingram, an Oklahoma boy picnicking with his family on the shore of the Columbia River, came across a waterlogged, sandencrusted satchel containing 294 moldy $20 bills. All the serial numbers matched the list of bills last seen being strapped to the chest of D.B. Cooper in a jetliner eight years earlier.

This treasure trove got the FBI’s attention. Helicopters flew reconnaissance over the area, squads of agents dug up the shore, searching for more bills, Cooper’s body or a parachute. The case got a new injection of publicity.

But that, too, faded out.

Was there a D.B. double?

An offbeat theory championed by a couple of retired FBI agents says D.B. Cooper never died in the Columbia River. Instead, Nicholas O’Hara and Russell Calame say, Cooper was actually Richard McCoy, a Vietnam veteran and pilot turned bank robber who hijacked a United Air Lines jet in April 1972 in a nearly identical copycat crime, extorting $500,000 and then parachuting into a Utah desert. McCoy, however, was sloppy.

Before he hijacked the plane, McCoy had told fellow pilots in Utah that Cooper went cheap - he should have asked for $500,000. McCoy also left one of his notes on the plane, and agents later found all the money in his house. He got 40 years in a federal penitentiary, but escaped and died in November 1974 in a shootout with O’Hara at a Virginia motel.

O’Hara said the wording of McCoy’s hijack messages, the way he carried out the crime and the remarkable physical similarity between McCoy and the composite drawing of Cooper “leads most people to believe they are the same guy.”

Himmelsbach, who is not most people, says, “Richard McCoy is not D.B. Cooper. He learned about Cooper’s caper from reading newspapers. We established that McCoy was in Los Angeles on the night Cooper hijacked the Northwest plane. He wasn’t Cooper. But, of course, you can’t disprove it because we don’t know who Cooper was.”

‘He stole the sheriff’s horse and he didn’t get caught.’

At the Ariel Store, it doesn’t really matter that they still don’t know. What matters is the fact that Cooper did what he did. So, over the years, the store’s owners have created a “Cooper’s Corner” shrine in this backwoods tavern.

The Ariel Store is where the big party is each year. It is a smoky, pleasant bar and restaurant near Lake Merwin, far from anything urban. It is nestled smack up against the thick forest from which many of the patrons expect Cooper to emerge any day now, asking for a long, tall cold one.

On the wall of Cooper’s Corner are dozens of yellowing newspaper stories - “Ariel, Wash., Invites You to Drop In Any Time, D.B.”; “D.B. Cooper Legend Lives. Does He?” - and a movie poster shows a grinning well-dressed man, his fist full of dollars, bailing out of the stern end of a 727. The caption asks, “Who says you can’t take it with you?”

Store owner Dona Elliott says she is gearing up to serve D.B. Cooper stew (beef and vegetables), 200 cases of beer and 20 pounds of kielbasa to 450 of the faithful, who will turn up for the big do. There’ll be a D.B. Cooper lookalike contest (lots of 40-ish men in dark suits and dark glasses), and half-a-dozen parachutists will make a jump over the store, landing as close to the beer as possible.

Why all this fuss? After all, he was just another skyjacker, wasn’t he?

This is the kind of careless question that makes the pool game at the Ariel Store come to a sudden stop. The radio goes quiet. All you hear, for a moment, is the hum of the beer cooler.

Bill Partee, a 64-year-old handyman with a long white beard and a Budweiser hat, turns around slowly on his barstool, considers the question and says, not unkindly:

“He’s a legend. He stole the sheriff’s horse and he didn’t get caught.”

Then pauses for a moment.

“I’m sure he’s deader ‘n hell,” he says. “But it runs in your imagination.”

MEMO: Cut in the Spokane edition

Three sidebars appeared with the story: 1. IT’S A PARTY (Idaho edition only) This year, the 25th anniversary party in Ariel, Wash., will be on November 30. Nearly 5,000 bottles of beer have been ordered by the local tavernkeeper. Bring your own parachute.

2. DON’T GET ANY IDEAS (Idaho edition only) Lest anyone get any ideas, the airlines, clearly embarrassed that somebody found a way to get off an airplane 10,000 feet above the ground quickly installed what is now called the Cooper Switch, a device that allows the staircase to be lowered only when the plane is on the ground.

3. COOPER TRIVIA (Spokane edition only) For the die-hard D.B. Cooper fan, some trivia questions: Q. Who starred in the 1981 feature film, “The Pursuit of D.B. Cooper?” A. Treat Williams. Q. What was Cooper’s lasting contribution to aircraft design? A. The “Cooper Switch.” It’s a latching device on Boeing 727s that prevents the tail stairway - the one Cooper used - from being lowered in flight. Q. How much did Cooper get away with? A. At most, $194,080. Of the $200,000 he asked for, $5,880 later was found on a Columbia River bank. And Northwest Airlines says it discovered afterward that in the rush to count and list the serial numbers of the 10,000 $20 bills for the ransom, bank clerks had accidentally shorted the bundles by two bills, or $40.

Cut in the Spokane edition

Three sidebars appeared with the story: 1. IT’S A PARTY (Idaho edition only) This year, the 25th anniversary party in Ariel, Wash., will be on November 30. Nearly 5,000 bottles of beer have been ordered by the local tavernkeeper. Bring your own parachute.

2. DON’T GET ANY IDEAS (Idaho edition only) Lest anyone get any ideas, the airlines, clearly embarrassed that somebody found a way to get off an airplane 10,000 feet above the ground quickly installed what is now called the Cooper Switch, a device that allows the staircase to be lowered only when the plane is on the ground.

3. COOPER TRIVIA (Spokane edition only) For the die-hard D.B. Cooper fan, some trivia questions: Q. Who starred in the 1981 feature film, “The Pursuit of D.B. Cooper?” A. Treat Williams. Q. What was Cooper’s lasting contribution to aircraft design? A. The “Cooper Switch.” It’s a latching device on Boeing 727s that prevents the tail stairway - the one Cooper used - from being lowered in flight. Q. How much did Cooper get away with? A. At most, $194,080. Of the $200,000 he asked for, $5,880 later was found on a Columbia River bank. And Northwest Airlines says it discovered afterward that in the rush to count and list the serial numbers of the 10,000 $20 bills for the ransom, bank clerks had accidentally shorted the bundles by two bills, or $40.



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