In November 1971 the only unsolved hijacking in U.S. history occurred when an unidentified suspect commandeered a commercial jetliner and held its occupants for ransom. The case evolved into an American legend almost overnight because, as the authorities maintain, the culprit escaped by skydiving from the tail of the jetliner mid-flight with the ransom money tied around his waist. If that wasn’t machismo enough it was also reported that he had bailed out at 10,000 feet into a nasty winter storm over impassable mountain terrain at night while wearing only a lightweight overcoat, business suit and slip-on loafers; or did he?....
by David Keller
On Thanksgiving day back in 1971 America woke up to the telling and retelling of the astonishing exploits of an innovative and daring outlaw that the world would soon come to know as D.B. Cooper. The now infamous extortionist had actually provided the name Dan Cooper as he commenced his dramatic plan to hijack a commercial airliner and hold its passengers and crew for ransom. The debonair initials were errantly submitted by a correspondent under pressure to make deadline and by the time the discrepancy had been discovered the swooning American public had heard it so often that retraction was pointless; besides the court of public opinion had already ruled that D.B. imparts a certain mystique befitting a death defying swindler.
The news broadcasts continually replayed what little information they had; that the previous day an unidentified man who had given the name Cooper to the airline ticket agent had gone on to boldly extort $200,000 in cash from Northwest Orient Airlines. He then evaded capture by leaping from the tail of the jetliner mid-flight with the cash tied around his waist. If that wasn’t machismo enough, it was soon learned that the brazen skyjacker had bailed out at 10,000 feet into a nasty winter storm, over impassable mountain terrain, at night, wearing a lightweight overcoat, a business suit and a pair of slip on loafers. As they sat down to roast turkey, cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie, Americans across the nation saved room for all the makings of what would soon become a modern day American legend.
The Official Version of Events
According to authorities on the scene and firsthand eye-witness accounts the mild mannered extortionist/hijacker calmly commandeered Northwest Orient Airline’s flight 305 out of Portland, Oregon the day before Thanksgiving, November 24, 1971. The clean shaven, non-descript, overly average looking guy politely requested $200,000 in cash, four parachutes and a lift to Mexico City. He then inexplicably decided to bail (literally) on the ride sometime before they had to stop in Reno for gas. The larger than life events that unfolded on that November day were officially reported as follows:
In the early afternoon hours of November 24, 1971 an unidentified male suspect entered Portland International Airport and approached the ticket counter of Northwest Orient Airlines. After waiting patiently his turn in line the suspect was cordially greeted by Northwest ticketing agent Hal Williams. The apparent business traveler requested a one way ticket on flight 305, scheduled to depart Portland for Seattle at 2:50 PM (PST). The traveler gave Williams the name Dan Cooper and Williams promptly punched up the ticket, added the name Dan Cooper to the flight’s passenger manifest, and handed Cooper the ticket along with a boarding pass for flight 305 adding, “Enjoy your flight,” as the stranger strode away.
Cooper was assigned the aisle seat 18c near the back of the passenger cabin. Shortly after the plane got underway the suspect passed a folded note to flight attendant Florence Schaffner who, thinking he was making a pass at her, tucked the note away unread. On a subsequent pass down the aisle Cooper once again gained her attention to suggest that “she had better read the note, I have a bomb.”
Schaffner proceeded immediately to the galley area near the plane’s mid-section and opened the handwritten note to read; “I HAVE A BOMB. I WILL USE IT IF NECESSARY. I WANT YOU TO SIT NEXT TO ME. YOU ARE BEING HIJACKED.” Stunned, the young and inexperienced flight attendant quickly showed the note to fellow flight attendant Tina Mucklow, who ventured a quick glance down the aisle at the man seated in 18c. Mucklow then urged Schaffner to comply with Cooper’s instructions. She assured Schaffner that she alert senior flight attendant Alice Hancock of the situation adding that, “everything will be okay if we just do what he says.”
Florence took a deep breath and tried to collect her thoughts. She struggled to recall the training from flight school; be professional, stay focused and remain calm. She summoned all the courage she had and returned to row 18 where she reluctantly sat down next to Cooper. The suspect told her to take out her order pad and write down the demands he dictated to her.
He wanted $200,000 in negotiable American currency, four parachutes (two front-packs and two back-packs) and a refueling truck on stand-by in Seattle before he would allow the current flight to land and “no funny business!” he added. He told her that there would be more instructions to come but, that “that is all they need to know for now.” He gestured towards the cockpit. She asked to see the bomb and he opened the briefcase that was on his lap enough to reveal what appeared to be a sizable explosive device.
