D.B. Cooper deplanes
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.
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 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.
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. 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 did.
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?”
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.
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 those things next time.
(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)
Finn J.D. John is an instructor at Oregon State University and the author of “Wicked Portland,” a book about the dark side of Oregon’s metropolis in the 1890s. He produces a daily podcast, reading archives from this column, at offbeatoregon.com/itunes. To contact him or suggest a topic: firstname.lastname@example.org, @OffbeatOregon (on Twitter), or 541-357-2222.