“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.
Skyjacker Robb Heady tried a similar strategy, but ran into some unexpected problems. Firstly, the air was likely colder than he anticipated. Having jumped in countless skydives in the past, he was no stranger the low temperatures at 10,000 feet, but on those jumps he had been dressed for the occasion. Now in his flimsy clothes he might as well have been bare assed for all the good it did. He had been tumbling like a paper bag caught in a gale for nearly fifteen seconds and realized that he was holding his arms to his chest. Fighting every instinct to preserve body heat, he spread out his arms and legs and held the position until he eventually leveled out. When he deployed the chute he was still searching for any landmarks below, but the darkness and clouds weren’t helping. Then he caught a break and the clouds parted, revealing a lake that he instantly recognized. He had timed his jump perfectly, but the pilot had been off course; it would take every bit of skill to land near the planned target. In the end he was forced to walk the difference and didn’t make it to where his car was parked near the highway until past 5 in the morning.
Unbeknownst to Robb Heady the police had already placed the car under surveillance, guessing correctly that the lone car parked in a remote location might be connected to the hijacking. He was arrested and sentenced to 30 years in prison. In the year following the hijacking of flight 305, Dan Cooper’s heist and apparent evasion of law enforcement would inspire a dozen similar hijackings. Robb Heady had even brought his own parachute, jumping a fence outside of the airport and forcing his way onto a 727. He had even taken the extra precaution of wearing a mask, so that unlike the now infamous D.B Cooper there would be no police sketches of him on the evening news. Like all of the other copycat hijackers he was still captured. The success rate for hijackings continued to plunge as wary airports increased security and fewer countries were willing to offer asylum. By 1973 the skyjacking epidemic was over.
Over the next decade the legend of D.B Cooper endured. In an era when trust in the government and respect of law enforcement were at an all-time low, he was swiftly romanticized. The loss of the the $200,000 and the failure of the expensive and well publicized search compounded the humiliation for the investigators. Cooper had pulled off the heist without harming or even scaring anyone. Florence Schaffner had little to say about him other than that he was polite and tipped generously for his drinks. Aside from the money and inconvenience, his only real crime had been defiance of a system that many had long grown exhausted with.
In 1972 the serial numbers of some of the stolen money were released to the public with no results, despite the offer of a reward for any bills found. The lack of a body or any of the stolen money showing up in circulation left the investigators in a state of limbo, either the fugitive was too deceased to spend the money or smart enough to wait for the heat to cool off. Either way, the only developments in the story would come in the form of rumors and tabloid journals, alleged death bed confessions, bored convicts looking for fame and unlucky bystanders who happened to have names similar to the Cooper alias.
Some nine years after first directing investigators to search the forests of Ariel Washington, the pilot of the hijacked 727 casually disclosed that the flight vector was likely further south-southeast than he had initially estimated. With this information the lead FBI investigator would conclude that the likely zone was the Washougal Valley. When several partly dessicated bundles of cash were discovered on a beach on the north side of the Columbia River, it seemed to confirm the pilot’s revision. The money could have followed the rain down the slope to the river that fed into the Columbia, where some of it washed ashore downstream. This is the theory that fuels the imaginations of modern crime solvers and treasure hunters. It inspires hikes through the Washougal Valley and the dreams of finding the lost money and the final resting place of history’s most famous skyjacker.
Here’s what I think happened. The Washougal Valley makes a convenient place to lose a bag of money; heavily forested, surrounded by rugged hills and miles from the nearest town. The idea that the hijacker ended up there, however, has more than a few problems. While the pilot estimated that he was to the south-southeast of his initial guess, the Washougal is more east than anything: a full 10 miles to the east of the recorded route. An instruction placard, confirmed to be from the 727 and found on the ground in 1978 confirms the initial route and makes such a drift unlikely. The flight would need to be at least six miles off course for the possibility that the parachute glided over the ridgeline. Even if it had been the hijacker’s goal to glide further from the distant city lights, reaching the Washougal valley would have been impossible.
The lights would have seemed dim, shrouded in rain. The city was far to the west and the wind was blowing east. Steering as best he could, he was on the wrong side of the river. There would be no safe way to swim it and they would be watching the bridges. He would need to glide to the Oregon side if he was hoping for any chance of reaching his car without being noticed. The Columbia River is over half a mile across at the point where the hijacked 727 would have passed over. If the hijacker had been intending to land in Portland, it would have only taken a small miscalculation and some bad luck to end up in the river. Once in the freezing river, it would have been a struggle to keep his head above water let alone know which direction to swim and he would have joined the many who have disappeared after venturing to swim its dangerous currents. Thrashing to stay alive, he would have abandoned the pack containing the money and his own harness if he could manage to take it off. Any evidence would have sunk or been carried downstream, washing ashore in bits and pieces like the bundles of money found on the north shore in 1980. Much of the evidence found would have been simply disregarded as garbage. The rest would have followed the river to where it empties into the Pacific Ocean.