The D.B. Cooper skyjacking legend took flight out of PDX
It’s the day before Thanksgiving, 1971. A slender, bland-looking man in a business suit several years out of style strolls up to the ticket counter at Northwest Orient Airlines in Portland and buys a single one-way ticket on Flight 305, bound for Seattle, paying for it with a $20 bill. The agent asks for his name.
“Dan Cooper,” he says. “That’s a 727, isn’t it?”
Yes, he’s told; that’s right, it is.
Once settled into his seat in the smoking section, Dan Cooper fires up a Raleigh, flags down stewardess Florence Schaffner, and orders a drink: Bourbon and Seven. He pays for it with another twenty.
The plane takes off.
When Florence comes back with his change, he hands her an envelope. This happens a lot to stewardesses in 1971, when airlines actually competed in part on the sexiness of their stewardesses. Usually they’re either love notes or straight-up propositions. It could just be a name and phone number. It could be an invitation to consummate a “business transaction.” She doesn’t know and doesn’t care; she couldn’t be less interested. She drops the note in her purse and moves on.
“Miss,” he calls after her. “I think you’d better have a look at that note.”
She looks. Here’s what it says:
“I have a bomb here and I want you to sit by me.”
Florence walks back to his row and sits down. He shows her the bomb. It’s in his briefcase, five or six long red things that are either dynamite or road flares, and a tangle of wires, and a battery. He tells her it will go off if he touches a wire to the battery. They’re at about 1,000 feet and climbing. She’s not about to call his bluff.
The man has Florence take dictation, with his demands. He wants $200,000 in “unmarked American currency” in a knapsack. He wants four parachutes — two back chutes and two chest chutes. He wants a fuel truck on the ground at Seattle and food for the flight crew, because it’s going to be a long night for them.
Then Florence takes the note up to the captain’s cabin. While she’s doing this, the other stewardess, Tina Mucklow, picks up the plane’s intercom — they call it the “interphone” — and alerts the cockpit that the plane is being jacked. The hijacker is starting to look more nervous. He gets out a pair of sunglasses and puts them on.
Up in in the cockpit, Florence hands over the note. She describes the guy as mid-40s, brown eyes, short black hair, olive complexion. The captain asks her to sit in the jumpseat with the headphones on and take notes of everything that happens — the plane doesn’t have a recording system, except the “black box,” which is on a 30-minute loop. If the plane blows up, the captain wants there to be some record of what happened.
Back in his seat, the hijacker is getting visibly nervous, watching for Florence to return. Tina, the other stewardess, starts worrying that he might panic and destroy them all, so she walks over and sits down next to him — taking Florence’s place. So he asks her to get on the “interphone” — he used the actual term, somewhat to her surprise, since most passengers called it something else, like “the phone” or “the intercom” — and relay messages for him.
The captain assures the hijacker, through Tina, that all the demands would be met, and turns on the “Fasten Seat Belts” sign to discourage passengers from milling around.
A few minutes later, the senior stewardess tries to rescue Tina by asking her to go fetch a pack of playing cards. The hijacker interrupts: “Never mind about the playing cards. Go back to your station.” Again, he’s talking like an insider — somebody who knows how a passenger airliner works.
Northwest Orient Flight 305 is a short flight: only a half hour. They’d be ready to land in Seattle long before the parachutes and money are ready. So the hijacker orders the captain to fly a holding pattern until all is ready.
This plan is making the stewardesses very nervous; they’re a bit afraid that the longer the plane is in the air, the more likely the passengers are to figure out what’s going on, and that one of them will decide to be a hero and get them all killed. Specifically, they’re worried about the burly college man sitting across the aisle from the hijacker shooting occasional hostile glances at him. The college man, as it turned out, was getting more and more annoyed because the cute blonde stewardess, whom he would have liked to get to know better, was just sitting there next to this old, poorly dressed nobody.
The captain gets on the speakers and tells everyone the plane is experiencing a minor mechanical problem and will be circling to burn off some excess fuel as a precautionary measure. This can’t have been particularly reassuring. He also invites them to move forward in the airplane, into First Class if possible, and most people take him up on it. The college man does not.
The plane circles for some time while the airline people scramble to get the parachutes and money together. They’re having trouble with this; after all, it’s after business hours on the day before Thanksgiving. The hijacker is getting more and more agitated as the minutes tick by.
Finally, two hours into a half-hour flight, the plane is ready to land. The hijacker has some final instructions: He wants the fuel truck, vehicle with his money, and the “airstairs” at the 10 o’clock position so he can see them from his window. Tina notices that again, he’s talking like an airline man — calling the “airstairs” by the industry-standard term.
The hijacker sends Tina out to get the money, which she drags back — twenty pounds of $20 bills. It’s not in a knapsack, which causes the hijacker to get a little annoyed, but he lets the passengers go anyway.
Of course, the passengers are immediately corralled and hustled down to a debriefing room to be inventoried and checked against the list of folks who boarded the plane. There are 35 of them. Everyone on the list is there except one: Dan Cooper.
Meanwhile, back on the airplane, Dan Cooper himself is busy inspecting his loot and chutes, and making plans. We’ll talk about how those plans went down in next week’s column.
Federal Bureau of Investigation
The two sketches made from witnesses’ descriptions of the skyjacker known as D.B. Cooper.
(Sources: Gray, Geoffrey. Skyjack: The Hunt for D.B. Cooper. New York: Crown, 2011; Himmelsbach, Ralph & al. Norjak: The Investigation of D.B. Cooper. Portland: Norjak Project, 1986)
Finn J.D. John is an instructor at Oregon State University and the author of “Wicked Portland,” a book about the dark side of Oregon’s metropolis in the 1890s. He produces a daily podcast, reading archives from this column, at offbeatoregon.com/itunes. To contact him or suggest a topic: firstname.lastname@example.org, @OffbeatOregon (on Twitter), or 541-357-2222.
Image at top appeared on the front cover of the Sept. 12, 1936, issue of Argosy magazine, accompanying a novelette about an early skyjacking titled “Transpacific Plunder.”
McKenzie River Reflections