DB Cooper

Sketch: Image courtesy of FBI
Photo: Image courtesy of FBI

FBI Closes D.B. Cooper Case

| published July 19, 2016 |

By Kevin Robbie, Thursday Review contributor

On July 12, 2016, the FBI officially shut down its investigation of the skyjacking of Northwest Airlines Flight 305, after a 45-year effort. Also known as the “D.B. Cooper Case,” it remains the only unsolved skyjacking in American history, and arguably one of the famous skyjacking incidents ever. In the years since 1971, the case has sparked a cottage industry of books, documentaries, speculative articles, and discussion as to the real identity of D.B. Cooper, and even debates over whether or not Cooper is alive or dead. Cooper seems to have appeared from out of nowhere, and disappeared, almost literally, into thin air.

The story of Cooper’s daring air hijacking is indeed one of the most intriguing and bizarre unsolved crimes of the twentieth century.

On November 24th, 1971, Northwest Flight 305 took off from Portland International Airport en route to Seattle, in fair weather a thirty-minute flight. The aircraft, a Boeing 727-100 model, was piloted by William Scott, an experienced pilot who had flown the Portland-Seattle route numerous times. This Thanksgiving Eve trip initially gave every indication of being a routine endeavor. His Boeing 727-100, a model which entered commercial service in February, 1964, was produced in large numbers throughout the 1960’s and ’70’s. Boeing’s only tri-jet model, the 727-100 had a passenger capacity of 131, carried a flight crew of three and a cabin crew of four flight attendants. Although the 727-100 was relatively noisy, it was considered an efficient aircraft for short and medium range flights. The model also possessed a unique design feature—an aft stair deployable during flight, a feature which would secure the model a place in American folklore.

The crew and passengers of Flight 305 waited to taxi down the runway prior to takeoff. Among those on board was Tina Mucklow, a 22 year-old stewardess, who had recently started working for Northwest airline. Another stewardess, 23 year-old Florence Schaffner, was working the aft half of the cabin with Mucklow. Seated across from them in the back of the cabin was a well-dressed, quiet man wearing a dark suit, white shirt, necktie and sunglasses. He occupied seat 18C. In an age when very little identification was needed to fly, the man had purchased his ticket using the name “Dan Cooper” (the name “D.B. Cooper” is a non de plume developed by accident by the press, but Cooper’s real identity has never been known).

At first the flight attendants took no notice of the non-descript but well-dressed man in seat 18C. This was an era when people still dressed somewhat formally when traveling by airplane, so the stewardesses considered him to be neither remarkable nor out-of-the-ordinary. Just before take-off, he and the other passengers appeared to have settled-in comfortably for the brief hop to Seattle.

Once the jet was airborne, the man in 18C handed Florence Schaffner a note as she walked quickly past him. In those days, it wasn’t unusual for stewardesses to be handed notes by men traveling alone. Such messages usually revealed a phone number or hotel room number, along with various suggestions about romantic or sexual trysts, and—as such—they were generally ignored by the recipient. Ms. Schaffner reflexively tucked the note into her pocket without reading it, and in fact may have forgotten about the note altogether. But the passenger apparently took notice of the fact that the stewardess did not actually read the note. When she next passed down the aisle, the man in 18C motioned with his finger to get her attention. She walked over to him and bent down. The man advised her to read the note, and he then informed her that his carry-on briefcase contained a bomb.

The other passengers on board were unaware of the unfolding events.

Ms. Schaffner ducked into the galley and read the note. She then showed it to Tina Mucklow and together they walked forward and into the cockpit, showing the note to the flight crew. Immediately, pilot William Scott notified air traffic control, who called the Seattle police, who in turn quickly informed the FBI. At that point, the FBI notified airline president Donald Nyrop and gave him what details they had about the note and the skyjacker. Nyrop replied that the airline would comply with the skyjacker’s demands and he requested the assistance of the FBI and other federal agencies. Nyrop feared the safety of the passengers and his crew, and he was almost certainly deeply concerned about the negative publicity of the incident ended in disaster.

The exact wording of Cooper’s note is unknown as the skyjacker asked the stewardesses to return it to him once the note—printed by hand and possibly using a black felt-tip pen—had been shown to the pilot. The skyjacker, no doubt, did not want to leave behind incriminating evidence containing his fingerprints or handwriting. Schaffner later recalled that the note was handwritten in ink and it demanded $200,000 in cash and two sets of parachutes. In other words, the skyjacker was asking for four parachutes, total, as a set contains both a main parachute and a backup. The skyjacker may have wanted the note to infer that he was willing to take a hostage, thus the request for the second set of parachutes. No one knows if this was the skyjacker’s true intent or if he might have concluded that authorities would be disinclined to use violence if they believed he was planning on taking a hostage with him.

