The Hunt for DB Cooper – The Resurgent Investigation into America’s only Unsolved Skyjacking; Chapter 2 – Basic facts; the skyjacking

by Bruce A. Smith 

Before we explore the resurgent investigation, let’s start at the beginning:

 Shortly after 2 pm on Wednesday, November 24, 1971– the day before Thanksgiving – a man in his mid-to-late 40s, or possibly even early 50s, approached the Northwest Orient ticket counter at the Portland, Oregon airport.

 He asked for a one-way ticket to Seattle and paid in cash, placing a twenty dollar bill on the counter.  The NWO ticket agent told his customer that Flight 305 to Seattle, scheduled for departure at 2:35 pm, was a bit late but was expected soon at its gate.

 “That’s a 727, right?” the customer asked, and was reassured that Flight 305 was in fact a Boeing 727, the relatively new aircraft introduced a few years earlier and widely favored in the airline industry because it possessed its own internal stairway system. 

 Thus, the 727 allowed passengers easy access on and off their aircraft in the days before jetways were commonplace at airport terminals, and eliminated the need for cumbersome air-stairs to be rolled into place.

 This passenger was the last to purchase a ticket for Flight 305, and he signed it “Dan Cooper.” 

 “Dan Cooper” was wearing a black suit, white shirt and black tie, and over that he wore a lightweight black raincoat.  He also had a cloth-like briefcase and toted a brown paper bag, also reported to be a burlap sack.

 He was about six-foot tall or maybe six-one.  Some fellow passengers thought he might have been five-ten.  Cooper was trim and estimated to be about 170 pounds.  He also had an olive complexion, leading some to believe that he might have been of Mediterranean heritage.

 Above all, Cooper looked and acted like a business man heading home for the Thanksgiving holiday.

 Dennis Lysne, the ticket agent, said Mr. Cooper appeared to stand off by himself in the passenger waiting area, staring out the window until the boarding call was issued for Flight 305.

 Flight 305 had spent the day hop-scotching across the United States, starting in Washington, DC early on Wednesday morning.  After several stops back east, it received a fresh flight crew in Minneapolis, and on its way westward it stopped at Great Falls and  Missoula, Montana, Spokane, Washington, and then headed to Portland.  The Seattle leg was scheduled to be its last jump of the day.

 “I loved flying like that,” co-pilot Bill Rataczak told me in 2009.  “All those take-offs and landing – it was a lot of great flying.”

 Rataczak told me that his co-pilot, Captain William Scott, and he swapped flying duties at every airport.  One pilot would fly one leg into a city and handle the landing, and then the other pilot would assume the take-off when they departed, flying to the next airport. 

 As such, Rataczak flew into Portland and Scott was tapped for the run to Seattle.

 In the cockpit, Rataczak and Scott were joined by the flight engineer, Harold “Andy” Anderson.  Later, all three would have distinguished careers as Northwest flight captains.

 In the passenger cabin Flight 305 had three flight attendants: Purser Alice Hancock in first class and newbies Florence Schaffner, 23 and Tina Mucklow, 22, in the economy section.

 There is some question as to how many passengers were on board Flight 305.  The Seattle Times published 35 names, plus Dan Cooper for a total of 36, as presented by Carol Abraczinskas of the Citizens Sleuth Team, at the 2011 DB Cooper Symposium in Portland, Oregon.

 DBC expert Sluggo seems to confirm that number as his Cooper website also states that there were 36, but DB Cooper’s status in that number is unclear. 

 However, Galen Cook says that the number of passengers was 36 plus Dan Cooper, for a total of 37.

 The presence of a second passenger named “Cooper,” as in “Michael Cooper,” might cause this confusion.

 But another source of the disparity might come from accounting the members of the MacPherson family.  One set of documents has a “MacPherson, Scott” listed along with a father, “Bill MacPherson,” while another has both a “S. MacPherson (son)” and a “Scott M. MacPherson” listed besides the “Bill.”

