The Hunt for DB Cooper – report on 727s used by World Airways in covert Vietnam ops

 

A wide-spread notion exists that DB Cooper learned his considerable skills about jumping off the aft stairs of a 727 as a combatant in the covert and illegal military operations of the Vietnam War.  In particular, he knew quite a bit about the parameters of skydiving out of a 727 – gear down, wings flaps at 15 degrees, and flying no higher than 10,000 feet with a de-pressured passenger cabin, and these elements were critical to his success. 

In fact, Cooper knew more about flying a 727 with the aft stairs deployed than the pilots did, so, on Tuesday, July 19, I traveled to Seattle to discuss these issues over lunch with a former Boeing engineer, Bob Sailshaw, and to meet with his friend, Everett Johnson, a former 727 pilot.

 Bob is a Cooper investigator with a passion fueled by renting a basement apartment in 1961 to Cooper suspect Sheridan Peterson, and Bob’s account of “Petey” is discussed elsewhere in the Mountain News.  Bob and I have shared several delightful lunches together and have chewed through many animated discussions about DB.

This was the first time I met with Everett, however, and he is a lively character – animated, confident, and clearly a man who has been around the block a few times, as he has been a life-long pilot, flying commercially and privately.  Currently, he’s a part-time bush pilot in Alaska, flying high-end clients into pristine fishing spots, and starting about 1970 he was a regular pilot for the Puget Sound air service called San Juan Airways.

 Everett also worked in the mid-1970s for World Airways, a governmental and military carrier that, along with Southern Airways and Continental Air Services, were rivals of Air America.

 “Yeah, World Airways and the others did whatever needed to be done in Vietnam that the military couldn’t do because of the Geneva Conventions,” Everett told me.  “They flew in troops and cargo that were involved in the covert wars – all that illegal stuff.”

 However, Everett did not participate in any World Airways activities within Vietnam.  In the latter stages of the war he flew 707s from Okinawa for World, ferrying Vietnamese refugees back to the United States.

 “Those flights were filled with women and children,” he said.   “We flew them to locations all over the United States.”

 Nevertheless, Everett did have specific information about World Airways activities in the covert wars in Laos and Cambodia.

 Everett got his information from a senior pilot at World named Tom Sailor.  After his Okinawa flights, Everett teamed with Sailor and together they flew out of Sana, Yemen, where they were involved in the CIA’s efforts to “keep tabs” on Soviet activities in South Yemen.

 At that time, Yemen was divided into two parts, North and South, and the southern country was ruled by a communist regime, while the northern one, based in the capital city of Sana, was aligned with the United States.

 Everett and Sailor flew 727s out of Sana and their activities ranged throughout the Middle East. Everett did not disclose many details on those operations, but, he did say that World Airways double-registered its 727s as both World and Yemen Airways aircraft to provide some cover for its covert operations in Vietnam and elsewhere.

 Everett told me about what Sailor had described regarding his activities in Vietnam:

 Everett said that Sailor had told him that World Airways had three 727s active in Vietnam, and that Sailor had flown many illegal sorties over Laos and Cambodia.  During these flights he would air-drop cargo and small squadrons of commandos drawn from an elite group of about 20 soldiers – who parachuted out the back of the 727 from its unique aft stairs, which could be lowered in flight.

 For cargo, Everett said that the 727 crew inserted an aluminum chute over the aft stairs for the cargo to slide down, and this device was stored in the plane, overhead in the stairway area.

 As for the troopers, they went out much the same way DB Cooper is believed to have exited his aircraft.

 “They just walked down to the bottom step and jumped,” Everett said.

 Everett says he does not recall the code name for these operations, nor does he know the locations for take off.  However, he did say that the soldiers had to walk back to American lines once their operations were concluded.

 Everett said Sailor was quite specific about DB Cooper being one of these guys.

 “Yeah, I could tell you exactly who DB Cooper was,” Everett said Sailor declared.  “He would have been one of maybe ten guys out of the twenty.”

 Okay, that’s not too specific, but Sailor’s perspective is certainly aligned with those expressed by SgtM Billy Waugh and Major John Plaster of MACV-SOG, soldiers who have written extensively about their covert – and illegal – combat operations during the Vietnam War now that these operations have been declassified.

