by Bruce A. Smith
I spoke with Robb Dolin Heady this week, a man who hijacked an airliner in 1972 in the style of DB Cooper. Robb has served his time in prison and has been released for several years.
Over the course of two lengthy phone conversations we had a very frank discussion about his crime and also shared a warm discourse about our lives. He and I are the same age, and we both experienced the 1969 draft lottery – but in different ways. Robb got drafted and I didn’t, and that put him on a trajectory that included hijacking an airplane.
On June 2, 1972 – six months after he had returned home from Vietnam – Robb jumped over a three-foot high fence surrounding the tarmac at the Reno airport and ran towards an emptying United Airlines plane. It was Flight 239 from New York, bound for San Francisco, and it had just landed and unloaded its Reno passengers.
It was sunset.
Heady was carrying a small reserve parachute and a 357 Magnum that he had borrowed from a friend. He had a pillow case over his head and slits cut for his eyes. After he put the gun to the head of a stewardess, the crew accepted his demands. However, they insisted that they switch airplanes, claiming the original plane was low of fuel and had a bad engine.
“There wasn’t a lot of planning,” he told me, referring to the skyjacking, “but I knew it could be done.”
Once aboard the second plane, Robb demanded that the aft stairs be “cracked open,” and after receiving $200,000 in hundred-dollar bills they took off, heading for San Francisco. Robb says that no one knew he was going to jump for his escape, but he thinks the pilots surmised his intentions because of his aft door request.
When I pushed for exact details on his exit, Robb said he thought he remembered the door to the aft stairway, located by the rear lavatories, was already open. Further, he remembers the aft stairs as being slightly open upon take-off, which is what he had requested.
Robb didn’t give the pilots any lengthy list of instructions other than a set of radio frequencies to follow to San Francisco, and he had planned to exit while on a turn when the plane switched from one frequency to another.
The notion of directing an air plane with radio frequencies confused me because I thought flights were guided by air traffic controllers through air corridors, such as Victor 23. Robb held strongly to his statement, though.
However, after further deliberations Robb acknowledged that the radar vectoring system is the one the pilots used, and that he had given them the specific coordinates to fly based on calculations he had gotten from a couple of friends who were pilots. Apparently, his confusion was due to the fog of forgetfulness and time.
According to official accounts he jumped at 12,000 feet.
Robb had intended to land near a highway on the southeast side of Lake Washoe, just outside of Reno, but the pilot veered “too far to the right” and Robb was unable to correct his position even though he “tracked” through the night skies at speeds up to 220 mph in an effort to reach his target. As a result, he landed on the southwest side of the lake in Washoe Valley, at an elevation of about 4,500 feet.
Hence, Robb could not reach the car he had parked near the highway on the other side of the lake.
“I under-estimated how fast they could seal off the valley,” Robb told me. As a result, Robb was trapped within the Washoe Valley, even though he didn’t know it at the time. Robb estimates that he jumped at about 10 or 11 pm, and the cops found his car with a US Parachuting Association bumper sticker shortly thereafter.
Figuring the lone vehicle was the skyjacker’s getaway wheels, the police put it under surveillance. County sheriff deputies arrested Robb at 5:20 am when he approached the car and unlocked it.
“What’s it like to jump from a 727?” I asked.
“Yeah, I guess a lot of sky divers would want to know that, eh?” he said, laughing. “My body was whipped around pretty good.”
At the time of his skyjacking Robb had over 160 sky dives, but this was both his first jet and first night jump. He also said the reserve chute opened “really hard,” and he waited until far down in his decent and its heavier air before he deployed his parachute. All through our conversation, Robb impressed me as an articulate and knowledgeable skydiver.
I asked him if he was afraid.
“After Vietnam, nothing scared me,” he replied.
Were you cold?
“It was May or something, so the air was cold – maybe about 45 degrees,” he told me.
The actual jump sounded fairly tricky as he had no idea how fast the plane was flying, but it could have been at least 300 mph.
“I’m sure the pilot didn’t show me any favors,” he said with a laugh. “It seemed like a normal take-off, and I jumped about 20 miles from the airport, as the crow flies.”
Robb says he tumbled for about fifteen seconds until he stabilized.
“I held my arch (position),” he said, “and eventually I corrected.”
Unlike Cooper, Robb created an aerodynamic profile by putting his ransom money into a fishing vest that had three large pockets. He protected the vets by wearing it under a wind breaker.
“The bills didn’t all fit in the vest, so I had to leave some money behind – maybe about twenty-thousand,” Robb said. “I also put some of the left-over bills in a stewardess’ purse.”
Nevertheless, the police reported that they found $45,000 on the plane two days after the skyjacking, but Robb was uncertain how that happened.
“I thought I had left only about $20,000.”
“Did you land with the rest of the money?” I asked.
“But the police reported that you lost the money on the way down.”
“Yeah, that’s what I told the cops when they got me,” he said. “But I buried it when I landed, and then I told my lawyer about it and we were able to make a deal. He went and got it.”
Robb was sentenced to a 30-year term, but he was released after six years. He served his time in Lompoc federal prison, located in California.
“It was a typical federal prison – lots of federal crimes – bank robberies, drug cases, that kind of thing,” he told me. “I fit right in, with all of my problems,” he added, again with a laugh. “Prison was actually a good thing for me. It helped me – being in a structured environment. I read a lot, and I began to feel better (about his PTSD).”
Robb was released after his third parole review. One of the mitigating factors was the absence of any passengers on the plane he actually hijacked. When I asked him what happened to the San Francisco-bound passengers – did they stay on their original plane – he didn’t know and had little energy for remembering.
