By Bruce A. Smith
Note: Recent postings at the DB Cooper Forum indicate that the flight path issue for DB Cooper is not resolved. As a result, I offer the following excerpt from my forthcoming edition of DB Cooper and The FBI – A Case Study of America’s Only Unsolved Skyjacking.
Analysis of the Flight Path, Weather, and Clothing
The Traditional Flight Path
The flip-side of the parachute examination is: Where did Cooper land, even if he died upon impact? The key to answering that question is knowing where Flight 305 was when Cooper exited the plane, and for that we need precise information on the flight path and the time of the jump. Surprisingly these issues are not fully resolved, which begs another question: why not? Is it due simply to the turgidity of bureaucracy? Or is there a cover-up?
Tom Kaye, the leader of a quasi-official investigation group known as the Citizen Sleuth team, attempted to clarify these issues at the 2011 Symposium. Using never-before-released FBI documents, including an amalgam of radar transcripts from McChord Air Base in Tacoma, presumably including the SAGE readings, and the civilian readings from the FAA’s Seattle Center, Kaye said that he had examined 100 percent coverage of the primary landing zones. However, Kaye did not display any of the original data.
Additionally, Kaye accepted the claim that elk hunter Carroll Hicks found Flight 305’s instructional placard for deploying the airstairs near Silver Lake, Washington, and thus Kaye placed 305 in the middle of V-23. Kaye did acknowledge that the placard most likely drifted about 2 ½ miles eastward in the wind, but said it still placed Flight 305 within the central corridor of V-23.
Graphically, the flight pathway that Kaye presented appears to be a zig-zag generally heading southward, and why 305 didn’t fly a straight line is unknown to this day. Nonetheless, Kaye said that after Silver Lake, 305 then passed over Ariel, Highland and Battleground, Washington, finally crossing the Columbia in the western Portland metro area. Kaye’s statements are now corroborated by the summary report SE 164-81, p. 250. This is the official FBI perspective on the flight path.
Kaye accepted the general assumption that Cooper jumped somewhere near Battleground and drifted northeast to Ariel and LZ-A, but he challenged the conventional wisdom on the type of landscape within the primary landing zone.
For years most people assumed that Cooper landed in a dense and dangerous forest, but Kaye reviewed topographical maps of the area and found there were very few sections that would be considered heavily forested or “wilderness” at the time of the skyjacking.
“There were no ‘death woods’ in 1971,” he declared, characterizing the landing area as a mix of trees, hills and farm fields. In fact, Kaye described LZ-A as decent spot to land because it was a benign agricultural area. Kaye added that there would be a lot of ambient light from the houses, stores, and street lights in the area, all of which would have bounced off of the clouds as well, adding more illumination.
He also challenged the FBI’s assertion that there was too much snow on the ground to continue an effective search. “There was no snow,” he stated simply, refuting Geoffrey Gray’s pronouncement made earlier in the Symposium when he presented FBI documents from Seattle to Bureau headquarters in Washington, D.C. claiming the LZ had too much snow and the ground search needed to be postponed until spring.
Additionally, Kaye delivered details on the cloud cover, saying two cloud layers existed—one of “broken clouds” at 3,000 feet, and a second “overcast” condition of at least 85 percent cloud cover at 5,000 feet. Hence, Kaye said that Cooper could not see the ground from an elevation of 10,000 feet, nor could anyone on the ground see Cooper leave the aircraft.
As for flying east of Victor-23 over the Washougal, as espoused by Himmelsbach and Rataczak, Kaye said that he had not found any credible evidence to support this assertion. Expanding upon that scenario, Kaye also rejected the hypothesis that the money floated down to Tina Bar from the Washougal Basin or any upstream waters.
“There was no natural means to move the money to Tina Bar,” he said, stunning the Portland audience.
He also suggested that the money was delivered to the beach by human hands, speculating that Cooper had landed successfully and hitchhiked a ride to Portland Airport. Kaye theorized that Cooper rewarded his benefactor with three bundles of ransom money, which the driver buried at Tina Bar out of a pique of guilt and fear.
However, few audience members believed Kaye then, or now, and the issue of how the money got to Tina Bar remains wide open.
An Alternative – The Western Flight Path
Because the so-called “believed flight path” offered by the FBI is so contentious, an alternative flight path was developed by Robert Nicholson in 2009 and popularized throughout the Internet by 2016. Nicholson, known as Robert99 at the DB Cooper Forum, is a long-time student of the case and is a retired aeronautical engineer, skydiver, and private pilot. Simply, Robert99 said Flight 305 was flying much further west in the Victor 23 flyway than previously thought.
To arrive at his hypothesis, Nicholson scrapped all the previously held notions and focused upon two dynamics: First, the money find at Tina Bar defies explanation and a fly-over there would explain how the money arrived at the beach. Secondly, the pilots of 305 had full discretion to fly anywhere they wanted, and Nicholson feels the crew would have been very desirous of passing west of Portland and avoiding urban populations in case DB Cooper detonated his bomb.
Therefore, Nicholson feels that 305 may have left the Victor-23 air corridor at one of the FAA’s radar stations, the aforementioned Malay Intersection, about 45 miles northwest of Portland. Nicholson says that then 305 could have flown due south from that point for about 70 miles until it reconnected with Victor-23 in Canby, Oregon, about 25 miles south of Portland, giving us what is known as the Malay-Canby transect theory.
This straight-line flight not only puts 305 west of the populated areas of Vancouver and Portland, but it also places 305 near Tina Bar. In addition, this section of the Columbia River is a 40-mile stretch of flood plains and waterways that slosh westward from T-Bar for nearly ten miles, giving this area over 400-square miles of river, marshes and mud for Rataczak to deposit his skyjacker. Remember, Rataczak initially wanted to fly over the Pacific Ocean to a refueling stop in San Francisco, saying, “Let’s see how long DB Cooper can hold his breath.” Certainly, flying over this part of the Columbia was a good second-choice for Rataczak.
Nicholson continues with his theories to include how the money actually got deposited at Tina Bar, and in the various conditions it was found. Nicholson claims that Cooper was a “no-pull” and cratered near the money find site—landing no further than a mile upstream, either on the eastern shore of the Columbia River or somewhere on Caterpillar Island, a geological extension of Tina Bar. Additionally, Nicholson feels that the money, and presumably Cooper, landed a few feet higher in elevation than Tina Bar, and far enough hidden in the brush and brambles to avoid detection for years. Nicholson says that the exact means of transport of the money to Tina Bar cannot be determined, but he speculates that the money bag broke apart upon impact, and multiple clumps of money began drifting downward and downstream toward the Tina Bar area. Due to varied weathering patterns, particularly the extreme wet/dry cycles of the Pacific Northwest, Nicholson feels that some clumps of money were torn apart and fragmented, while the three bundles found by Brian Ingram encountered less weathering and were buried somehow above the fragmentation field. All of it was covered eventually through floods, rain and river action until sufficient erosion took place in the Tina Bar area to reveal the upper bundles of money that Brian Ingram found on February 10, 1980.
Nicholson’s theories are elegant and compelling, but there is no corroborating evidence from Rataczak or other sources. More troubling, if the 727-staircase instructional placard found in Silver Lake is truly from Flight 305, then it places the aircraft solidly in Victor-23 about ten miles south of the Malay Intersection, which would rule out the Malay-Canby transect. Nevertheless, Nicholson’s hypothesis does explain the money find.
Nicholson’s flight path work was expanded by DBC researcher Eric Ulis in 2018, especially when he had an interview with Cliff Ammerman. This individual was the FAA flight controller who actually supervised the flight of 305 during the skyjacking, in particular the area just north of Tina Bar to a southern point near Eugene, Oregon. I interviewed Ammerman in 2019, and our conversation fully supports the information Ulis has stated publicly about the substantive nature of the Western Flight Path.
