1971 was a different time. Nixon was in the White House. The economy had yet to feel the seismic shock that decoupling the US Dollar from gold would later produce. It was Thanksgiving and most of the country looked forward to a few days off work and some home cooking.
One dubious character was not thinking about turkey. He stepped from a taxi at the Portland Airport, navigated puddles near the curb and carrying a nondescript briefcase, stepped inside the departure terminal. Approaching the ticket counter for Northwest Orient Airlines, he forked over $27 in cash and signed the receipt “Dan Cooper”.
Unbeknownst to the ticket agent or himself, a legend in American criminology was born.
In the pre 9/11, pre mega-lawsuits against Big Tobacco, era of flight, air travel was like a bad night in Vegas, rattling around in an aluminum tube. Mixed drinks, excessive smoking and general ballyhoo were often the vibe in the rear rows of all of the major carriers. Unlike today there were dozens of independent airlines to choose from, they competed fiercely and pronounced hospitality was the order of the day. There were no bag checks. No X-rays. No metal detectors and no TSA.
The date was November 24, 1971. Not a date anywhere near as infamous as another late November date 8 years earlier, but if you ask around, everyone who was alive when the early evening news broke from the Seattle and Portland affiliates, remembers where they were and what they were doing. Air piracy entered the lexicon of ham and egger America.
So what went down?
Dan Cooper climbed aboard Northwest Orient Airlines Flight 305, a Boeing 727. The aircraft lifted into gray sky promptly at 2:50pm PST. The anonymous fellow, dressed in a ten year old, outdated suit, tie, overcoat and shoes quietly sipped bottom shelf bourbon and soda. He lit a Raleigh. When flight attendant (stewardess in 1971) Florence Schaffner approached, the awkward fellow handed her a note, printed neatly in all capital letters, scribed in felt tipped pen. Florence Schaffner returned to her jump seat (attached to the aft air stairs door) and dropped the note into her purse.
“Miss, you’d better look at that note. I have a bomb.”
From that single second forward, history and legend collide.
Flight Attendant Schaffner asked to see the bomb. Cooper cracked open his briefcase, revealing eight tubes, wrapped in red insulation, wired to a large cylindrical battery. Flight 305 pilot, William Scott was immediately notified.
Cooper had a game plan that was simple and effective. He ordered the 727 to land at Seattle International Airport, on a tarmac safely away from the terminal and airport infrastructure. The passengers were released.
Minimal problems arose; Northwest Orient President, Donald Nyrop, had to hit several local banks to cobble together $200,000 in “negotiable American currency”. A refueling truck had to be replaced due to vapor lock in the mechanism. After the Seattle FBI photographed and stored the primarily L series $20 bills (10,000 of them) on microfiche, the cash was placed in a large canvas bankers bag and it, along with four parachutes were brought aboard Flight 305.
Cooper kept a skeleton flight crew on board and asked to be flown to Mexico City. Due to fuel capacity the flight deck informed Cooper that the plane would require a single refueling stop. Reno was the agreed upon destination, then on to Mexico City.
Here are some important clues to note in your Hagmann sleuths’ note pad when we engage tonights show…
DB Cooper made the following specific requests as Flight 305 ascended from Seattle and into the tempestuous Northwest night: the plane was to maintain altitude no higher than 10,000 feet, the wing flaps were to be kept at exactly 15 degrees, air speed was to be no faster than 100 knots and the aft air stairs were to not only remain unlocked, but they were to remain in the disengaged, egress position. The airline balked at the request regarding the aft stairs. Too dangerous to leave them in the down position. No matter, Mr Cooper simply opted to disengage them himself.
At approximately 8:00PM a warning light flashed in the cockpit, indicating the aft air stairs were activated. The pilots and flight crew, all sequestered in the cockpit, noticed a change in cabin pressure.
8:12PM, DB Cooper felt the wet sting of Oregonian air whip his face. Or was it Washingtonian air? To this day, the debate rages. Wind resistance pummeled the air stairs, making them more of a thumping diving board than stairs.
Cooper yanked his JC Penny clip-on tie from his pressed, frayed shirt. No one knows for sure what became of his briefcase and sunglasses but I see them hurling through 10,000 feet of autumn gloom.
Parachute rigged and tight? Check. Breathing heavier, heart rate up. The pitching stairs revealed a repeated sliver of bluish black sky with few clouds. Heartbeat pounding his ears; the wind stinging them too. Money secured with para cord? Tighten that knot. Retie the other. Breathe. Done this before. Cooper laid prone on the bucking platform and inched his way toward nothingness. Check the money bag again. Seems okay. Deep breaths. Icy air cut through his shoes. A demonic warbling sound bled into the pulse in his head. Wind, plastic, wind, aluminum. One quick push…
8:13pm, Passeneger 18C made peace with his plan and tumbled into darkness.
Join Hagmann Report host Douglas J Hagmann and noted DB Cooper expert, Robert Blevins this evening on the Hagmann and Hagmann Report. They will pick up the story from here. Tonight your participation is critical. You are the judge and jury as 30 year veteran investigator, Doug Hagmann hears the case from start to finish. Bottom line folks, tonight’s hour two and three guest, Robert Blevin, author of “Into the Blast”, thinks he knows who DB Cooper is. I think he just might be right. The final conclusion is up to you.