 When I asked Everett about Ted Braden, the commando put forward by Waugh and Plaster as Cooper, Everett said he hadn’t heard the name before.

 Nevertheless, Everett confirmed that Sailor had described these twenty soldiers as members of the Special Forces.

 “Yeah, they were Green Beret types,”Everett said.

 However, Everett does have a personal DB Cooper story – he was piloting a local flight inbound to Sea-Tac when Cooper skyjacked his plane.

 Everett said that he was flying a six-passenger plane from Friday Harbor, the main tourist spot in the San Juan Islands located between the United States and Canada, to Sea-Tac, about a 40 minute run.

 He said that he was flying the regularly scheduled 1 pm flight and mid-way to Sea-Tac was told to “expect delays.” A moment later, he was told by Seattle Control to go into a holding pattern at the aviation intersection known as “Low-Fall,” which is about seven miles west of Paine Field, the major Boeing facility in Everett, Washington, about 30 miles north of Seattle.

 “We had no idea what was going on,”Everett said, ‘but they never tell you, anyway.”

 Everett said that he flew a “race course” pattern over Puget Sound, about 1 mile out, four down, a mile back and another four miles on the final leg.  He flew this pattern for at least an hour.

 “After a while, we had 10-15 planes stacked on top of me,” Everett said, “and everybody was constantly asking for clarification.”

 Everett flew this configuration until he had about 20 minutes worth of fuel left, and asked for permission to make a diverted landing at Paine Field.

 “They would not authorize it,” he said.

 However, Everett decided to force their hand, and a few moments later he declared a fuel emergency and was routed into Paine Field.  When they landed they learned about the Cooper skyjacking, which was in progress.

 “They wouldn’t let us fly back to Friday Harbor, or head south to Boeing Field, either,” said Everett.

 I questioned Everett about the timing of his flight and the skyjacking, as there seemed to be a discrepancy – Everett said he left Friday Harbor at 1 pm on a 40 minute run to Sea-Tac, so he should have arrived there by the time Cooper handed his hijacking note to Northwest Orient flight attendant Florence Schaffner at approximately 2:05 pm in Portland.

 Everett had no answer to this question, and assumed that his memory of the flight schedule must have been off by an hour.

 Nevertheless, Everett also had another DB Cooper encounter.

 Several years later, the FAA instituted a mandatory instructional class for pilots on how to handle a skyjacking.

 “The instructor mentioned DB Cooper a lot,”Everett said.

 Everett indicated that he wasn’t much interested in the information, since, as a seasoned pilot, he knew he would take full command of his craft and act as he thought best – not giving much weight to the recommendations of governmental bureaucrats sitting on the ground.

 But what got his attention most in the class was his instructor – first, he was a former Marine, and second, he was wearing bright and shiny patent-leather shoes even though he was dressed in civvies and supposedly out of the service.

 During a coffee break towards the end of the class, Everett said he began talking about his Cooper experiences with a small group of pilots and mentioned that he had flown with a World pilot, Tom Sailor, who told him that DB Cooper was a commando involved in the covert wars in Laos and Cambodia.

 Everett says that when the former-Marine with patent-leather shoes heard Everett mention those covert operations, he immediately strode over to Everett, grabbed his elbow firmly, and led him to a private room.

 There, the instructor told Everett he had better keep his mouth shut, as that was top-secret information, and that Everett could go to jail for what he had disclosed.

 “He was serious,”Everett said.

 However, the final words of the former Marine were a real kicker.

 “He told me he was in charge of the DB Cooper investigation!” Everett said.

 However, Everett was unable to provide any further details about this elusive Cooper sleuth.

On a related note, Everett offered an insightful way to further assess Cooper’s prowess as a pilot.

 “If Cooper said, ‘flaps 15,’ he was a pilot,” declared Everett.  “But if he said something like, ‘set the flaps at 15 degrees,’ he wasn’t a pilot, and only someone very familiar with flight operations.”

 Lastly, the Mountain News is actively looking for Captain Tom Sailor to confirm these stories.

 ©  2011  The Mountain News-WA

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Tom Campbell Chiropractic

Serving Spanaway and South Pierce County

Specializing in Chemical Sensitivity Syndrome

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