Ammerman, who was never interviewed by any FBI agents, told Ulis and me a number of important details. First, in 1971, the Victor-23 skyway was larger than it is currently by two miles – ten miles wide, as opposed to the eight miles it is currently. Ammerman said that he took control of 305’s flight path just north of Woodland and he remembers Cooper’s plane flying near Woodland, Washington, at the western edge of the Victor-23 corridor. This is much further west than what the FBI had long told the world – that 305 was 6 miles to the east, over Battleground, WA when Cooper jumped. Ammerman’s position, though, would place 305 very close to Tina Bar at the 8:12- 8:13 pm time period that most investigators believe DB Cooper jumped.
Ammerman also added that he redirected the F-106 chase planes away from Flight 305, placing them at a 20,000 feet altitude and in a location 10-15 miles further east. Ammerman told me that the role of the 106s at that point was to be on “standby” in case 305 had to be shot down if Cooper attempted to self-destruct his aircraft in a fashion similar to the 9-11 incident many years later. Further, Ammerman confirmed to me that the F-106s were armed with air-to-air missiles, a fact that I did not know, nor had ever heard about.
In addition, Ammerman controlled the T-33 jet from the Oregon National Air Guard as it took off from PDX and placed it several miles behind 305, matching its speed and altitude.
“No plane had 305 in sight, ever,” Ammerman added, a statement at odds with the official narrative.
Ammerman then directed Flight 305 and the T-33 to head towards Eugene, Oregon on a straight vector, presumably bypassing metro Portland to the west. At Eugene the FAA flight center in Red Bluff, California took over and directed Cooper plane to its refueling stop in Reno, Nevada.
Further, Ulis has conducted extensive research on the location of the aftstairs placard that was found in 1978, and has shown that this plastic shard was found in the Victor-23 airway, but further west than originally believed.
Considering these two facts – the placard location and the western flight path, Ulis is convinced that DB Cooper and his money landed near Tina Bar. Unlike Robert Nicholson, however, Ulis believes that Cooper survived and buried his money at Tina Bar as part of his getaway strategy, only losing a few bundles when he returned and retrieved his loot.
Nevertheless, the Western Flight Path is now highly regarded by most DB Cooper aficionados. In fact, Josh Gates and his Expedition Unknown telecast crew on the Travel Channel filmed an episode on this very issue in 2016.
Ulis is reported to be exploring the environs of Bachelor Island, just north of Tina Bar, and the surrounding Ridgefield National Wildlife Reserve as a possible LZ for DBC, and is planning search parties there to look for remnants of the parachutes, bomb, and briefcase.
Flight Path Simulation
Adding more fuel to the fires of flight path controversy, in 2015 Cooper aficionados at the Internet’s DB Cooper Forum established a flight simulation for 305 through the disputed areas of Victor-23 between the “Malay Intersection” near Mayfield, WA, and Portland, Oregon. According to the flight path maps provided by the FBI to Kaye and featured on their DB Cooper website, the flight times between its checkpoints do not jibe. Flight 305 would have had to greatly increase its speed at times, and then reduce it suddenly to match the time-marks the FBI has indicated on the maps.
Is this simply a transcription error? Or is it a tell-tale sign of something else at work, such as obscuring 305’s location at the times stated? At the very least, it indicates the flight data from the FBI is not accurate. In addition, these accelerations occurred as 305 performed sharp turns to the left and right.
The FBI has not explained these discrepancies.
Weather Conditions of the Jump
Another contentious issue is the clothing DB Cooper wore. Was he critically under-dressed for a nighttime skydive in a November rain storm? “You bet!” most folks say, such as researcher Jerry Thomas, since DB Cooper was wearing only loafers, a thin business suit and a lightweight overcoat.
Yet many skydivers say that such concerns are overstated. Alan MacArthur, former president of the Boeing Employees Skydiving Club, says that he has jumped successfully in all kinds of weather including snow, and his gear has often been minimal. In fact, he even confessed to jumping in sandals during a youthful escapade. Other skydivers have posted on the DZ saying that they have parachuted naked, which certainly presents extreme levels of wind chill exposure.
Further, a founding member of the Boeing skydivers, Sheridan Peterson, reportedly jumped in the 1960s wearing a thin, black business suit—just like DB Cooper did years later—which helped place Peterson near the top of the FBI’s suspect list.
