A recent interview with Boeing physicist and software designer Alan MacArthur has cast more light on the DB Cooper case.
Forty years ago, DB Cooper skyjacked a Northwest Orient airliner enroute to Sea-Tac airport and later parachuted from it with $200,000 tethered to his waist. He has never been seen since – and not only is his identity still unknown – this incident is the only unsolved skyjacking in the history of the United States.
Mr. MacArthur’s comments touched on a number of subjects pertinent to the DB Cooper investigation, including some of the activities of Cooper suspect Sheridan Peterson.
MacArthur also gave a detailed analysis of the nature of the parachute jump Cooper made nearly forty years ago on November 24, 1971.
In addition, MacArthur also served in Vietnam as a member of the 5th Special Forces, a group that had many of the skills Cooper needed to survive his remarkable nighttime jump at night into a rainy, cold November sky. In fact, a member of this elite unit named Sgt Ted Braden is reported by many commandos who served in Vietnam to be DB Cooper.
To begin, MacArthur told the Mountain News that he began working at Boeing in 1979 and soon joined the Boeing Employees Skydiving Club (BESC). At that time, he knew the founders of the club and MacArthur said that the BESC became formalized in the early 1970s, but probably existed in an unofficial form prior, most likely in the 1960s.
This tends to corroborate information about Sheridan Peterson, a Boeing technical writer who has been investigated twice by the FBI in connection to the Cooper skyjacking, and who claims he organized the Boeing skydiving club in the early 1960s.
“I’ve never even heard of Sheridan Peterson,” said MacArthur, “but I did hear rumors of an earlier version of the skydiving club.”
From his published accounts, Sheridan Peterson describes himself as a kind of unbridled free spirit, one who would prefer having minimal organizational restraints upon his skydiving activities.
Further, subsequent research, particularly at the DropZone website, the key Internet forum for discussing the Cooper case, reveals that Mr. Peterson is correct in his assertions.
DZ postings from November 2008 indicate that the Boeing skydiving club began as early 1962, and FBI agent Larry Carr described the organization as a kind of “official, un-official club” at least by the early 1970s.
Peterson, who is elderly and reportedly in failing health, lives in Windsor, California. Sadly, he has not responded to recent attempts to contact him, including phone, email and Facebook in an effort to learn more about his remarkable life.
At first glance the dispute over skydiving facts seems trivial, yet, Mr. Peterson makes many extraordinary claims and verifying them is a challenge. At the very least, Sheridan Peterson is an exceptionally colorful character, and he may not be guilty of anything more than being an intriguing footnote to the DB Cooper story. Nevertheless, Peterson does project a note of mystery into the Cooper saga, which beckons investigators to look further.
To whit, Peterson says that during the time he was working at Boeing he was also teaching English at Lake Washington High School in Kirkland and the latter has been confirmed.
The notion of working two full-time demanding jobs is certainly exhausting and even a bit perplexing, yet researchers have found no information here that disputes Mr. Peterson’s statements.
Continuing though, in the mid-1960s Peterson began an astounding personal journey that took him to Mississippi to work as a civil rights organizer, then off to Clark AFB in the Philippines to teach in a high school there, and then off to Vietnam to work with indigenous refugees for the State Department. By the late 1960s or early 1970s, Mr. Peterson says that he was then asked to leave Vietnam due to a political and policy dispute with the United States Ambassador, and he retreated to a cave in Nepal where he says he was living with a new wife and two small children when the Cooper skyjacking took place.
Since then, according to published accounts Mr. Peterson’s odyssey has taken him to Papua New Guinea, Communist China, Saudi Arabia and other exotic locales, all in the pursuit of teaching English and journalism.
Sheridan was first investigated in 1971 due to his work at Boeing and because his skydiving skills were superb. In addition, as a former Smokejumper he was experienced in parachuting into very rugged terrain under difficult circumstances and with heavy loads of equipment.
Peterson was last contacted by the FBI in about 2002 and swabbed by agents seeking a DNA sample. The agent who supervised the procedure, Mary Jane Fryar, told the Mountain News that Peterson’s DNA did not match the DB Cooper sample on file.
“But he was the most interesting suspect I ever interviewed in my entire FBI career,” Fryar said.
Mr. MacArthur has another association to a recent DB Cooper flap – he knows Earl Cossey, the esteemed skydiver and rigger whose claim that he owned the back parachutes that DB Cooper received has been questioned.
