“Skyjacked!” is a four-part series about DB Cooper, an unidentified man who hijacked a Boeing 727 over Washington State before demanding $200,000 and a parachute. His subsequent disappearance has become the stuff of legends. Guest writer John Griffith has contributed his new analysis exclusively to ExpeditionWriter.com, tossing aside old assumptions and mythology in favor of grounded, fact-based conclusions.
John Griffith is a marine casualty expert in Tacoma, Washington. His accomplishments include the photographic reconstruction of Ethiopian Airlines flight 409, overseeing the assembly of 50,000 high-resolution underwater digital images into one of the largest contiguous photomosaics ever created.
In February of 1968, Thomas Boynton reached the end of his rope and set his sights on a new life in Cuba. His wife had filed for divorce and within a month his boss had informed him that he was out of a job. Only two things separated him from his idyllic dream–the purchase of a plane ticket and a gun, the combination of which would kick off the Golden Age of Skyjacking.
After Boynton, from the airline industry was plagued by a sporadic outbreak of hijackings from 1968 to 1972, starting with a few a year, then a few a month until it had become such a routine annoyance that frustrated airports began to install metal detectors. The first hijackings were political, a side effect of the turmoil of the era and often the only demands were an airing of grievances and safe passage to Cuba. It wasn’t long before the desperate would be bankrobbers became inspired by the apparent ease of hijackings and began to use them as an opportunity for extortion and easy escape to non-extradition countries. By the end of 1971, money had become the only demand.
But if you remember only one hijacker from this strange phenomenon, you would likely recognize a man only known by the pseudonym DB Cooper.
The hijacking began when a quiet man at the rear of the airplane handed a note to a passing flight attendant. He was in his mid-forties, drinking bourbon and smoking a cigarette like every other lonely businessman that tried to hit on her during a flight. Florence did what she always had, rolled her eyes and dropped the love letter into her purse with the rest of them so she could empty it into the garbage later. The man, apparently flustered by her indifference, grabbed her arm.
“You are being hijacked”, He whispered. Startled, Florence sat down next to him, now intent to read the ransom note, a demand to land in Seattle to receive $200,000 and four parachutes–or else he’d blow up the plane and kill all aboard.
The flight landed in Seattle at 5:30 as the police scrambled to find $200,000 and four parachutes. At the last minute Cooper specified that he wanted civilian style parachutes and the authorities, who were using paratrooper chutes from a nearby military base, were forced to hunt for the appropriate chutes at a nearby flight school. Finally, with a burlap sack containing his parachutes and $200,000 in non-sequential bills, the hijacker gave the go ahead for the passengers and flight attendants to take off. He then ordered the pilot back into the air on a vector to Mexico, but specified that the plane fly low and as slow as possible. At 8pm, warning lights notified the pilot that the rear stairway had been lowered and a short time later a shudder went through the fuselage. The hijacker had jumped.
Little is known about the man who hijacked NOA flight 305 on November 24, 1971. He was a nondescript middle aged white man, blending into the vast majority of the local population. He wore bland clothes and carried a plain briefcase with an obviously fake bomb inside. For a name, he gave only the alias, Dan Cooper when he purchased his ticket in Portland, Oregon. He paid for his Bourbon, tipped the flight attendant and seemed calm through the entire hijacking. Like Thomas Boynton, he was likely desperate for money, low on friends and past the point of caring. His true motives remain unknown, because unlike the countless other hijackers he simply vanished.
The popular conception of D.B Cooper is suave man smiling defiantly as he leaps into a clear blue sky. By contrast the actual conditions he jumped into were daunting; the sun had been down for three hours and a heavy rain obscured the remaining visibility. There would be no picturesque mountains or forests greeting him as he lowered the stairway, only a vortex of rain and wind. With the stairs down, the temperature in the cabin would have dropped to freezing temperatures that a suit and tie would have been little good against. He left behind the two newer parachutes and took a pair that had seen years of use. One he emptied and used to carry the ransom, the other he strapped to his back. Later investigators would find that among the two parachutes taken, was a training chute that had a nonfunctioning ripcord. With the odds at fifty percent that his chute would even open, the hijacker leapt into the howling void.