Currently, many investigators wonder if Cooper may have brought extra gear with him concealed in the briefcase or in his brown paper bag. Perhaps he had a roll of duct tape or ace bandages to bind his ankles, and gloves and goggles for wind chill protection? MacArthur told me that such gear would be adequate for the terrain Cooper would face.
Regardless, Cooper’s descent through the 10,000 feet would take less than ten minutes, so his exposure was modest. Further, jumping in a rain storm in the Pacific Northwest is not uncommon, and according to Mark Metzler, the best place to be when it’s raining is under the “umbrella” of a parachute.
Nevertheless, jumping into intermittent nighttime rains with temperatures below freezing and being unable to see the ground or the horizon are offered by the FBI as proof that Cooper was inexperienced and foolhardy. But during the Vietnam War, HALO (High Altitude, Low Opening) commandos parachuted from 14,000 feet in sub-freezing temperatures—conditions that exist year-round even in the tropics—and they landed in unknown jungles with people waiting for them with guns a-blazing.
Further, the weather conditions during the jump have been greatly exaggerated by the FBI and several authors. The temperature at 10,000 feet is now generally understood to have been about 22 degrees Fahrenheit, but many authors report the air temp to be -7 degrees, which it was, but they fail to mention this number is Celsius, not Fahrenheit. Additionally, the air-temp at ground level was in the mid-40s.
Further, the windchill factor is routinely miscalculated. According to many skydivers, the actual wind on the stairs is virtually nil due to the perturbations of the slipstream around the stairs. In fact, one skydiver on the DZ said that when he jumped from a 727 a Styrofoam coffee cup placed at the top of the stairs didn’t even move since there was no wind whatsoever at the upper portion of the stairway.
Along those lines, many skydivers have stated that there is very little turbulence immediately upon jumping from a 727. After a few moments however, a skydiver does hit the slipstream and it gets rough. Skyjacker Robb Heady said that once he hit the slipstream, he tumbled for about fifteen seconds. But his plane was also traveling at a speed almost double to that of DB Cooper, so the air turbulence would have been much more severe.
Where is His Gear?
If Cooper landed safely, or crashed, where is all of his stuff? Specifically, everything not found in Reno – the bomb and briefcase, the money, a back chute and dummy reserve. Did he lash everything together in one huge bundle so he could find it on the ground, or did he track it with some unknown electronic device? Or, if it was a privatized commando operation, did Cooper have a ground crew monitoring both his location and his gear and they retrieved it all? The FBI considered that possibility and their PD-164-41 indicates that the skyjacker could have had signaling and directional equipment concealed on his person since devices as small as a pack of cigarettes were available in 1971.
In addition, the Citizen Sleuths (CS), the aforementioned band of private investigators organized by SA Larry Carr in 2009, have revealed that Cooper cut a lot of cord from a reserve chute, so he could have secured a bundle. Tina Mucklow confirmed that some of this rope was used to close his bank bag and form a kind of handle and/or cinch. However, the CS reveal inconsistencies in the official FBI documents with the official records indicating that two or three lines were cut from the reserve chute depending on which file one reads. However, five separate cords are currently missing from the chute in the evidence room. This discrepancy is difficult to resolve at this point, but the five lengths of rope would total nearly 80 feet.
Even if the lower number of shroud lines is used, Cooper still had 30–45 feet of rope. That’s enough line to secure the bag, affix it to his body, and have a few feet left over for the bundle. Perhaps Cooper landed, buried the bundle, and it has never been found.
Another scenario exists and is held currently by the FBI—Cooper not only died in the jump, but he took all his gear with him by splashing into a lake and drowning, or “cratering” into a remote hillside and entombing himself and his bundle. Variations of this theme are profuse, with numerous speculations on what body of water or remote mountain peak Cooper impacted, and they dominate FBI thinking to this day.
Could the bundle have been disposed by setting it on fire, though? Maybe Cooper’s bomb was not made of dynamite but was actually a set of road flares that the skyjacker could use to burn the leftover equipment? As bizarre a notion as this may be, there is circumstantial evidence to suggest that something like this may have happened.