 The most likely source of the confusion might be the presence of the Kloepfer family.  The Seattle Times mentions a “Mrs. Kloepfer” but not a “Floyd Kloepfer.”  However, author Geoffrey Gray, who had access to FBI files, does list Floyd as a passenger in his 2011 book on the skyjacking, Skyjack, and describes him as Mrs. Kloepfer’s husband.

 Nevertheless, upon boarding the passengers were offered “open seating,” and Dan Cooper sat in the last row on the starboard, right-hand side of the airplane.  He is known to have sat in the middle seat of three, 18 E for much of the skyjacking, but is believed to have first sat in the aisle seat, 18 D.

 However, Special Agent Ralph Himmelsbach consistently states that Cooper sat in the port side of the plane – the left-hand side – in seat 18 C.  Himmelsbach is not alone in that perspective, sharing that notion with Sluggo.

 But in fact, passenger William Mitchell, a college student returning home for the holidays, is reported to have sat by himself in seat 18 B.

 Galen Cook interviewed Mr. Mitchell, and says that Mitchell specifically told him that he sat in the “B” seat, placed his jacket in 18 A, and dumped his school books in 18 C.  However, during the skyjacking Mr. Mitchell was asked to move forward in the cabin by the flight attendants, and he did so.

 As a result, Mr. Mitchell had one of the best views of Dan Cooper, and along with the three flight attendants Mitchell is considered to be a prime witness to the skyjacking. 

 On a related note, none of the cockpit crew ever saw Dan Cooper at any time despite the persistent rumor that Captain Scott visited Dan Cooper briefly during the skyjacking.  No documentation or transcripts of the hijacking indicate that any member of the cockpit crew left their stations at any time during the skyjacking.

 At a few minutes before 3 pm, Flight 305 rolled down the runway and Dan Cooper turned in his seat and handed Florence Schaffner a small, folded note.  She put it unopened into her pocket.

 A few minutes later Cooper gave her a prompt.

 “Miss, I think you better have a look at that note,” he reportedly said.

 Schaffner retrieved the message and read it.  Miss, I have a bomb here and I would like you to sit by me.

 At this point, Cooper was in the middle seat of row 18 and Schaffner sat beside him.  Cooper opened his briefcase and showed her what he described as a bomb – four red cylinders that she took to be sticks of dynamite, a couple large batteries, wires, and possibly a small metal switch.

 Cooper explained that he was hijacking the plane and instructed Florence to write a note to take to the cockpit.  He demanded four parachutes: “two back chutes” and “two front chutes,” and $200,000 in non-specified “negotiable currency.”

 Florence complied with the note-taking but became increasingly rattled.  In YouTube clips of her media interviews after the hijacking she was still anxious, plainly stating that she thought she was going to die that night in a fiery explosion.

 Cooper further explained that he wanted to circle above Puget Sound until the money and chutes arrived at Sea-Tac airport, where he promised to release the passengers.  He also wanted a fuel truck to be parked nearby when they landed.

 “No funny stuff or I’ll do the job,” Cooper reportedly added.

 In Skyjack, Geoffrey Gray reveals in exquisite detail the dialogue between Florence, Tina and Cooper at this moment in the skyjacking.  Tina bravely and expertly sensed that Florence was not up to the job of dealing with the hijacker and intervened, eventually taking Florence’s seat next to DB Cooper. 

 Before switching places though, Tina informed the cockpit of the skyjacking via a private channel of the plane’s intercom, known as the interphone.  Then she sat next to Cooper, who donned his infamous wrap-around sunglasses, which he wore for the remainder of the hijacking. 

According to Rataczak, Florence also brought the note up to the cockpit and “dropped it in Scotty’s lap.”

 For nearly two and a half hours, Tina lit cigarettes for Cooper as he kept a hand on the bomb trigger, smoked a few herself and engaged the hijacker in conversation, both to defuse tensions and to elicit information.  During this time 305 circled Sea-Tac.

 According to Gray, Tina even told a couple jokes, and included in this repartee was Tina’s famous question and Cooper’s reply:

 “Do you have a grudge against Northwest?” Tina asked the skyjacker.

 “I don’t have a grudge against your airline, Miss.  I just have a grudge.”

Tina’s behavior is seen as quietly heroic.

 “Tina saved our lives that night,” said the co-pilot Bill Rataczak.  “If it wasn’t for her, I wouldn’t be here talking to you right now.  She’s one-in-a-million…She did a tremendous job that night – sitting next to him for hours.”

 In fact, Rataczak told me that after the skyjacking he bought a bottle of Channel No. 5 for Tina on behalf of the entire crew, and attached the following note:  “A gift to you…Remember that there were three guys sitting in front of you in the cockpit that survived that night because of what you did.”

 Florence and Tina reported that Cooper also acted like a gentleman, with Tina stating that the hijacker “wasn’t nervous… (and) he seemed rather nice.  He was never cruel or nasty.  He was thoughtful and calm all the time.”

 However, Ralph Himmelsbach consistently describes Cooper as a “rotten, sleazy crook” who used “foul language.”  But, to my knowledge he has never offered his reasons for making such characterizations.

 Despite the uncertainty, the passengers also remained calm and were told that their landing at Sea-Tac was delayed due to mechanical troubles.  During the skyjacking all the passengers in the rear portion of the plane near Cooper were asked to move forward, which they did without incident.

 However, Captain Scott was shocked by the news that his plane was being hijacked and he struggled to deal with the information while he was completing the take-off.  Quickly, he and Rataczak realized that Scott needed to concentrate on flying the plane, leaving Rataczak and Anderson to handle the communications – soon to be very complex discussions between Cooper, NWO flight operations, the FBI, and FAA personnel in Portland and Seattle.

 “But we passed all decisions through Scotty,” Rataczak told me.

 As they circled over Puget Sound, Cooper mentioned the lights of Tacoma to Tina, giving many investigators cause to believe that he was familiar with the area. 

  In addition, during discussions on the types of parachutes he desired, Cooper indicated that he did not want military parachutes, such as might be obtained from McChord Air Base.  In doing so he revealed that he knew that the Air Force base was just a few miles south of Sea-Tac.

 At 5:39 pm the FBI informed Flight 305 that the money and parachutes were awaiting Cooper at Sea-Tac.  However, there are strong disagreements concerning where the ransom money and parachutes came from and how they got to the airport.

 Initially, official reports claimed that the $200,000 came from a variety of banks in Seattle, but postings by Ckret on the DZ and other officials indicate that the money had already been gathered and photocopied long before the hijacking.  In fact, it is now believed that the FBI anticipated the kind of extortion that Cooper perpetrated and had stockpiled ransom monies in field offices throughout the United States.

 As for the parachutes, the issue is still hotly disputed, especially the source of the back – or primary – parachutes.  For forty years most people have accepted what has become known as the “Common Understanding” regarding the parachutes, which claims that one back chute was an emergency Navy pilot’s rig known as an NB 8 and the other a “sport” parachute inside a Pioneer container.  Both parachutes were thought to be supplied by a Seattle-area rigger named Earl Cossey.

 However, Geoffrey Gray’s book showed that another individual provided the main chutes, a Renton, Washington aerobatic pilot named Norman Hayden, and that both parachutes were quality commercial-grade rigs.

 The distinction is not trivial, as the type of parachute Cooper selected to make his getaway has become a major focal point in the investigation and will be discussed in greater detail in later pages.

 Further, the “front” chutes, which were smaller reserve parachutes, were also problematic, as one was an inoperable training rig.

 Nevertheless, Flight 305 landed at 5:45 pm and parked on a well-lit, isolated section of runway.

On the ground, Seattle NWO operations boss Al Lee waited with the money, stuffed into a First Seattle National Bank satchel, and the four parachutes.  Tina got off before the passengers and retrieved these items for Cooper.

 According to passenger Jack Almstad, he says he clearly saw Tina come on board with the bank bag and what looked like “bricks or bundles of money” bulging in the sack.  Nevertheless, neither he nor anyone else realized that they were watching the unfolding of a skyjacking.

 “No one suspected what was going on,” Almstad said.

 After Tina was finished lugging stuff on board, Cooper told her the passengers were free to leave.

 Almstad says he and his fellow passengers left the plane without any further interruption.