Recently, a Mr. Norman Hayden of Kent, WA has been identified by FBI documents as the owner of the “back parachutes,” thus directly challenging Cossey’s assertions.
“I knew Cossey back in the day,” said MacArthur, “but I don’t think he’s jumped in a long time.”
MacArthur still skydives, but is curtailing his activities and in fact, he expects the Boeing skydiving club will suspend operations soon due to declining interest.
Regarding the parachute jump that DB Cooper made on that rainy night long ago, MacArthur thinks it was eminently doable.
As for the cold, MacArthur said that the amount of time Cooper was exposed to sub-freezing temperatures, or enduring bitter wind-chills during free-fall, was not a problem.
“I’ve jumped in the winter – in Pullman, Washington with snow on the ground,” MacArthur said. “By the time you feel the cold you’re on the ground.”
Alan expanded on this theme:
“I’ve jumped in the rain, snow, fog, night, winter – whatever – it’s not that big a deal.”
As for DB Cooper reportedly wearing loafers to make his jump, Alan was circumspect.
“The loafers make me kind of wonder,” he said, “but did he wrap ace bandages around his ankles?”
Alan then described an incident in his youth where he wrapped elastic bandages around his own ankles because he was wearing shoes and not his regular jump boots.
“It beefed-up the ankles fine,” he said, adding, “I even jumped once wearing Birkenstocks! I’ve even jumped wearing sneakers – you name it, I’ve jumped with ‘em – but not flip-flops. I can’t get my toes to curl enough to keep ‘em on.”
Alan also discussed the parachute that Cooper reportedly used, an NB-8 rig with a possible C-9 canopy.
“Those parachutes had what we called in the military a ‘double-shot’,” he said. “It was a pinch and pull system.”
Apparently the two-shot arrangement allowed paratroopers to disenage quickly from their chutes after they had landed so that the wind would not drag them.
“I’ve never jumped with a C-9,” he said, “but I’ve jumped with a lot of T-10s, though.”
Alan also said that a C-9 canopy was much more reliable than a “Paracommander,” a steerable round sports chute popular in the 1971 era. A Paracommander had been widely speculated to be among the parachutes Cooper had to choose from, but the most recent comments from Earl Cossey and Norman Hayden refute that rumor.
As our interview was winding up, Alan told us that he had been a combat leader in the 5th Special Forces in Vietnam in 1971, stationed in Kontum.
“Yes, I was in combat and I wanted to stay longer, but the war was winding down,” he said.
Mr. MacArthur was reluctant to discuss any details of his activities in Vietnam despite the fact that most of the actions of the 5th Special Forces have now been de-classified.
Nevertheless, he told the Mountain News that he was an 0-2, the radio man on an Alpha team, which were platoon-sized units that conducted special operations within Vietnam.
“We had four squads composed of Hmong soldiers, plus a few Montagnards and some regular Vietnamese – ARVN – and a few Americans,” he said.
Alan explained that the Hmong were indigenous Vietnamese of Chinese ethnicity, and were top-notch soldiers akin to the Gurkas who fought with British troops in India during WWII. In addition, all the American soldiers were Green Berets and led the operations.
“We’d go into an area and establish control, and try to build up troops from the people there,” he said.
He also said that he was familiar with the MACV SOG operations that Ted Braden is reported to have been involved in, but Alan said he didn’t know of Braden.
Alan acknowledged that MACV SOG conducted many operations “over the fence,” meaning out of Vietnam and in the neighboring countries of Cambodia and Laos, which was top-secret and illegal.
He also said that he never jumped in Vietnam and that all of his operations were conducted via helicopter inserts.
He also jumped a number of times Stateside with equipment bags attached to him – at least 25 pounds on tethers that were at least 15-feet long.
“It would let you know when the ground was coming up.”
Alan also said that he thought it would be difficult to spot a parachute from the air during the surveillance after the Cooper skyjacking.
“Even if you know the general area, a chute can get hung around a tree, wrapped around…it would be hard to spot it, even from the ground, or in the air” he said. “Finding DB Cooper would not be easy.”
Lastly, Alan told us that he had a Paracommander – with a bright red canopy, and he bought his first parachute in Vietnam.
“I hocked everything I had to buy it,” he told us affectionately.
© 2011 Mountain News – WA