Continuing, I asked Robb why he stole the airplane. The conversation reached a greater depth, one of earnest self-revelation.
“I got really messed up in Vietnam,” he said.
Robb described how he was drafted unexpectedly.
“I ruptured my spleen playing football in high school,” he said, “and had it removed. That usually keeps you out of the military because the spleen makes red blood cells and without it you can get really sick, like with malaria, which I got in Vietnam.”
Robb said that the draft rules changed when the lottery was initiated in 1969, and his medical deferment was no longer accepted. Hence, he became 1-A and got drafted.
Like Robb, I was in the same lottery, but I avoided the military by getting a high enough number – 235 – but it was close, as my draft board reached 231. Ultimately, a surgeon who operated on my appendicitis at the same time I was given a draft physical notice, serendipitously called my draft board saying I was under the direct care of a physician and would be unable to make my scheduled appointment. I never heard from my draft board after that, but I told Robb that I wouldn’t have gone to Vietnam, regardless.
“It wasn’t my fight,” I told him. “I would have gone to Canada, if I had to. After all, people were saying, ‘America – Love it or leave it.’”
“I guess I was a little more patriotic,” he said simply without any hint of judgment, which I welcomed.
Hence, Robb entered the army and was assigned to the infantry. However, an opportunity arose for volunteering into an airborne unit, which Robb accepted as it would keep him out of Vietnam for the additional month he would need for extra training.
However, his plan for minimal exposure to combat back-fired, though, because his new unit was staffed with several gung-ho officers – some fresh from West Point.
“I had some good officers and some bad ones, but a lot wanted to see action.”
These latter commanders were eager for the kind of fighting that resulted in promotions.
“They pushed it, and it rubbed me the wrong way,” Robb acknowledged.
As a result Rob was marginalized, and when his airborne unit rotated home he was forced to serve as a security grunt in Da Nang. Further, the army didn’t want him and his less-than-robust-love-for-authority stateside, so like many other soldiers returning from Vietnam they discharged him a few months shy of his two-year hitch. Ironically, he was mustered out from Fort Lewis, smack dab in the middle of Cooper Country.
In Vietnam, Robb served with the 173rd Airborne Brigade of the II Corps, a paratroop unit that functioned as infantry. He was stationed near Pleiku in the north-central part of the country, and it was a jungle environment ripe with combat.
One of his first missions was to retrieve a recon team that had been wiped-out in an ambush just one mile beyond the perimeter of their base camp.
Robb says that his own company was in the field about 16-20 days at a clip, and then would return to base camp for a few days. His longest trek was forty days.
“Camp was the most dangerous place to be, though,” he said. “At night, we’d get hit with rockets and mortars.”
Besides enduring the traumas of war, Robb also suffered greatly from a bout of malaria, which he contracted in his fifth month in Vietnam. Without a spleen he was racked with fevers. However, doctors had to test his blood at the height of a fever cycle to ascertain the exact type of parasite that had infested him, which took additional time.
By the time he made it to the regional hospital at Qui Nhon (pronounced “Quin yon”), Robb says the doctors told him that he should never have been drafted, and certainly not sent to Vietnam. Nevertheless, he returned to his unit upon recovery.
Perhaps the enormity of his war experience was encapsulated on the night he was flown to Qui Nhon for treatment – twenty-two men from his unit were also med-evacuated because of wounds received in a rocket attack.
Despite his illness, Robb served the rest of his tour and left Vietnam in December 1971. The effects of Vietnam still lingered, however and his return to civilian life was difficult.
“I developed a severe case of PTSD,” he told me. “I was feeling awful all the time after I got of the army.”
Emotionally, Robb spiraled downward to the point where he didn’t care if he lived or died. From that state he decided to hijack an airplane.
“Why? I didn’t have a…ya know…a big reason,” he said.
Robb expanded upon his state of mind.
“I had been a normal, middle-class guy, and then two years later I’m hijacking an airplane. How does that happen?” he mused.
Robb said that his father had been a physicist and a chemist, and his pride of his dad is clearly evident.
However, when he returned to civilian life and enrolled in school to become a CPA, Robb found he couldn’t study or learn in the same way he did prior to his military service.
“I feel that I was brain damaged,” he told me. “My IQ was about 145 when I went into the military. I know from when they tested me. Now, it’s about 120.”
Robb is still in treatment for his PTSD, and he also maintains contact with a few of his army buddies.
“A lot of guys have PTSD, but they don’t think that they do. It’s quiet, and it just becomes a part of you. One of them – he can go off whenever the right combination of things happen. He’s a ticking time bomb. Lots of guys are like that.”
As for the possibility of a group effort in the Cooper hijacking or some kind of orchestration of the copy cats, Robb accepts the former but doubts the latter.
“Certainly having a ground team would help,” he told me, referring to DB Cooper.
As for learning about the technical requirements of the jump, Robb said that he had heard about Cooper while he was in Vietnam, so the exact details escaped him. However, Cooper’s plane landed in Reno, Robb’s hometown, and the FBI had talked to two of Robb’s skydiving friends.
“I heard about it that way, I guess,” he shared. “But I didn’t do any research or study it.”
Currently, Robb is considering writing an account of his experiences, and I hope he does. I have offered the Mountain News as a possible platform for his story.
Robb is also intrigued with the possibility of going to the DB Cooper Festival in Ariel.
“Yeah, I read your article in the Mountain News about Ariel. It looks like fun.”
“You probably won’t have to buy a beer all night long, ya know,” I teased.
“I’ll go if you take me,” he said. “But I don’t want to answering questions all night.”
Addendum, Friday March 29, 2013. 10 am
Editor’s Note: I received the following email message from Robb Heady this morning: