by Bruce A. Smith
The belief that DB Cooper parachuted out of his plane is a universally accepted truth, except for those who wonder if he crawled into a cubby-hole above a lavatory and then scampered away after the aircraft was searched in Reno. Or perhaps even later when it flew back to Seattle for repairs at Boeing Field – or Langley, Virginia as Geoffrey Gray has informed me.
Nevertheless, here is what we know happened after Flight 305 departed Sea-Tac.
Rataczak was at the controls as they lifted off from Sea-Tac and Captain Scott was in charge of communications. It is now widely believed that Cooper’s instructions to the crew were brilliant because they forced 305 to fly over predictable terrain.
Hence, Cooper knew where he was without having to reveal a specific flight path to the cops. Here’s how that happened.
Leaving Sea-Tac for a southerly destination – but flying no higher than 10,000 feet – only allowed two options for a commercial airplane – over the ocean or due south down an eight-mile wide air corridor known as Victor-23.
The ocean route was ruled out even though it was Rataczak’s preferred choice, so 305 had to fly Victor-23.
Victor-23 essentially parallels the I-5 corridor, and is heavily used by low-flying aircraft that need to avoid the peaks of the Cascade Mountains lying to the east. Mount Rainier, about 80 miles southeast of Sea-Tac airport, has an elevation of over 14,000. Stretching southward, the Cascades have numerous peaks over 10,000 feet all the way to Mount Shasta in California, where the Cascades fade-out until the Sierra Nevada’s rise further south and east.
Compounding the issue, Oregon’s Coastal Range lies west of I-5 and also has some high elevation that needs to be avoided, thus funneling southbound aircraft into the narrow channel of Victor-23, which runs right above metro Portland, and then south over the flat farm fields of the Willamette Valley.
However, once 305 climbed out of Sea-Tac, banked south and joined Victor-23, exact knowledge of the plane’s location became increasingly difficult to determine.
Nevertheless, former 727 pilots have posted on the DropZone that it probably took 305 five-seven minutes to reach an altitude of 10,000 feet.
However, Flight 305’s exact position within Victor-23 has not been definitively established. As a result, 305’s flight path is hotly debated – especially at the DZ – since it becomes nearly impossible to determine where Cooper jumped or landed if the plane’s position can not be pin-pointed.
However, most researchers tend to accept the FBI’s position that Flight 305 stayed in the middle of Victor-23 all the way to northern California, where 305 left V-23 and turned left near Red Bluff. After that it headed directly for Reno.
Former Cooper case agent Larry Carr has presented a diligently prepared map of 305 based upon Soderlind’s NWO calculations and Seattle FAA radar readings. In it he places 305 smack dab in the middle of V-23.
But one strong voice of dissent comes from the guy flying the plane that night, Bill Rataczak.
“I really don’t know where we were,” he told me when I asked.
However, he has been more exact with others.
Ralph Himmelsbach told me that he is convinced that 305 flew far to the east of Victor-23, perhaps as far as 15-20 miles and over the near flanks of the Cascades – above the Washougal River watershed of southwestern Washington.
“Why do you believe that, Ralph?” I asked.
“Because Rataczak told me,” he answered.
Others, including some journalists, say that Rataczak told them he was closer to Victor-23 and could see the lights of Portland and suburban Vancouver, WA coming up as 305 headed south.
Jo Weber told me that Rataczak has told her the same thing.
Nevertheless, here is the exchange I had with Mr. Rataczak in 2009:
“Flight 305 didn’t have the capacity to determine its exact location,” he told me, “…our longitude and latitude. Only the air traffic controllers could determine our position.”
However, Rataczak continued and said that he had been given the freedom to move outside of any designated air corridors, and that the air space around 305 had been cleared of all other air traffic.
Other pilots, such as Everett Johnson in a San Juan Airways seaplane, told me he and many other aircraft had to endure the Cooper hijacking for hours in emergency landings throughout the Pacific Northwest. Johnson did his time at Boeing’s airfield in Everett, Washington, at its huge 747 assembly plant, curtailing his approach into Seattle’s Lake Washington.
But Rataczak offered me this:
“The winds had blown us off Victor-23, to the east,” he said. “How far?” he continued. “Eh; nothing dramatic, a couple of miles probably….The FBI or the FAA may have our exact position and flight path.”
Rataczak also declared that Paul Soderlind, who was Northwest Orient’s chief test pilot, was an instrumental voice that night, and was coordinating – if not directing – Flight 305’s movements in the air.
“Paul Soderlind was a very experienced flight captain himself, and he did the research on the wind, and he also gave us the weather forecasts,” Rataczak said.
Later, though, Bill specifically stated, “We were east of Victor-23,” and claimed the wind had blown them there.
Another dissenting voice is Marianne Lincoln Scott, now a Microsoft programmer and a former Bethel School Board member from Spanaway, Washington. In 1971, she was 14 years old and listened to the skyjacking on her father’s VHF radio, mounted in his airplane parked at the family’s home, located on the runway at Spanaway’s Shady Acres Airport.
Marianne remembers vividly the communications she heard from “Seattle Center,” the FAA’s command post. She says that 305 flew east of Victor-23 over the Washougal and turned left at Gresham, Oregon, heading up the Columbia Gorge.
Such claims dove-tail with the mind-set Rataczak told me he possessed that night – it was war; he wanted to get us and we wanted to get him….
Did Rataczak fly over the rugged lands of the Cascades and the Columbia River gorge, hoping to deposit a skydiving skyjacker in the most dangerous terrain possible?
Even more confounding, FBI agent Russ Calame, in his book on the skyjacking, titled, DB Cooper – the Real McCoy, writes that Captain Scott told Ralph Himmelsbach, at the latter’s retirement party from the FBI in April, 1980, that 305 was flying much further west than first reported – over Woodland, Washington and miles outside of Victor-23 – and about 30 miles west of where Himmelsbach now claims 305 flew.
The issue of the flight path drives much of the FBI’s investigation that followed and obviously is quite contentious, so let’s put this discussion on hold for the moment and address the question of when DB Cooper is thought to have jumped out of Flight 305.
According to Richard Tosaw, shortly after take-off a light flashed on in the cockpit indicating that the door to the aft stairs had been opened. However, Geoffrey Gray says that Cooper took Tina to the aft stairs before take-off, opened the approach door – triggering the lights – and then asked her how to deploy the stairs. She showed him how to push the stairs’ control lever forward, a very simple maneuver in actuality.
Tina was also very anxious, reportedly because she was afraid that she would be sucked out of the aircraft if Cooper deployed the stairs while they were standing in the doorway. Cooper assured her that she was safe since the cabin was not pressurized, one of his requirements with the flight crew.
She also told him she was concerned about the bomb, and Cooper told her that he planned to disarm it or take it with him.
After that, he sent her to the cockpit.
At 1st Class, Tina turned around and closed the curtain. Gray says that she saw Cooper tying the lassoed bank bag to his waist. Tosaw says that Cooper also waved goodbye. Tina pivoted and entered the cockpit at approximately 7:45 pm.
No one has ever seen DB Cooper ever again.
But Danny Boy didn’t go silently.
A couple minutes after Tina left, Cooper called the cockpit on the interphone and told Rataczak to slow the plane because he was having trouble getting the stairs deployed. Rataczak reportedly extended the flaps to 30 degrees, reducing the plane’s speed to about 170 mph, down from its previously sustained speed of 225 mph.
According to Tosaw, at 8:04 pm – 19 minutes later, and 28 minutes after take-off – the crew felt movement in the plane and realized that the aft stairs were opened. They could also hear the roar of the engines more plainly.
About 9 minutes later, the crew felt a spike in cabin air pressure.
“There he goes,” Rataczak reportedly shouted.
It is widely believed that when Cooper descended the staircase he forced it fully into the slipstream of the aircraft. Then when he jumped off, the stairways sprang upwards much like a diving board does when a swimmer dives into the water.
As the stairs approached the stairwell it pushed air into the cabin, which the crew perceived and instruments recorded as a “pressure bump.” The time was 8:13 pm.
In addition, the plane “curtsied,” with the tail rising, and Rataczak had to “trim” the craft back into a normal horizontal flight.
However, 305’s exact location when Cooper left the plane is unknown.
“It remains an enigma,” Rataczak declared.
But he is very certain about the time.
“We were quite confident that the pressure bump indicated when Cooper jumped,” Rataczak told me.
Rataczak also informed the air traffic controllers that Cooper had left.
“I told them to mark it on their shrimp boats (radar screens),” he said.
Thus began the search for DB Cooper.
Two F-106 jet interceptors from McChord Air Base had been deployed when 305 took off from Sea-Tac, and were following the plane down Victor-23. However, they reportedly were unable to fly safely at 305’s speed and had to perform circular maneuvers to stay close to the aircraft.
A T-33 training jet from the Idaho National Guard was also diverted to tail Flight 305, but none of the pilots of these three aircraft reportedly saw Cooper bail out. Surprisingly, no reports of radar signatures of Cooper’s departure have been recorded, either.
Along those lines, no reports of Cooper’s exit have been released from the super-secretive and newly installed SAGE radar system at McChord. As a result, sleuths at the DZ have speculated that DB Cooper may have gotten a free pass because the Air Force didn’t want the Russians to know how sophisticated the new detection equipment was.
Nevertheless, Ralph Himmelsbach and a second G-man raced from the FBI’s command post at PDX and headed to an Oregon National Air Guard Chinook helicopter. In rough weather they took off, but couldn’t gain enough head-way in the rain storm to catch up with 305, which lumbered ahead of them as it passed through the skies of northern Oregon.
Further, no radar chaff or electronic tracking gear was affixed to the parachutes. Cooper case agent Larry Carr told me implausibly that tracking devices had not been developed at that time, although they were used to follow the approximately fifteen Cooper imitators shortly afterwards when they perpetrated their own skyjackings.
Also, the absence of metallic chaff, a confetti-like substance that glitters on radar screens, is perplexing. A journalist from the Tacoma, Washington area, Adele Ferguson, wrote in my former newspaper, The Dispatch, that she was told a story from a source at McChord that contradicted the official account.
Ferguson says that Dan Dawson, a former Washington state legislator – and in 1971 an officer at McChord – was in charge of readying the F-106s and procuring parachutes for Cooper. Incredibly, he told Ferguson that the national command at NORAD countermanded his attempts to add chaff to a set of parachutes, which were ultimately refused by Cooper, and also that NORAD officials told him to order the pilots of the F-106s to back-off from getting too close to Flight 305.
But, back in Minneapolis Paul Soderlind concluded that when Cooper jumped 305 was above Ariel, Washington, about 25 miles north of Portland. Calculating a drift to the northeast in the wind, he sketched a potential landing zone of about two-four miles wide and six miles long, emanating from the gritty logging town of Ariel.
At the same time and somewhere beneath 305 Cooper descended, passing through a thick cloud layer at 5,000 feet and scattered clouds at around 2,000. Most skydivers agree that if Cooper successfully deployed his parachute he would have been on the ground in about five minutes.
Everyone agrees it was raining, but few concur on how hard. Official reports indicate that the night of Wednesday, November 24, 1971 was just another drippy, dreary autumnal evening. However, locals report that the weather was hellacious.
Meyer Louie, a college student driving home from college, told the audience at the DB Cooper Symposium in 2011 that the storm he experienced was so intense he was afraid for his life as he drove along I-84 through the Columbia Gorge. He said he thought he might be blown off the road.
“Ever since then, I use that storm as the judge for how bad a storm can be,” he told us.
Another member of the symposium said she drove north on I-5 through Portland that evening and characterized the wind and rain as fierce.
Dona Elliott, owner of the Ariel Tavern and hostess of the renown Cooper Daze Festival every year that celebrates the skyjacker on the Saturday following Thanksgiving, claims that the rain was falling so hard that she couldn’t see the other side of the street at her home in nearby Amboy, Washington.
Another Amboy resident, Margaret Culp, told me that the storm that night was, simply, “terrible.”
As for Rataczak, he acknowledged that the weather was rough, and that the flight got a “little bumpy.”
Nor does everyone agree on how windy it was.
Official reports put the wind as variable throughout the air column to 10,000, with gusts up to 30-40 mph from the southwest, which is fairly typical for a November storm in the Pacific Northwest.
However, Ralph Himmelsbach in NORJAK, writes that a Continental pilot named Bohan, flying from Seattle to Portland a few minutes behind 305, faced head winds up to 80 knots and emanating from the south-southeast, which made his landing dicey.
Nor is there agreement on how cold it was. FBI reports state that the subsequent ground search had to be suspended because of too much snow on the ground. As a result, a full search was suspended for five months, until March, 1972, when hundreds of soldiers from Fort Lewis and two-dozen FBI agents scoured the area.
Yet, Dona and Margaret talked about rain, not snow, in the primary landing zone around Ariel and Amboy.
Nevertheless, there was plenty of snow at higher elevations, which is where the FBI was looking, apparently, in the majority of the days following the skyjacking.
An unidentified member of the 2011 Cooper symposium, who said he was a former FBI agent that participated in the search for Cooper, announced that he had flown as a spotter in a helicopter for nearly two weeks after the hijacking. He said he flew above the highlands of the Cascadian foothills, east of Victor-23 and in the general area of the Washougal River drainage. He said his primary objective was to find a parachute, and that none was found.
The immediate ground search also came up empty. According to Tom McDowell – now chief of Emergency Medical Services for the North Clark (County) Fire District, but in 1971 was Under-Sheriff for the Clark County Sheriff’s Department – the ground search was fairly light. He told me that his units concentrated in the Amboy area along Cedar Creek Road and had about 2-3 teams of sheriff deputies and volunteers, numbering about 5-10 individuals in each group.
“The FBI were not part of any actual team on the ground,” he told me, adding that the feds were on more of a stand-by basis in case the locals found something.
McDowell said that the ground search started up on the Thanksgiving Day weekend and lasted about four days before winding down. After seven days, the FBI discontinued all searching for DB Cooper at the local law enforcement level.
Media coverage of the ground search also reveals that the effort was modest.
Pictures in the Seattle PI show FBI agent Tom Manning addressing a roomful of about 20-30 deputies and volunteers at the Bureau’s ground search command post in the Woodland, WA City Hall on Friday, November 26, 1971.
Their instructions were simple, and McDowell was later quoted in Newsweek Magazine: “We’re looking for either a parachute or a hole in the ground.”
They found neither.
In fact, this is the quintessential aspect of the DB Cooper case – nothing has been found.
“We didn’t even find so much as a belt-buckle,” one FBI agent is alleged to have muttered.
But some items were found.
A Boeing placard giving instructions on how to deploy the aft stairs was found in the woods near Castle Rock, Washington, about thirty miles north of Ariel. A hunter found it a couple years after the skyjacking, and Boeing has acknowledged that 305 was missing its instructional laminate from a protective sleeve mounted on the doorway when they fixed the aft stairs.
Then in February, 1980, an eight-year old boy found three bundles of twenties at Tina’s Beach, and this money find will be discussed in greater detail in the forthcoming pages.
But that’s it. No body, no parachutes, no bomb, no briefcase, no brown paper sack. Not a single twenty scattered in the woods despite hundreds of seekers who combed the woods looking for a freebee.
It is as if DB Cooper came from nowhere, and returned there when he jumped.
© 2012 Bruce A. Smith