The “Fiery Object”
In 2011, Galen Cook announced that he had received some intriguing documents from the estate of Richard Tosaw, which cast light on the possibility that Cooper incinerated his left-overs.
Galen had been a friend and fellow-researcher with Tosaw, spending time with him at Tina Bar in 2005 and 2008. After Tosaw’s death in 2009, some of his associates gave Galen selected copies of their mentor’s field notes. One mentioned a “fiery object” seen over Vancouver, Washington on the night of the skyjacking. The notes reveal that a woman from Vancouver had contacted Tosaw in the mid-1980s when Tosaw was on Portland TV discussing his Cooper book. The woman, known as “Janet,” sent a note to Tosaw describing what she had seen in the skies over Vancouver and she later met with him. However, Tosaw had never told anyone about the woman or her claims.
Tosaw recorded that Janet lived in the eastern suburbs of Vancouver near Mill Plain Road. She and her husband had seen TV coverage of the skyjacking at 6 pm, so they were familiar with the events on-going in the skies above them. Shortly after 8 pm, they left their house and saw a low-flying plane to the west, heading south. They immediately saw a bright glow directly underneath the plane. It was so brilliant it illuminated the belly of the aircraft.
Then the glow burst into a flame and they saw a fiery object arcing away to the west. Whatever it was stayed lit for about five or six seconds, eight tops, she told Tosaw, and then faded. “That must be DB Cooper’s plane,” the wife shouted at the time.
The next day the couple wrote the FBI and described what they had seen. Several days later, Janet says she was visited by two men. One fellow stayed in the car and the other, who was wearing a suit and dark coat, approached the house. He identified himself as an FBI agent but he never showed his badge or any other identification. He asked for the couple who had written the letter, and the wife confirmed that she had contacted the FBI. Janet reported that the “FBI” guy became intimidating, and told her to never tell anyone about what she saw, shocking her with a crude outburst: “Keep your fucking mouth shut.” She did, and never told anyone until Richard Tosaw was on his book tour ten-years later. However, Tosaw’s reasons for never revealing her observations are unknown.
Galen says that after he received Tosaw’s notes he was able to contact the wife and husband, who are now divorced but still living in the Vancouver area. Galen says the story they told him comports exactly to what he read in Tosaw’s account. In addition, Galen says that he has received two more reports of folks witnessing a burning object over Vancouver, and he has interviewed the other parties.
All three witnesses were in different neighborhoods of Vancouver, and Galen says that their placement of the glowing object triangulates to the same spot, a position just to the west of the I-5 bridge as it crosses into Portland. Additionally, they all said the fiery object arced westward towards Tina Bar. Was Cooper burning incriminating evidence? The FBI has never commented on this finding.
Despite the reports of extensive cloud cover, which presumably would have hidden the plane and any burning object descending from it, there is supporting information that something was observable from the ground. “I heard it fly over my house that night,” Dona Elliott told me and several others at the 2012 Cooper Days shin-dig in Ariel. “It was loud! It’s wasn’t flying at 10,000 feet. It must have been more like 3,000 or 4,000 feet,”
Official transcripts add more mystery to this matter because Flight 305 wasn’t always at 10,000 feet. Radio transmission between Flight 305 and the FAA’s Seattle Center—as provided on the FBI’s website and Sluggo’s research site—indicate the pilots were flying faster and higher than has been generally reported, climbing to nearly 11,000 feet in an attempt to deprive Cooper of oxygen.
DB Cooper’s Behavior
One of the best pieces of evidence for DB Cooper’s skills as a skydiver may be his demeanor—he never broke a sweat. Despite sitting in an airplane for five hours with people that he had threatened to kill, it seemed like another day at the office for DB Cooper. He calmly smoked cigarettes, buffered inquiries from Tina Mucklow and orchestrated a unique major crime, seemingly with aplomb.
What kind of man does that? A whuffo?
One nagging question hangs over the investigation: How did Cooper get to the Portland Airport in the first place? Despite extensive questioning of bus drivers and cabbies, airport and ground personnel, plus the staff of local motels and restaurants, the feds still have no idea how DB Cooper got to PDX. Such was the era before surveillance cameras became ubiquitous.