 “Northwest had a bus waiting for us when we got off the airplane,” he told me.

 Oddly, the aft stairs were not used to discharge the passengers, who exited the plane via the front door and descended down a set of airstairs brought in by a truck.  During the time of disembarkation, Cooper apparently hid in the rear lavatory.

 When the passengers were gone, Cooper had Tina close all the windows shades to thwart the risk of sniper activity.

  However, there was great disagreement in official circles on how to deal with Cooper, and Gray’s book reveals that many felt the FBI should not negotiate with Cooper. 

 Further, Rataczak confirmed to me that FBI officials were not always cooperative when 305 was on the ground, in particular, “playing games” with the refueling.

 Cooper knew that the plane should have been completely refueled in about a half-hour, but when the process stretched out beyond that time he became antsy, which in turn made the crew nervous.

 The first attempts to refuel 305 were interrupted, with the FBI telling the cockpit crew that there was a vapor-lock problem preventing a successful transfer.  Rataczak told me that he had to get pushy with the feds and ultimately ordered them to proceed without delay since lives were at stake.

“I laid down the law…and yes, I raised my voice…and that’s all I’m going to say about the matter,” Rataczak told me.

 However, his words carried sufficient weight and a second fuel truck was brought in to complete the job.  However, it developed some legitimate problems, and a third was found to have too little fuel to complete the refueling.  Eventually, a fourth refueling truck was required to complete the task, but by then Cooper was becoming distracted with the process of preparing his parachutes, so the tensions aboard 305 apparently dissipated.

 Cooper had originally wanted the money in a “knapsack” and not the bank bag, so he tried to fashion some kind of sack with a reserve chute container, but was unsuccessful.  Instead, he took the reserve chute and cut several shroud lines from it and lashed the bank bag closed, along with weaving a kind of rope handle that he attached to himself.

 In addition, Cooper is widely reported to have donned a main parachute before take-off, supposedly putting it on “like it was an everyday occurrence,” according to author Richard Tosaw from his 1982 interview with Tina in the convent, the last time she spoke with an investigative reporter.

Cooper also kept Tina on board, allowing Alice and Flo to leave with the passengers.  After their departure and the passenger release it is now believed that Tina spent about 45 minutes alone with Cooper.  However, what was said or what Cooper did exactly is not known publicly.

 However, what is known is that Cooper instructed the cockpit crew to prepare to fly to Mexico City or anywhere in Mexico, and he offered very specific, but highly unusual instructions on how to get there – demanding that they fly at no higher than 10,000 feet, no faster than 200 mph, and with the wheels locked in their landing posture.  In addition, he wanted to take off with the aft stairs down.

 Detailed negotiations between the cockpit and Cooper ensued over these metrics.   Advised by NWO flight operations boss Paul Soderlind in Minneapolis, the pilots told Cooper that they wouldn’t be able to fly to Mexico without another refueling stop, and they wanted to get more gas in San Francisco.  But they also had an ulterior motive for selecting their destination.

 “It was like war,” Rataczak told me.  “He wanted to get us and we wanted to get him.  I wanted to fly down the coast, out over the ocean, and let him jump out there – let’s see how long DB Cooper could hold his breath with twenty-two pounds of twenties tied to his waist!”

 A less confrontational approach was recommended by Soderlind and NWO operations in Minneapolis, and a compromise was offered: refuel in Reno, Nevada.  Cooper agreed.

 But then Captain Scott balked at Cooper’s insistence on a take-off with the aft stairs deployed.  Despite the skyjacker’s assurances that such a take off would be safe, Scott was adamantly opposed.  Apparently Cooper knew – possibly from tests in Vietnam- that such a departure was possible, but he relented to Scott’s demands.  The aft stairs remained closed.

 Finally, at 7:36 pm, Flight 305 took off from Sea-Tac airport on DB Cooper’s getaway run.  As they lifted off from runway 16L, Tina was in back with Danny Boy, while Scotty, Rat and Andy were up in front, flying into the big unknown.