Ms. Schaffner quickly delivered both notes to Captain William Scott in the cockpit. Scott promptly notified SEA-TAC (Seattle- Tacoma International Airport) air-traffic control of the developing crisis. The flight controllers at the airport immediately involved airport security, which then contacted the Seattle police, who in turn notified the FBI.
The FBI wasted no time in contacting the president of Northwest Orient Airlines, Donald Nyrop, at his home and inquired as to how he wanted them to proceed. Without hesitation Nyrop responded that the company wanted full compliance with the hijacker’s demands and preferred that no attempt to intervene be made.
The authorities scrambled to meet Cooper’s demands as the controllers placed the plane into a holding pattern over the Seattle-Tacoma area. Captain Scott announced to the passengers that an unspecified mechanical problem had developed during their short flight that would delay their arrival in Seattle. He assured them that the problem was not serious, that the delay was merely a precaution and that there was no need for concern. Florence Schaffner returned to the back of the plane to find that the suspect had moved to a window seat in the same row and had donned a pair of dark wrap-around sunglasses.
Shortly before 5:30 p.m. (PST) the controllers at SEA-TAC notified Captain Scott that all of the hijacker’s demands had been met and a brief 10 minutes later at 5:40 p.m. (PST), Northwest Orient Airline’s flight 305 touched down at SEA-TAC International Airport and taxied to a stop on a well lit runway ramp. Almost immediately a tanker truck arrived to refuel the plane, but the ground crew encountered difficulty in getting the jet to take on fuel. Cooper began to grow uneasy, suspicious that a double cross was in the works. A lone Northwest employee cautiously approached the back of the plane and delivered the four parachutes and the ransom money. Flight attendant Tina Mucklow met the employee at the base of the aft air-stair, a narrow staircase that could be deployed from under the tail of the aircraft. As she struggled to tote the money and the parachutes on board, a succession of tanker trucks succeeded in getting the plane refueled.
Back inside the nervous demeanor of the suspect had given way to paranoid suspicion. He cursed that the parachutes that had been delivered were “completely wrong!” Apparently officials at SEA-TAC had reached out to nearby McCord Air Force Base for the parachutes not realizing that standard military parachutes are opened by static lines that must be attached directly to the aircraft. They are designed to deploy immediately upon departure from the aircraft; not desirable if one intends to bailout of a commercial jetliner at 10,000 feet.
Cooper angrily insisted that he was being double crossed. He wanted manually deployable parachutes such as those used by skydivers and he wanted them right now or else! The suspect threatened to detonate the bomb. Members of the crew tried to calm the agitated suspect down. They assured him that it was a simple mix-up – completely unintended and added that it could be quickly remedied.
Back in the control room at SEA-TAC agents scrambled to locate a source for the sport parachutes that the suspect demanded. Using a local telephone directory they quickly contacted a skydiving school in the area and made the necessary arrangements with the owner. In a hurry to assist authorities with their unspecified emergency, a staff member at the school inadvertently included an inoperable classroom dummy parachute as one of the reserve parachutes requested. Apparently no one involved, including the hijacker, noticed this potentially fatal oversight.
While everyone waited for the replacement parachutes to be delivered, Cooper dictated his next set of demands to Florence Schaffner. He told her that he wanted to be flown non-stop to Mexico City and stipulated some odd, but very specific flight parameters including a demand that the aft air-stair remain deployed on take-off. After some objections and negotiations with the flight crew the destination and safety concerns were resolved. It had been agreed that the aft air-stair would be secured for take-off and that they would need to land at least once to refuel the plane as Mexico City was beyond the jetliner’s maximum flight range. It was decided that Reno, Nevada would be the most suitable location to refuel the plane.
At that point Cooper agreed to release the 36 passengers along with two of the three flight attendants. The freed passengers and flight attendants exited through the regular forward port side exit and descended down a truck mounted mobile stairway and out onto the paved runway ramp. After the replacement parachutes had arrived around 7:30 p.m. (PST) the Boeing 727 was cleared for takeoff and the jetliner raced down the runway in Seattle and was back in the air and headed south. The plane reached the stipulated altitude of 10,000 feet and leveled off. Cooper gave Tina Mucklow, the remaining flight attendant one last directive; draw the curtain that separated first-class from coach on her way to the cockpit, which is where Cooper had ordered all of them to stay, and “don’t come out!” She reported to authorities afterwards that the last time she saw the suspect he was near the back of the plane and appeared to be tying something around his waist. She drew the curtain across the aisle as he had instructed and continued on into the cockpit.
