USA: Netflix’s new four-part documentary ‘D. B. Cooper’ has inspired renewed interest in the famous hijacking of Northwest Orient Airlines Flight 305 on November 24th 1971, the day before Thanksgiving, sparking the longest and most unsuccessful manhunt in the FBI’s history. Of course if you’re running a manhunt it helps if you start in the right country. The Fibbies obsessed with the notion that D.B. was an American, despite the fact that he asked for ‘negotiable American currency’, which of course an American would hardly be likely to do. As all y’all know with respect a red-blooded American would just have specified dollars.
I’ve been interested in the case for years, but with Jerry organising so many mass-shootings, a war in the Ukraine and political crises at home and abroad there’s usually been something to bump it off the agenda! It’s probably about time however that somebody intelligent looked at the case, no offense intended to the folk who’ve looked at it so far.
The documentary, whilst interesting, isn’t actually that good. There’s not that much about the hijacking itself. It’s more about the subsequent search for D.B. Cooper, although it finally gets around to the Canadian connection. I’m not saying it’s a bad documentary, just that they could have done so much more with the material. Netflix please note – N467US (Line Number 137) the aircraft involved in the hijack, was a Boeing 727-100. 727s had three engines, not four, as some of the aircraft standing in for the hijack aircraft in the documentary did.
This is slightly self-serving, since in theory I’m available to be consulted by authors and movie and documentary makers, but it continues to amaze me how casual directors are to the portrayal of aircraft on screen. I actually lost count of the number of wrong types of aircraft used to portray N467US in the documentary. At one point I think they even used a 747! When you make mistakes of that sort you’re sending out a signal to viewers that you really don’t know what you’re talking about.
Around lunchtime on Thanksgiving Eve 1971 a middle-aged white man, with brown eyes, about 5’ 10” tall, weighing approximately 180 pounds, wearing a business suit, a white shirt and (oh dear!) a clip-on tie purchased an airline ticket for Seattle, using cash, at the Northwest ticket desk in Portland, Oregon. He gave his name as ‘Dan Cooper’. Due to a mistake by a local reporter, James Young, amplified by a wire service, he has been immortalized as ‘D.B. Cooper’ (“DBC”).
Flight 305, Captain William Scott in command, took off from Portland International Airport, on time, at 1450 Pacific Standard Time. DBC was seated towards the rear of the airplane, probably in row 18. Shortly after take-off DBC handed a note to flight attendant Florence Schaffner mentioning that he had a bomb and asking her to sit beside him. Since the plane was only about one-third full, nobody had to vacate a seat.
Once seated, Florence Schaffner was given DBC’s demands: $200,000 in “negotiable American currency”, four parachutes and a fuel truck at Seattle-Tacoma (Sea-Tac) Airport. Schaffner was shown an IED in a briefcase containing four sticks of what might have been dynamite. It has never been established whether the device was viable, although it may have been.
DBC was a polite hijacker. He even offered to pay for his drinks. He was calm and courteous throughout. He was familiar with the local terrain and McChord Air Force Base. Captain Scott contacted ATC and the airliner circled Puget Sound whilst the cash and parachutes were assembled. Once they had been delivered to the plane the passengers were released, unharmed. One of the parachutes was a dummy training chute. DBC would have been killed had he used it.
Captain Scott took off again at 1940 PST, bound for Mexico City, with a refuelling stop in Reno Nevada, with two Convair F-106 Delta Dart chase aircraft following, assisted by an ANG T-33. At DCB’s request the plane remained unpressurized, with flaps set at 15 deg., altitude FL100 (10,000 ft) and airspeed 100 knots, close to the minimum stalling speed of a Boeing 727 in that configuration. DBC’s request for the aircraft to take off with the ventral airstairs lowered was rejected, as Northwest didn’t think that was safe. (It was, indeed the plane landed at Reno with the airstairs, which could not be raised in flight, lowered.)
The airstairs were lowered at about 2000 PST. Although they could not be operated from the cockpit a warning light was activated. A change in trim suggests that DBC exited the aircraft at about 2013. DBC supposedly did not have a dive helmet or strong boots. The cash was in a backpack. DBC took the dummy parachute with him, I assume to show to his accomplice.
