Wednesday, November 25, 2009

D.B. Cooper

Yesterday was D.B. Cooper day. Well, it's not so much that it is a day to commemorate him, but more of just the day that he did what he did. And if you don't remember what he did then maybe you should sit down, get comfortable, and keep reading.

On November 24, 1971 a man using the name Dan Cooper boarded a Northwest Orient Airlines (now Northwest Airlines which is actually owned by Delta) Boeing 727 in Portland, Oregon and took seat 18C. As Flight 305 ascended and made its way towards Seattle Cooper, who has been described as in his mid-40s and about 5'11" tall, and who was wearing a black raincoat, loafers, a dark suit, a white collared shirt very meticulously pressed, a black tie, mother of pearl tie pin, and black sunglasses, handed flight attendant Florence Schaffner a note. She thought it was his phone number (how presumptuous, she must have been hit on a lot back then) and slipped it into her pocket unopened. What the note actually said was "I have a bomb in my briefcase. I will use it if necessary. I want you to sit next to me. You are being hijacked." Well, that was not all it said. It also demanded $200,000 in unmarked bills, two sets of parachutes with both main back chutes and secondary chest chutes, and it gave instructions for delivering all his demands once the place had landed at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.

In short order the pilot was notified, the Seattle Police, FBI, FAA, and Northwest Orient president Donald Nyrop were contacted. Nyrop instructed everyone to cooperate with Cooper. Pilot William Scott instructed Schaffner to try and ascertain if the bomb was real; and Cooper opened it enough for her to do so, instructing her to tell the pilot not to land until all of the materials he demanded were waiting at the airport.

Meanwhile on the ground, the FBI was getting the money together and while they were supplying unmarked bills they did give him mostly similar bills, and they ran every bill through a machine that took a picture of each and put it on microfilm. Genius! So once the demands were met, the plane landed and taxied to a remote part of the airport where the lights were dimmed. A single Northwest Orient employee was chosen to deliver the demands unaccompanied, which they did, handing the materials to flight attendant Tina Mucklow, who was the person who spent the most time with Cooper and who described him as "rather nice" and "thoughtful." Stockholm syndrome, anyone? Anyway, with the demands met Cooper released all 36 passengers and Ms. Schaffner, the flight attendant whom he originally gave the note to. The rest of the flight crew was not permitted off the plane at that time.

Things got tense while the plane sat on the tarmac. The FBI couldn't figure out what Cooper had planned. While he was still taking pains to ensure the comfort of the flight crew, even making sure they were brought meals, he became agitated when an FAA official asked to board the plane. The official wanted to explain the consequences of air piracy but Cooper would not allow him on the plane. Also, a vapor lock in the refueling truck caused the refueling to take longer than normal, a situation which led to Cooper's threatening to blow up the plane.

Eventually the crew was instructed to take the plane back into the air and fly to Mexico at a low speed and altitude with a very specific set of flap and landing gear positions, and with the cabin unpressurized. When the crew informed Cooper that the plane would only be able to fly approximately 1000 miles in that condition, Cooper and the crew discussed possible landing sites and routes before settling on Reno, Nevada, where the plane was to refuel. It didn't matter, however, because shortly after Mucklow was told to go to the cockpit and stay there, an indicator light showed that the aft stairway which stuck out from below the tail of the 727 had been opened, ears popped as cabin pressure equalized with the outside pressure, and Cooper, two of the parachutes, and the money were gone. They disappeared into a heavy rainstorm somewhere over southwest Washington state at around 8:13 pm local time, never to be seen again. Or were they?

The FBI found the tie, the tie pin, and one of the sets of parachutes when the plane landed in Reno 2.5 hours later. And no trace of D.B. Cooper. The F-106 fighter jets that had been tailing the plane saw nothing through the rainstorm, and estimates as to where the landing site was varied widely, with the FBI settling on an area southeast of Ariel, Washington near the shores of Lake Merwin. It, however, has never been accurately ascertained. Anyway, despite aerial and ground searched of the 28 square mile supposed drop zone in both 1971 and 1972, no trace was even found until Brian Ingram went swimming in 1980.

Okay, that's a lie, but the line sounded so good I couldn't help but stick it in there. The first trace actually came two years before Brian came onto the scene, when a hunter walking in the woods near the drop zone found a placard containing instruction on how to open the rear stairway on a Boeing 727. This placard was eventually found to have come from Northwest Orient Flight 305, but nothing farther would come of it. No is were Brian Ingram comes into the picture.

While on a picnic with his family on February 10, 1980, eight-year-old Brian found 294 decaying $20 bills (that's a total of $5880 for you math majors out there) still bound in rubber bands 40 ft from the bank of the Columbia River, only two inches below the ground. The site was approximately five miles northwest of Vancouver, Washington, which is right across the river from Portland, Oregon. It determined in quick order that the bills were from the D.B. Cooper ransom, but it was much more difficult to determine how or when they got to that Columbia River riverbank. The scientific community to this day remains divided about how the money got there, some think that came to be on that riverbank as a result of Army Corps of Engineers dredging in 1974, some feel that had no part and that the money was brought there naturally by the Columbia and its many tributaries, many of which run through the suspected landing zone.
Since in 1971 it was much easier to buy a plane ticket and get on a flight using an alias than it is today, we will never know if Dan Cooper was in fact Dan Cooper's real name. One of the men that the FBI interviewed in the immediate aftermath of the hijacking was a D.B. Cooper of Portland, who was never really a suspect but you know was going to get interviewed just because of his name. It was a mix-up in the media that led to Dan Cooper, the man on the plane, being known as D.B. Cooper. There have been several other suspects over time, and a couple of sort of copycat hijackings, but all the suspects have been acquitted or died before they could be found out and all of the subsequent hijackings have been solved or wrapped up in some way. Only D.B. Cooper has managed to evade capture. Only D.B. Cooper has been able to sort of live in infamy. And it all happened 38 years ago today. Well, not today. Yesterday. Pretty neat, huh?

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