Around 8 p.m. the four captives felt the air pressure inside the cabin suddenly drop. A red light on the control panel in front of the captain flashed on indicating that the aft exit had been opened; a moment later a second light came on showing that the air-stair under the tail of the plane had been deployed, and a few minutes following that the tail of the aircraft lurched discernibly upward. The air-stair indicator light went out briefly and then came back on and remained on.
The four crew members stayed in the confined space of the cockpit as ordered for the remainder of the flight. The jetliner finally touched down in Reno, Nevada at 10:15 p.m. trailing a spectacular cascade of sparks down the length of the runway. The aft air-stair was indeed fully extended as the aircraft touched down.
Authorities on the ground immediately surrounded the plane with their guns drawn. Captain Scott made several attempts to raise the suspect over the cabin intercom but there was no response. After several heart-pounding minutes the four wary crew members crept cautiously out of the cramped cockpit to discover that Cooper was nowhere to be found. When they saw that only two of the four parachutes remained and that the aft air-stair had been deployed they assumed that he had jumped from the plane during the flight. The indicator lights on the cockpit control panel are monitored by the in-flight data recorder so investigators were able to establish that the suspect likely exited the aircraft at 8:13 p.m. when the air-stair indicator light had flashed off and then come back on. Presumably this had been caused by the hinged stairway as it rebounded like a diving board when Cooper had leapt from it.
A subsequent search of the aircraft by the authorities found the two remaining parachutes, one of which had been opened for reasons unknown, and the suspect’s narrow black clip-on tie with a mother-of-pearl tie-tack attached to it. Beyond the minor damage done to the air-stair upon landing there was nothing on or about the aircraft that would indicate the dramatic course of events that had unfolded on-board that day.
All eye-witnesses that had had any contact with Cooper in Portland, in Seattle and now in Reno, were interviewed immediately by investigators. Police artists were summoned and multiple sketches of the suspect were compiled. Several exhaustive ground searches were conducted over the following weeks and months, in and around the approximated bailout zone, but no trace of the suspect or the ransom money was found. The FBI announced a short time after Cooper disappeared that all 20,000 individual bills that had been included in the ransom had been photo-copied and the serial numbers documented. The Bureau also made it known that this list of the serial numbers had been distributed to authorities, banks and high cash volume businesses across the nation.
To-date, the only bills from the ransom money that have ever been recovered were found nine years after the fact, on the banks of the Columbia River, by an eight year-old boy on a camping holiday with his parents. The found money, three out of the original 100 bundles of $20 bills, was severely deteriorated from exposure to the elements. The FBI forensics lab would ultimately determine that the recovered currency, still in its original sequence, accounted for $5,800 of the missing money. Authorities maintain their belief that Cooper, whoever he was, did not survive his suicidal escape attempt. However, they have not recovered any direct evidence of his demise.
The suspect reportedly had no visible identifying marks, tattoos, scars, moles etc. He was clean shaven and tidy in appearance. He spoke coherently without hesitation or any discernible accent, in American English. He gave indications of a detailed knowledge of the Tacoma-Seattle area such that he could identify landmarks from the air and he also commented accurately on the approximate drive-time from nearby McChord Air Force Base to SEA-TAC, which may suggest that he could have a U.S. Air Force military service record.
The suspect ordered and consumed two bourbon and soda cocktails while on board and smoked Raleigh filter tipped cigarettes. He seemed to have more than a casual knowledge of the operational capabilities of the aircraft; specifically that the aft air-stair could be safely deployed while in flight and the minimum safe air speed and the wing flap configuration needed to maintain that speed while maintaining the sub-cruising altitude of 10,000 feet.
Beyond what has been described above no further information related to the suspect or his actions on that day can be positively confirmed. Authorities still maintain their belief that the suspect did in fact exit the aircraft at approximately 8:13 p.m. on November 24, 1971 with the ransom money somehow attached to his person. His demise is presumed largely on the basis of the prevailing weather conditions outside the aircraft at the time of his alleged departure; the virtually impassable terrain along the flight path; and the suspect’s apparent lack of any practical knowledge related to skydiving. The absence of any hard evidence to support this conclusion has not deterred the authorities in their position and these facts as reported remain the official version of events.
The Alternate Version of Events
The hypothesis that Dan Cooper may have never really existed at all and that this crime was in fact a carefully orchestrated inside job planned and executed by members of the crew has been widely circulated in the past; but such conjecture is problematic if it were indeed the case. The non-existence of Cooper would have created a discrepancy in the passenger count. Meaning that the number of passengers released, plus one (Cooper), would not correlate properly with the number of names listed on the flight manifest, or with the number of boarding passes and tickets collected at the gate.
The airline industry employed and monitored these controls as an effective means to avert stowaway travel in an era of minimal airline security. If members of the crew had been involved in the crime, the individual identified as Dan Cooper would still have likely had to exist in person at some point. Conversely, his existence does not establish that he acted entirely alone in the commission of this epic crime.
This particular act of hijacking and extortion holds the unique distinction of being the only hijacking ever committed on U.S. soil to remain unsolved. Cooper’s true identity has remained a mystery as well, and $194,200 in ransom money is still unaccounted for. These outstanding details provide sufficient fodder that the speculation, supposition and spurious claims underground has launched a standalone cottage industry that continues to this very day. The bigger than life persona of the mysterious, misidentified and still at-large outlaw has evolved over several decades into an icon of the American culture. The legend of D.B. Cooper and his audacious exploits are revered as fact around the world, not because they represent reality, but because we desperately want them to represent reality. Americana will not be denied this epic tale of ingenious criminal daring or its eternal enshrinement in the self aggrandizing genre of outlaw folklore.
After a meticulous review of the verified facts in the case it can be concluded that a very small window of probability does in fact exist for the alternate case scenario of flight crew involvement in the crime. If the material facts in this case are ever found to differ substantially from the official version of the events; it is probable that the following alternate case scenario describes the next most likely sequence of events related to the hijacking of Northwest Orient Airline’s flight 305 on November 24, 1971. It has been accepted here that the suspect, Dan Cooper (alias), most likely did exist in person and was not completely fabricated by members of the crew in an effort to divert the investigative attention of the authorities. This conclusion is based on two separate but equally compelling aspects of the case that would have been more difficult to affect had Cooper not existed in person.
First, the authorities obtained multiple physical descriptions from three separate sources; (ticketing agent Hal Williams [in Portland], flight attendant Florence Schaffner [in Seattle] and flight attendant Tina Mucklow [in Reno]), during and immediately following the commission of the crime. Each of these three eye-witnesses provided a detailed description that very closely matched the other two. If Cooper had not existed in the flesh, the three independent descriptions would have had to have been rehearsed and subsequently reported to authorities without the appearance of having been rehearsed; a feat that is difficult to accomplish between two collaborators and virtually impossible amongst three.
Second, the number of boarding passes and tickets required, as well as the number of passengers named on the flight manifest, would all have to correlate with the number of passengers released in Seattle plus one (37). If Dan Cooper did not exist and his role in the crime had been completely fictional, the list of names on the passenger flight manifest would have been one short at 36. Consequently, only 36 boarding passes and tickets would have been taken up at the gate. Thus, when the 36 passengers deplaned in Seattle the authorities would have been tipped off to the hoax. These controls would have to have been manipulated in order for Cooper’s presence to have been completely made up by the crew. Ironically these factors were very likely manipulated, but in all probability they were manipulated by Cooper himself.
Given the non-existent nature of airline security that was in effect at the time the individual that gave the alias Dan Cooper could have simply purchased a ticket for flight 305 at an earlier point in time. He may have purchased the first ticket disguised and under a different assumed name. He then checked-in under that name at the gate. He subsequently returned to the ticket counter without the disguise and purchased the second ticket and provided the name Dan Cooper. Once the he had checked in at the gate for a second time he would have been entered twice, under two different aliases, on flight 305’s passenger manifest and also in possession of two boarding passes for that same flight. A mere $20 in additional expense would have accomplished both of the necessary adjustments in the passenger count; a cost far less than that of involving additional people in the plot. The on-board head count would be easily obscured by a participating member of the crew.
The alternate version of events would have likely proceeded from that point as follows:
As the plane was being boarded Cooper handed one boarding pass to the attending gate agent and then stooped down and pretended to pick the second boarding pass up off of the floor. He politely handed it to the gate agent and suggested that he or she must have “dropped one.” The agent, not realizing that anything was amiss, thanked him and added it to the stack of boarding passes for flight 305.This would have been the most efficient method of artificially inflating the passenger count without involving additional personnel in the conspiracy and would have been far less conspicuous than attempting to falsify the flight manifest directly while independently adding both a ticket and a boarding pass at the gate.
Once on board Cooper took his designated seat 18c, an aisle seat four rows from the back of the plane. Senior flight attendant Alice Hancock covered in-flight service for passengers seated up front in first-class and for the first few rows of coach (see plane diagram). The two junior flight attendants, each with less than two years of in-flight experience, split the passengers seated in the rest of coach.
Tina Mucklow, an attractive 22 year-old flight attendant, was assigned the mid-section of passenger seats that covered most of the forward half of coach. Her coworker Florence Schaffner, an equally attractive 23 year-old flight attendant, provided in-flight service for the last six rows of coach.
Cooper’s designated seat was in Florence Schaffner’s assigned service area and she was the first person on-board to interact with Cooper. She had noticed him as soon as he had come on board. He had watched her closely as she went through her pre-flight routine, so she was not shocked when the suspect passed her the folded up slip of paper. She assumed it to be an intimate proposition from a lonely business man so she simply smiled politely and tucked it away unread and resumed her duties. When the suspect failed to get the response that he had anticipated he flagged her down again and insisted that she read the note “because I have a bomb.” Ms. Schaffner proceeded immediately to the galley area where she unfolded the note to read: “I HAVE A BOMB. I WILL USE IT IF NECESSARY. I WANT YOU TO SIT NEXT TO ME. YOU ARE BEING HIJACKED”.
Stunned, Ms. Schaffner showed the handwritten note to fellow flight attendant Tina Mucklow who urged her to comply. Ms. Schaffner agreed and returned to row 18 and sat cautiously down next to the suspect. Cooper instructed her to take out her order pad and write down the demands that he dictated to her.
First, he wanted $200,000 in cash, four parachutes (two backpacks [primary chutes] and two front [reserve chutes]) and a refueling truck on stand-by in Seattle before he would permit the current flight to land. Ms. Schaffner asked to see the bomb and the suspect opened his briefcase enough for her to see what appeared to be a sizable explosive device. She promptly delivered both notes to Captain William Scott in the cockpit. Scott, a veteran pilot with 20 years service with Northwest Orient Airlines immediately contacted air-traffic control at Sea-Tac and notified them of the developing crisis. The events then proceeded as previously described up to the point where the plane was on the ground in Seattle and the money and the first set of parachutes had been delivered. Here the events once again diverge from the official version.
Tina Mucklow had retrieved the money and the parachutes via the aft air-stair and placed them on the unoccupied seats next to Cooper. Cooper then instructed Ms. Schaffner to take down his next set of demands which included specific instructions to the flight crew. Cooper said that he wanted to be flown directly to Mexico City and stipulated some odd, but very specific flight parameters that included air speed, altitude, flap settings and in particular that he wanted the aft air-stair under the tail of the plane to remain deployed on take-off. Ms. Schaffner diligently delivered the new instructions to the captain.
Captain Scott instantly rejected the destination, pointing out that it was beyond the jet’s maximum range and couldn’t be reached without landing to refuel – something the hijacker had already indicated that he would not allow. Presumably the suspect was aware that he was most vulnerable while the plane was on the ground. Ms. Schaffner nervously asked the captain what she should tell the lunatic in the back with the bomb. First officer Bill Rataczak volunteered to intercede on her behalf. He would go and explain the flight range limitations of the aircraft to the bomb toting lunatic in the back. As he climbed out of the co-pilot’s seat Rataczak said, “I’ll see if he wants to refuel it or pick a new destination, but he’s not going to Mexico in one hop, not on this bird.” The very much relieved Schaffner followed closely on the first officer’s heels as he made his way down the aisle toward the back of the plane.
Meanwhile Captain Scott announced over the intercom that the mechanical problem that had delayed their landing was currently in the process of being corrected but, for safety reasons it would be necessary to wait just a little longer before they could begin unloading. He thanked the exasperated group for their patience and of course for their patronage of Northwest Orient Airlines.
As the two approached Cooper’s seat Rataczak and Schaffner were confronted with a visibly agitated hijacker who now rather tersely informed them that the parachutes that had just been delivered were “completely wrong!” He demanded that they be replaced with manually deployable parachutes “right now!” or he threatened to detonate the bomb. Rataczak tried to calm the suspect down. He assured Cooper that the mix-up had been completely unintentional and that the situation would be easily corrected if he would just give them a little time to make it right.
Florence Schaffner felt her face go flush and she could feel her heartbeat as it pounded away at the base of her throat. Rataczak turned to her and asked that she take down exactly what type of parachute it was that Cooper wanted and then instructed her to deliver that message to Captain Scott immediately. To show Cooper that he was acting in good faith Rataczak insisted she wait in the cockpit with the captain until it could determine exactly how long the replacement parachutes would take to be delivered.
Rataczak’s reassurance directive was a false ploy. The directive’s true intent was to keep Ms. Schaffner occupied in the cockpit and away from row 18. Schaffner obeyed and swiftly returned to the cockpit; half running as she scooted up the aisle.
As she burst into the cockpit she interrupted the captain, who had by now reviewed the entirety of Cooper’s flight instructions and pointed emphatically to the last note. He started to say, “Does that damn fool think I….”