The initial search for DBC, near Lake Merwin, was based on flawed coordinates. In my analysis the later search coordinates, to the south south-east, near the Washougal River, a tributary of the Columbia, were nearer the mark.
N467US was delivered to Northwest on April 22nd 1965. None the worse for wear after the hijack she continued serving with the airline until June 1978, when she was sold to Piedmont. Ending up Key Airlines she wasn’t scrapped until May 1985. I suspect that Key missed a trick here – given her history and the notoriety of the DBC hijacking she ought to have been preserved, preferably in flying condition. She should probably have been a movie star!
So far as is known she was eventually fitted with a Cooper vane, a clever little aerodynamic device which prevented the airstairs from being lowered in flight and could not be overridden from the cockpit. These were mandated by the FAA after the hijacking.
Did DBC survive the jump?
The Fibbies didn’t think so, indeed it’s one of the reasons why their investigation, such as it was, was so feeble, no offense intended. They were quite convinced that jumping at night, in the rain, without suitable gear, was fatal.
They didn’t actually try to recreate the jump and the successful copycat hijacking of United Flight 855 on April 7th 1972, again using a Boeing 727-100’s airstairs, didn’t cause them to re-evaluate. Very frankly it should have done, but the FBI are law enforcement and law enforcement are basically dumb. (My points last week sadly sailed right over the heads of the boys in Highland Park, Illinois, who are still obsessing on their silly lone gunman theory.)
Both search areas have been trampled over by lots of people since the hijacking. It’s a fairly remote part of the world, not far from Mount St Helens, but it’s not that remote. The later search area is easily accessible from I-5 or I-84, for example. You can go white water rafting on the Washougal. Folk in Seattle don’t just spend their time working for Bill ‘von’ Gates or drinking coffee – many of them like to venture into the great outdoors, sleepless or not.
No trace of a body, let alone a parachute, has ever been found. Somebody once claimed to have found a bit of parachute, but it was more likely a bit of tent. What’s more some of the cash actually turned up, in 1980, buried on a bank of the Columbia River, about nine miles from Vancouver. Interestingly the cash had to have been deposited after 1974. That suggests that either DBC or his accomplice (I’m thinking one) went back to the scene of the crime, taunting the authorities.
It’s highly unlikely that DBC lost this cash – he seems to have taken great care of his ill-gotten gains. The Fibbies also obsessed on the theory that taking the dummy parachute indicated a basic lack of parachute skills. I respectfully disagree. I think he took the dodgy chute with him as evidence of FBI duplicity. He had a one in four chance of getting killed – not nice. Indeed the fact that the Fibbies tried to murder DBC may explain their reluctance to find him, since he knew the truth.
The murder in April 2013 of Earl Cossey, who furnished the FBI with the deadly chute, does nothing to cause me to alter my conclusions. I doubt that DBC, if he was still alive, murdered Cossey. He would have been in his mid-80s by then, not exactly matching the age profile for violent murderers. However it is very possible that Cossey’s killer was connected to DBC. No offense intended, but he was one sick puppy to have supplied a rigged chute.
So, who was he?
The Dan Cooper comic strips, published in Belgium and written in French, featuring the eponymous Royal Canadian Air Force pilot, point strongly away from the States and towards Canada. It’s unlikely that the choice of name was a coincidence. Since they were never translated into English, that suggests someone fluent in French, possibly a French Canadian.
The strange choice of language to describe the cash also points away from the States. At the same time, we are looking at someone able to pass easily for an American. We are also looking for someone used to wearing a business suit and a tie. Not many hijackers wear ties, even clip-ons!
We are not looking for someone with a criminal record in my view. The hijack of Flight 305 was DBC’s only crime, in my view, apart from wearing a clip-on tie, and that’s only a fashion crime. Habitual criminals don’t normally offer to pay for their drinks.
I rule out all the usual suspects, including Robert Rackstraw. There is nothing solid to link them to the hijacked flight, bearing in mind that the Fibbies collected both DNA and fingerprint evidence. Moreover they’re all American, that is to say they’re the wrong nationality.
