D.B. Cooper deplanes: Getting away with the loot

Audio version: Download MP3 or use controls below:
By Finn J.D. John
June 9, 2013

This is Part Two of a four-part series on the D.B. Cooper skyjacking. Part One is here.

IT WAS SOMETIME after 6 p.m. on the day before Thanksgiving, 1971, and the man who had just hijacked Northwest Orient Airlines Flight 305 was not  happy.

The man — who was calling himself Dan Cooper, although he’s mostly known today as D.B. Cooper —  had been pretty happy a minute or two before, when stewardess Tina Mucklow brought him all the stuff he’d demanded: four parachutes and $200,000. But now things were getting a bit sour. One of the chutes had a giant “X” on it. The main backpack parachutes had no “D” rings for the front auxiliary chutes to clip to, so they were useless. And the money was in a bag, not a knapsack as he’d specified.

The aft staircase of the Boeing 727 that D.B. Cooper jumped out of — an image from the FBI’s file on the case. (Image: Skyjack: The Hunt for D.B. Cooper by Geoffrey Gray)

And now, it seemed to him, the authorities were stalling for time by pretending to have trouble fueling the plane.

The first fuel truck developed “a vapor lock” and had to back away. Another came to replace it, and developed a “frozen nozzle.” Cooper started getting agitated. When he was told about the “frozen nozzle,” he exploded with rage, threatening to blow up the plane and shouting that a frozen nozzle was ludicrous in a relatively warm place like Seattle, and that they were stalling. It shouldn’t take more than 20 minutes to refuel a 727, he shouted, and opened the briefcase up and started fiddling with the wires as if about to blow the plane.

But then a third fuel truck approached, and he simmered down.

The crew of the 727 was getting angry, too. They were pretty sure the “frozen nozzle” story was bogus, and they suspected somebody safely on the ground was playing games. They wished he or she would stop before they all got killed. Just a few weeks before, the FBI had tried getting heavy with a hijacker, refusing to provide fuel and then shooting out the airliner’s tires. It had not gone well; three people had died. Was the Bureau trying the same thing again?

No — it was not. Eventually the plane was full of fuel and ready to go. Cooper had the parachutes and was inspecting them like a pro. He pulled out the packer’s cards, checked them out. Of the two main chutes they’d provided, one was a light sporty chute of the type recreational parachuters preferred — a square steerable airfoil — and the other was a burly Navy chute, round and unsteerable and equipped with narrow straps that would hurt when the chute deployed.

Cooper ignored the recreational chute and started getting the Navy chute ready to use.

He next demanded that the plane take off with the flaps and landing gear down and aft staircase lowered, and that it fly no higher than 10,000 feet. Destination: Mexico City. When asked how many degrees the flaps should be lowered, he replied immediately, like a pro: Fifteen.

In "reader view" some phone browsers truncate the story here, algorithmically "assuming" that the second column is advertising. (Most browsers do not recognize this page as mobile-device-friendly; it is designed to be browsed on any device without reflowing, by taking advantage of the "double-tap-to-zoom" function.) If the story ends here on your device, you may have to exit "reader view" (sometimes labeled "Make This Page Mobile Friendly Mode") to continue reading. We apologize for the inconvenience.]

(Jump to top of next column)

This photo from the FBI’s file on the skyjacking shows Flight 305 parked on the tarmac at an airport, most likely Reno after the airliner landed there. (Image: Skyjack: The Hunt for D.B. Cooper by Geoffrey Gray)

What he was asking them to do was fly the plane low and “dirty” so that it would be moving slowly enough to bail out of. The pilot and crew didn’t know this, but 727s had been used this way in Vietnam, to perform covert airdrops of goods and people. Was Cooper involved in that operation? Perhaps — he seemed to know a lot about how to do it.

They took off again and headed south. The plan now was to go to Reno, refuel, and then head to Mexico City. But everybody seems to have known that somewhere along the way, the man was going to bail out. He was busy and professionally strapping on the parachute — a very complicated process that one has to be trained to do properly — and tying the money to his waist in a bundle using parachute cord scavenged from the other parachute.

Finally, he sent Tina to the cockpit, telling her to close the curtain and turn off the light. Shortly thereafter he called up to the cockpit to tell the pilots to slow down; he was having trouble getting the aftstair open. They complied.

At 8:13 p.m., the flight crew felt a bump, and the cabin pressure fluctuated a bit. “There he goes,” someone said. Tina called back on the interphone. There was no response.

Just to be on the safe side, the 727 finished its flight to Reno. When they got there, the pilot got on the P.A. system:

“We’re making our approach to Reno now,” he said, according to Himmelsbach’s account. “We can land with that rear stairway down, but it may damage the stairway. We may not be able to take off again. Do you need help in getting the stairway up again?”

No reply.

So the airliner landed in a shower of sparks and crash of rending metal before hundreds of wide-eyed onlookers who had heard about the situation on the news. There was no sign of Cooper, the money or the Navy parachute.

Cooper had, it seemed, stepped off the back staircase of the airplane at 8:13 p.m., somewhere over southwest Washington. He had, in the words of Portland historian Doug Kenck-Crispin, "deplaned like a [expletive]ing boss."

Before Cooper had even stepped off the plane, the manhunt had begun — and so had the legend. The story of the skyjacking was crystalizing into a romantic tale of one man against The Man, a Robin-Hood-type folk legend that still angers some of the people involved — especially the ones who thought they might die by Cooper’s hand that night. It persists to this day.

We’ll talk about both of these things in in Part Three of this four-part series.

(Sources: Gray, Geoffrey. Skyjack: The Hunt for D.B. Cooper. New York: Crown, 2011; Tosaw, Richard T. D.B. Cooper: Dead or Alive? Ceres, Calif.: Tosaw Publishing, 1984; Himmelsbach, Ralph P. Norjak: The Investigation of D.B. Cooper. West Linn, Ore.: Norjak Project, 1986)

TAGS: #PDX #Portland #ColumbiaRiver #Unsolved #Parachutes #Airstairs #Journalism #FuelTruck #VaporLock #FrozenNozzle #FBI #NavyBack #MexicoCity #Reno #AftStairway #RichardTosaw #Norjack

Background photo is a postcard image showing the summit of Middle Sister, from a picture postcard published around 1950.
Scroll sideways to move the article aside for a better view.


Looking for more?

On our Sortable Master Directory you can search by keywords, locations, or historical timeframes. Hover your mouse over the headlines to read the first few paragraphs (or a summary of the story) in a pop-up box.

... or ...




Listen to the Offbeat Oregon History show on Stitcher Internet Radio.