“Wait, wait…” she cut him off, “the chutes, the ….parachutes…..” The young woman gasped for air in between her words, “The parachutes, they’re wrong, he’s pissed, he is going to blow-up the plane!” She held out the note she had just taken down.
Captain Scott snatched the paper out of her shaking hand and held it out at arm’s length, “Sh**! I should’ve...” the Captain left the words hanging. Schaffner was confused by the response; she looked over to the flight engineer Harold Anderson. Anderson obviously puzzled himself just shrugged and they both turned their attention back to their captain. “Military parachutes,” he finally continued, “they delivered military chutes, right?” He looked to the young flight attendant for her response.
“Yes”, she nodded, “I think that is what they brought. Yes, yes, military parachutes that’s what he’s so mad about.”
The captain looked over to Anderson, “Static line”, he said, gesturing an upward thrust with his closed fist. The flight engineer nodded instant recognition of the gesture.
“What?” Florence Schaffner was still confused, “I don’t understand?”
“Military parachutes have static line release,” Scott explained, “they have to be attached to the aircraft in order to work and I’m pretty sure that this plane wasn’t designed for that particular stunt. Besides a static line chute would pop open right out the door; the jet wash alone would cut him half, not that I care, but I think he might.” The captain picked-up the mic and radioed the tower. In as few words as possible the captain related the situation to whoever was listening in the control room. A voice acknowledged the captain’s instructions and asked him to hold on for a time estimate.
As he waited he turned his attention back to Ms. Schaffner, “I don’t know who this idiot thinks he is but if he’s going to jump out of this plane you make damn sure he takes the bomb with him! Oh and one more thing,” the captain resumed where Schaffner had interrupted him, “Does that damn fool really think I’m going to try and take off with a staircase hanging out of my ass?!!” The captain was incredulous in his tone and turning red in the face as he jammed his finger pointedly into the instructions she had delivered previously.
Ms. Schaffner, with tears now welling up in her eyes, confirmed that that was what he had said he wanted. Captain Scott softened his demeanor but wasted no time in making it abundantly clear that there was no way in hell he was going to attempt that kind of stunt, bomb or no bomb. “You tell that little sh** that I don’t give a damn if he gets himself killed; he had better leave the rest of us out of it. If he wants to fly this bird that’s fine, but as long as I’m driving all the doors and windows will be secured on take-off, you got that!!” The dam finally broke and the tears the young woman was desperately trying to hold back now streamed down her young face.
The emotionally overwhelmed 23 year-old flight attendant again found herself in the unenviable position of rejecting another demand from the madman in the back. This time Harold Anderson, the flight engineer, came to her aid and volunteered to explain just how dangerous and probably impossible the crazy idea was to even try. This freed the much relieved Ms. Schaffner to remain sequestered in the cockpit with Captain Scott for word on the replacement parachutes just as first officer Rataczak had instructed her to do.
Meanwhile, at the back of the plane, the plan shifted into high gear the moment Schaffner had re-entered the cockpit with orders to wait there. Cooper immediately got up from his seat with the briefcase and the small paper sack (see FBI Wanted Poster) and slipped into the nearby aft lavatory. Inside he quickly removed the dark sun-glasses and shed the business suit, the clip-on tie and the pressed white shirt. Underneath his business attire he had on a long sleeved T-shirt and a faded pair of blue jeans. He quickly removed the elements of his earlier disguise (possibly heavy rimmed eye-glasses, a false mustache and/or beard, baseball cap, etc., etc.) from the paper sack and reapplied them. He folded up the suit trousers and the pressed white shirt and placed them inside the paper sack. When he exited the lavatory he left behind the suit jacket, the clip-on tie, sun-glasses, briefcase and the small paper sack. He squeezed past Rataczak and headed up the aisle.
While Cooper altered his appearance Tina Mucklow retrieved an empty carry-on satchel from the baggage storage closet located near the midsection of the plane across from the galley and delivered it to row 18. After Cooper, now in disguise, squeezed by Rataczak standing in the aisle the first officer ducked into the now vacant lavatory. He quickly removed his flight uniform jacket and airline cap and put on Cooper’s suit jacket along with the dark wrap-around sun-glasses; he grabbed the briefcase and the paper sack and returned to Cooper’s seat in row 18 just as Tina Mucklow delivered the carry-on satchel.
