“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.
There had been some difficulty on designing a search area from the beginning. The pilot of the hijacked 727, flying lower and slower as demanded, was too focused on keeping his plane from stalling to pay attention to the accuracy of the flight path. A pair of F-106s from McChord AFB had been launched to keep an eye on the hijacked aircraft, but between the clouds and lack of light neither had been able to spot the 727 let alone the man who fell from it. In the end, all investigators had to go on was a shudder felt by the pilot at 8:13pm, at the time the aircraft was over the Lewis river near Ariel, Washington.
Ariel sits in the shadow of Mount St. Helens, the last stop for hikers looking for provisions before heading up to explore the nearby caves. The population is largely seasonal, fishermen headed down to Lake Merwin and backpackers headed up the mountain. It is a place where a sudden influx of search helicopters and military vehicles can only mean one thing: someone finally caught Bigfoot. In 1971 St Helens has less than a decade before an eruption takes 1300 feet off of the elevation and drastically changes the landscape to the north, but at the time it is a peaceful beacon that looms on the horizon, welcoming its summer visitors. Though in November of 1971, St Helens is shrouded in snow and Ariel is all but empty.
Speaking from personal experience, November is not a particularly good time for camping in Washington State, typically marked by rain filled days and freezing nights that turn the ground into a slushy mess of pine needles and mud. Campers usually bring along tarps, rain ponchos and several layers of warm clothing. I’ve personally experienced numb toes from picking the wrong shoes for the wet ground and even wearing three layers of clothes I would begin shivering if I stopped for too long on a hike. The hijacker had only a parachute and a rain soaked suit. If he was lucky the wind and the force of his parachute deploying hadn’t yanked his shoes from his feet. If he was luckier, he would still have his lighter; but given the near certainty that he would have been forced to start a fire, likely with some of the money, the subsequent smoke would have been spotted and investigated by the search aircraft. With few leads, low odds of survival and winter fast approaching the search was postponed until spring.
In March, the ground was muddy and the trees were still dripping from the spring thaw. Nearly three months had passed and there had been no news of the hijacker or the money he had jumped into the night with. Aircraft buzzed low over the tree tops along the 727’s flight path in the interim looking for parachutes in trees and broken limbs, but had found nothing. With the knowledge that the hijacker might have strapped on a nonfunctioning demo unit, there was a possibility that there was no parachute to find. Either way, the hundreds of police and soldiers gathered in Ariel for the search were not expecting to find the hijacker alive. There was a fifty percent chance that he had strapped on the wrong chute and they would find a body shaped hole in the pine needles that covered the forest floor. Had he picked the right chute, he would have succumbed to exposure while lost in the dark or while hanging from a tree in his harness. Even with survival gear or accomplices waiting, he would have no means of navigation, no knowledge of where he was landing and no chance of finding help or being found in time. The odds of a man lost in the winter of the Pacific Northwest without the basic necessities were flatly zero.
Yet after an extensive search, the costs of which quickly dwarfed the $200,000 ransom, they had found nothing; no parachute shrouded trees, no discarded survival gear, no breadcrumb like trails of twenty dollar bills and no dead men in business attire. The entire exercise had been a failure. If the hijacker was dead, they had been looking in the wrong place. If the hijacker was alive, he had a four month head start. Either way, the man who extorted $200,000 with little more than a plane ticket and a handwritten note had escaped into legend. Without any significant leads or tips from the public, further searches of the area were called off.
Here’s my take on his strategy: as for the hijacker, it made little sense for him to be jumping blind into the night. While sitting next to Florence on the flight to Seattle he had commented while looking out the window that they were passing over Tacoma, nearly at their destination. If he was familiar enough with the area to recognize the different cities from the window seat, he would have known full well the amount of impenetrable wilderness lying to the east of the flight path. Only an uniquely idiotic man would have jumped with no landing zone in mind. Given that he purchased his plane ticket in Oregon, it isn’t bold to assume that he was from there. He knew the flight between Portland and Seattle was 30 minutes and lowered the rear stairway around thirty minutes after takeoff from Seattle. He had perhaps forgotten that his instructions to fly slower meant a longer time before the plane would be over Portland. He knew enough to be aware that jumping into the darkness of the unknown was a death sentence and he had the patience to wait. He waited until the clouds thinned and he was greeted be the familiar lights of Portland, Oregon.