The skyjacker’s note, according to Schaffner, demanded the money and parachutes be delivered to the aircraft when it landed in Seattle, otherwise he would blow up the plane. When Schaffner returned the note, Cooper moved over to the window seat and motioned for her to sit next to him. As she did so, he briefly opened the briefcase and showed her what he purported to be a bomb. Schaffner later told police that what she saw and described it as a series of red and black wires and several cylinders which she thought resembled dynamite. Cooper also told her to tell the pilot to remain airborne until the money and parachutes were ready. The pilot complied and announced over the intercom that the plane’s landing would be briefly delayed due to a minor mechanical problem. At this point, the passengers were still unaware of the skyjacking as the plane’s crew remained relatively calm and did nothing to excite Cooper.

Cooper included specific demands regarding the cash. He wanted all of the $200,000 in $20 bills. He demanded that bills’ serial numbers should be random rather than sequential, an obvious device to avoid detection by the authorities once the cash hit the streets. Furthermore, Cooper had apparently given careful thought to the exact amount and the denominations; the total money Cooper requested, in $20 bills, would weigh around 21 pounds. A bag full of smaller denominations would be heavier, thus impeding his escape by parachute. On the other hand, a collection of large bills would be lighter but would also be much easier to trace.

Working quickly, the FBI collected the money in random serial numbers but they made sure each number sequence began with the letter “L,” the Treasury Department designation for paper money drawn from the Federal Reserve Bank in San Francisco. FBI technicians also photographed each bill using a microfilm photography system. Such an action was a common precaution, but still was not a completely accurate means of tracing a criminal’s movements after the fact. There might have been thousands of bills with serial numbers beginning with “L,” in the possession of ordinary citizens and there would be no means of determining how many time any given bill had changed hands. Still, the FBI and other officials wanted some way—even one with a remote chance of success—to keep tabs of the movement of the cash (in fact, a small portion of the cash would turn up in the early 1980s, but its complicated path proved little, and may merely added confusion to the mystery).

Cooper also was very specific regarding the parachutes. He wanted civilian-issue sets, not military, because the civilian ‘chutes were operated by hand-pulled ripcords. Seattle police purchased the parachutes from a local skydiving school.

The aircraft touched down at the Seattle airport after 5:30 p.m., once the money and parachutes had been secured. Cooper told the pilot to taxi the plane to a remote, well-lit area of the airport. He also wanted no vehicles to approach the plane. The cash and parachutes were to be delivered by one person on foot. However, due to the weight of the money bag and parachutes, Cooper did concede that an airline employee would be permitted to approach the aircraft in a company vehicle. Tina Mucklow lowered the aft stair to allow the items to be brought aboard the plane. Once this move was accomplished, Cooper released the 36 passengers and stewardess Florence Schaffner. He refused to release Mucklow or the 3-man flight crew.

Cooper questioned Mucklow about the operation of the aft stair. She stated that the stair could not be operated while the plane was airborne, but Cooper told her she was wrong—the aft stairway could be deployed in flight. During her time on the plane with Cooper, Mucklow concluded that he was in fact very knowledgeable about the 727-100. Cooper likely chose this type of plane once he decided on an escape by parachute. He also demanded that the plane be refueled, take off again and fly in the direction of Mexico City. Cooper, those on the plane noted, seemed to be aware that to refuel a 727-100 with 52,000 gallons of fuel required around fifteen minutes of time. He even relayed a message to the ground crew to that effect.

Cooper also told the pilot, William Scott, that he was to maintain the aircraft at an altitude under 10,000 feet at a speed of no more than 150 knots, around 172 mph. Cooper understood that the plane’s aft stair could be opened during flight without severely affecting the aerodynamic integrity of the plane. In light of that fact, he also told Scott to de-pressurize the passenger cabin. At 7:46, local time, the aircraft took off again. Cooper ordered Mucklow to sit in the cockpit with the flight crew. As Mucklow closed the door to the cockpit, she turned back, looked into the passenger cabin, and caught a fleeting glimpse of Cooper attempting to tie something around his waist and chest—presumably the parachute gear and/or the cash.

At 8:00, the pilot used the intercom to ask Cooper if there was anything else he required of him. Cooper angrily replied “no” and told Scott to concern himself only with flying the plane. A moment later, a red light in the cockpit flashed on indicating a door was open. The nose of the plane also dipped slightly at the same time. The tail end made a correcting dip. The plane was 25 miles north of Portland. This was the point at which when the crew decided Cooper must have lowered the aft stair and jumped into the night with his cash.

Scott landed the plane in Reno, Nevada at 10:15. Once the plane stopped, he anxiously and nervously opened the cockpit door, which had no peephole or window. The cabin was empty and eerily quiet. All that remained was the unused second parachute. All other signs of the mysterious Cooper were gone as he had apparently jumped from the plane and vanished in the air, leaving a gaping mystery which has eluded investigators and FBI for decades.

Related Thursday Review articles:

Dr. Torture Settles With Former Patients; Earl Perkins; Thursday Review; January 21, 2016.

City of Ghosts: Chernobyl and the Evacuation of Pripyat; Kevin Robbie; Thursday Review; May 28, 2015.