Rataczak, now posing as Cooper, opened the satchel and removed the stiff vinyl covered board that lined the bottom of the bag. From the canvas bank bag that contained the ransom money he removed ten of the $2,000 bundles and placed them on the seat next to him. He then transferred the rest of the cash to the empty satchel and replaced the liner bottom as Mucklow stood watch. He removed the trousers and shirt from the paper sack and placed the sack into the satchel first followed by the folded up shirt and the trousers. He zipped the satchel closed and handed it back to Tina Mucklow who then casually returned it to the mid-cabin storage closet.
When Harold Anderson got up to go explain the captain’s objections to Cooper, Captain Scott prompted him, “ask that joker about unloading the passengers,” adding, “I don’t think I can stall much longer without the serious possibility of a mutiny on board.” Anderson nodded his acknowledgement as he exited the cockpit. As the flight engineer worked his way down the aisle towards the back of the plane he found his path momentarily blocked by one of the passengers (the now disguised suspect) returning from the aft lavatory. To make way for the flight engineer, Cooper nonchalantly sat down in an unassigned seat that was further up and across the aisle from his previous seat. He remained in this seat, with his face buried in an airline magazine, until the captain announced that the passengers could depart. Anderson continued down the aisle to row 18 where he then stood watch over the contraband that was piled in the seats of row 18 and prevented any stray passengers from accessing the aft lavatories. He maintained this post until first officer Rataczak had returned from the lavatory masquerading as Cooper.
Once Rataczak had assumed Cooper’s place, the flight engineer returned to the cockpit and informed the captain that the air-stair issue had been resolved and that he could now go ahead and offload the passengers and, “Oh, two of the girls,” referring to the flight attendants. This was the signal that everything back in the cabin was in order and on plan. The captain announced over the intercom that the passengers could start their departure. He then directed Ms. Schaffner to go find Alice Hancock and help her unload the passengers. The captain’s brief announcement ensured that the aisle would jam up with passengers eager to disembark and thus prevent Ms. Schaffner from returning to the back of the plane where she might discover the switch that had been made.
Florence Schaffner could see Tina Mucklow at the back of the plane dutifully helping the departing passengers retrieve their carry-on items. She could also make out Cooper intermittently. He sat upright and motionless against the window; seemingly disinterested in the flurry of activity going on elsewhere in the cabin. The dark wrap-around sun-glasses at a distance made him look like some kind of mutant humanoid insect with giant black unblinking eyes. She could feel his hidden gaze following her around the cabin and a cold chill ran down her spine as she finally had to look away.
Tina Mucklow worked her way up to the mid-cabin storage closet and popped the door open. She removed the carry-on satchel containing the hidden cash and handed it over to Cooper, who now assumed the role of departing passenger. Tina suddenly caught Florence Schaffner’s probing eyes searching from the front of the plane and the two friends momentarily exchanged mutually puzzled “What’s next?” looks, as they both shrugged.
Once the forward port side door had finally been opened Alice Hancock confirmed that the truck mounted stairway was in place and secured. She then quickly assumed her familiar post outside the cockpit door; offering each departing passenger the standard farewell salutation.
Florence Schaffner took the opportunity to duck briefly back into the cockpit. The harried young woman quickly queried her captain, “What about Tina?”
Captain Scott paused, and then looked lamentingly over to flight engineer Anderson who responded right on cue, “You’d better just go ahead and get the hell out of here while you can.”
Schaffner felt instantly relieved and then was sickened by the thought. She had realized that she was free to go but that her friend and coworker Tina Mucklow was to be left behind. Initially she was reluctant to leave with Tina still in the hands of the lunatic, but she quickly realized that there was nothing more she could do and returned to the passenger cabin just as the last passengers departed.
Florence stared down the long open expanse of the now virtually empty plane. Her friend and coworker Tina Mucklow was focused intently on the suspect. The distorted half human figure appeared to be dictating even more demands and Tina struggled to transcribe them, just as she herself had done earlier in the nightmare. “I hate that freak,” Schaffner thought to herself. “What more could he possibly want from us?!” Her hatred of him began to burn as she watched the smug little coward with the big bug-like eyes task her terrified friend.
Suddenly Tina looked up and caught her friend’s plaintive gaze. Tina’s young fresh face flashed instant recognition of her circumstances as she acknowledged her friend at the front of the plane. With remarkable composure the young woman accepted her predicament completely and without hesitation she eyed the port side exit and motioned for Florence to follow the others to safety. Florence Schaffner had the same heartbreaking thought that all have at that moment, “Will I ever see her again, alive?” She forced the unspeakable thought from her mind as she turned and walked off the plane.