DBC did however live in the north-west, or at least spent a lot of time there. The critical breakthrough came in January 2017, when the Cooper Research Team, who were nothing to do with the FBI (they were serious investigators) found traces of rare earth elements on DBC’s tie, including cerium. This suggested a strong link to the cancelled Boeing 2707 supersonic airliner. It was already clear that DBC, whoever he was, had a detailed knowledge of the Boeing 727 aircraft, indeed on one point (taking off with the airstairs deployed), he knew more than the airline. He may also have had knowledge of CIA operations with the 727 in South East Asia.
The 2707 deeply worried the Germans, who applied heavy pressure behind the scenes on Congress, buying up and blackmailing Congressmen and Senators. German propaganda organs also waged a specious environmental campaign, citing exaggerated concerns over noise and the ozone layer. I lived near Heathrow Airport when Concorde, my favorite airliner, was in service. If I heard one taking off, I went outside to watch!
After the cancellation, in May 1971, just six months before the hijack, Boeing laid off no fewer than 60,000 employees. In my opinion DBC was one of those. He did say he had a grievance. By the time the tie material analysis became available, the trail had gone cold, however.
I doubt that DBC is still alive. He would be in his mid-90s by now and there’s been no sign of him. Moreover I do not exclude the possibility that he was injured, perhaps seriously, on landing. I think that he had jump experience, indeed I’m sure he did, but it was a difficult jump.
Did he have an accomplice?
Absolutely, in my view. This was a carefully planned hijack, right down to the last detail. No one knew what he was up to in the cabin after the take-off from Seattle, and nearly 15 minutes elapsed between deploying the airstairs and the jump. Why the delay? One obvious reason is that he was in radio contact with someone on the ground, via a state of the art walkie-talkie, who in turn had some means of lighting or identifying the LZ.
Nobody got a look inside his briefcase, and in those days your carry-on luggage wasn’t searched before you boarded the plane. These days a TSA employee would probably ask you some questions if you rolled up with four sticks of dynamite and a walkie-talkie in your carry-on.
We also can’t be sure he didn’t have an accomplice on the plane, with a second carry-on, for example, containing proper boots and a dive helmet. We actually know very little about what happened between the take-off and the jump.
The chase aircraft had no chance of spotting either the jump or what happened afterwards. Forward visibility from the F-106 was just too limited, and at those speeds, the pilots would have had their hands full just keeping their planes in the air.
The accomplice or accomplices would have had a vehicle, probably a four wheel drive, given the terrain. Access to the I-84 eastbound would have been straightforward. By the time the search got underway, they were long gone, indeed they were probably halfway to Canada.
Dead or alive, DBC is a folk hero, and given the risks he took and the shameful attempt to kill him, he deserves to be. That isn’t to take away from the gravity of his crime, or to condone it. It was breathtakingly daring, so daring the FBI had trouble getting their heads around it. The truth invariably emerges, eventually. In due course we’ll know who DBC is or was, but my bet is on a talented but embittered French Canadian engineer laid off from Boeing after the SST cancellation.
The Tory leadership race
It’s now a three horse race, between screaming left-wing nutter, no offense intended, Rishi Sunak, raving moderate Penny Mordaunt and that nice lady Liz Truss, although so far as is known none of them actually owns a horse. The Foreign Secretary is now supported by Lord Frost, who was prevented from standing by the Tory Party’s absurd ban on peers standing for leader.
Rishi is a Davos attendee. Although not quite as evil as Davros, head of the Daleks, he would be a disaster for Britain. Penny, whilst nice, really isn’t up to the job.
The powerful Tory Right are swinging behind Liz Truss, who was a Remainer but has since changed from backing the EU to backing Britain.
My prediction is that Liz Truss will pip Penny Mordaunt to the post with the backing of Kemi Badenoch’s supporters. Tom Tugendhat’s supporters will probably back fellow left-winger Rishi Sunak. Tom by the way is the nephew of the notorious former EU Commissioner Lord Tugendhat.
England v. India
Well done to England for their splendid win over India on Thursday in the one day international at Lord’s, which I was able to watch. We all thought that England’s score of 246 was light, then they bowled India out for 146!
James Caan (1940 – 2022)
That fine actor James Caan, sadly, has died. He will always be remembered for playing Sonny Corleone in The Godfather. He also co-starred in A Bridge Too Far. He had fewer roles in later years but was a great talent, who will be missed. He wasn’t your archetypal Hollywood liberal.
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