©  2012  Bruce A. Smith

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4 Responses to The Hunt for DB Cooper – The Resurgent Investigation into America’s only Unsolved Skyjacking; Chapter 2 – Basic facts; the skyjacking

  1. Bob says:

    Good job Bruce. As you know I have been trying to find a way to break the DB Cooper case wide open and get it solved before suspects like Sheridan Peterson die. I believe your web site might just be the place and offer the opportunity to do just that.
    I believe the FBI is stuck on “stop” and are doing nothing. I believe DNA evidence can solve the crime in one instant step by the FBI.
    A SMOKING GUN Yes, there was no gun used int the DB Cooper caper but the smoking gun DNA evidence that would break the case wide open lays dormant in the “Four Letters” sent to the Portland newspapers by the skyjacker and signed as DB Cooper. One of the letters had a salutation of “The System That Beats The System” which Sheridan had said many times in the past. The FBI is only one step away from solving the mystery by using DNA left on envelope flaps/stamps on the four letters. The FBI has DNA from swabs of Sheridan’s mouth and if they would test the four envelopes/stamps and get a match, it would blow Sheridan’s “Perfect Alibi” of being in Nepal at the time of the skyjacking.The four letters were sent from the Portland area and would prove that Sheridan was at the scene of the crime within days after the skyjacking and “not in Nepal”. With a positive DNA match, the FBI could charge Sheridan with lying to the FBI, a federal crime. He could be threatened with jail for the rest of his life (he is in his mid 80’s now), unless he confesses.
    So, what do you think Bruce? I think this is possibly the only way to get the FBI moving again to solve the crime. Their whole theory that he died of exposure, crashed into the ground is just a big cover-up for not being able to solve the crime. Sheridan is the very best match of the descriptions by the Flight Attendants including his very olive complexsion and his mild gentleman like manners.
    Thanks again,
    Bob Sailshaw

    • brucesmith49 says:

      I think it’s a great idea, Bob. Investigating the multiple letters that were received by newspapers from a “DB Cooper” in the weeks following can tell us a lot. There is a tantalizing YouTube clip showing on the Internet these days, that dissects the “System to Beat a System” quote in one of the letters. It details how the letters were cut out of magazines – detailing exactly which magazine and specifies exact copy – and assembled to compose the message. Have you seen it? I strongly recommend doing so. It suggests that we have a true genius in our midst who has an extensive Playboy magazine collection, or was tipped by the fellow who composed the letter.. Either way, I want to talk with the guy.

      Along those lines, Galen is heavily involved in the “letters” angle, and I await his earliest report. I understand that the FBI is also involved with the letters currently and has been for some time. I also would like to talk to Himms about the letters, as I sense they have been a source of internal dispute within the FBI since the beginning of the case.

    • brucesmith49 says:

      Here’s my response.

      I think it’s a great idea, Bob. Investigating the multiple letters that were received by newspapers from a “DB Cooper” in the weeks following can tell us a lot. There is a tantalizing YouTube clip showing on the Internet these days, that dissects the “System to Beat a System” quote in one of the letters. It details how the letters were cut out of magazines – detailing exactly which magazine and specifies exact copy – and assembled to compose the message. Have you seen it? I strongly recommend doing so. It suggests that we have a true genius in our midst who has an extensive Playboy magazine collection, or was tipped by the fellow who composed the letter.. Either way, I want to talk with the guy.

      Along those lines, Galen is heavily involved in the “letters” angle, and I await his earliest report. I understand that the FBI is also involved with the letters currently and has been for some time. I also would like to talk to Himms about the letters, as I sense they have been a source of internal dispute within the FBI since the beginning of the case. Let’s bring the subject to Sales at lunch.

      B

  2. Bob Sailshaw says:

    Hi Bruce: Is the FBI still on STOP? Galen Cook suggested we wait until SA Eng retires and we have a new person heading up the case. Eng maybe stuck on STOP to save money but to get the DNA tested from the four letters and compare would with what they already have on Sheridan Peterson, would cost less than $1,000 according to the expert I talked with from the UofW. That is hardly prohibitive considering this is the only Syjacking the FBI has yet to solve and this case is now 41 years old.
    Bob Sailshaw

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