Shortly thereafter the replacement parachutes arrived and Mucklow carried out the exchange via the aft air-stair. The plane taxied toward the runway as Captain Scott informed the tower that they would be flying low and slow on Victor 23, without the auto-pilot and putting down in Reno to refuel. He requested that controllers make the necessary arrangements and that FAA flight control be alerted to clear the air-space along the flight plan as they would be flying dark (without lights). The tower confirmed the instructions and cleared them for take-off and the big jet roared down the runway and lifted into the night sky headed south.
Back in the now empty passenger cabin Tina Mucklow and Bill Rataczak scrambled to gather up all remaining evidence of Cooper’s presence. Rataczak took off the suit jacket and the dark sun-glasses and retrieved his airline cap and flight uniform jacket from the lavatory. In his haste he overlooked the thin black clip-on tie that Cooper had left behind. They proceeded to complete the plan at a frenzied pace. Rataczak popped open one of the reserve parachutes and cut two lengths of suspension cord from the canopy. The pair quickly piled up the overcoat, the suit jacket, the sunglasses, the bomb laden briefcase, one of the main parachutes, the unopened reserve parachute (ironically the inoperable classroom prop) and the $20,000 in cash that Rataczak had separated from the ransom money and stacked it all in the last row of seats.
At around 8 p.m. they opened the aft exit door and deployed the air-stair. Rataczak twisted the canopy lines together and tied one end securely to the steel frame that held the last row of seats in place and wrapped the other end loosely around his forearm. He then worked his way down the narrow staircase letting out the cord as he descended. The twisted parachute lines acted as his safety-line against the torrent of jet wash that blasted past the protruding staircase. Tina stood atop the air-stair and passed the assorted items to the first officer one by one. Rataczak in turn tossed each of them out into the roaring, black, wintery abyss. With the final task of the plan complete, Rataczak climbed back up the narrow air-stair, untied his makeshift safety line and tossed it out the open stairwell. He turned to find Tina Mucklow nearly collapsed against one of the aisle seats. The young woman was completely drained, emotionally and physically spent. “Come on sweetheart we’re almost there,” he whispered tenderly into the young woman’s ear as he turned her by the shoulders and nudged her gently along the aisle towards the cockpit.
Once inside Rataczak slipped back into the copilot’s seat and the four co-conspirators exchanged sheepish grins of stealthy accomplishment, but they did not utter a word; in observance of their pact to never speak of the events of that day, ever, regardless of how the scheme played out. The flight continued on to land in Reno as previously described.
This alternate version of the events, if they had in fact occurred, would put into place the one odd little piece of the puzzle that remained out of place in the official version of events. The 4”x 12”x 14” paper sack described at the bottom of the FBI’s wanted poster served no discernible purpose. Why carry something with you during the commission of a crime that you would have to either toss out or leave behind. It had to contain something essential to the plot or it would not have been there. Witnesses on board the plane never mention the sack in their statements, at least none that were made public. Suppose that you were planning to hijack a commercial jetliner during a brief, 30-minute flight. Would you pack a lunch? Maybe it contained something special for his wife. A token gesture for the little woman waiting patiently at home for her dedicated hubby to return home from a hard day of extortion and hijacking!! I’m thinking probably not so much. The small paper sack in the official version of events is definitely odd and certainly out of place.
Was it a coincidence that first officer Bill Rataczak’s face and build bore an uncanny resemblance to the eye-witness descriptions of Cooper; particularly when he was seated? The recovered clip-on tie that Cooper had worn was nearly indistinguishable from the tie with tie-tack that Bill Rataczak had chosen to wear that day.
The final four crew members that had remained aboard throughout the entire ordeal would afterwards avoid any discussion of the hijacking for an extended period of time. Maybe the trauma of being hijacked was simply too harrowing to relive. But that leaves released flight attendant Florence Schaffner’s behavior a bit puzzling. She did not appear to have experienced the same degree of trauma in spite of having been the only crew member to have actually seen the bomb. On the contrary, she would go on to give multiple public interviews over the ensuing years.
If these four crew members did conspire with the unidentified “Cooper” to carry out this well choreographed plan, the scheme was brilliant and its execution nearly flawless. This alternate case scenario would have permitted Cooper to walk off the plane in Seattle with most of the ransom money slung over his shoulder. It would have also accurately accounted for every passenger on board including the nut job who supposedly jumped out the back of a commercial jetliner with only one functional parachute. Surely authorities questioned each of the released passengers, at least briefly anyway, for any possible detail that they might recall about the non-descript, overly average looking businessman that sat way in the back, chain smoked and drank bourbon and seven.
More importantly investigators zeroed in on what Florence Schaffner had to say; they immediately focused their attention on the details that she alone could provide. After all, she had had the most contact and interaction with the suspect. The conspirators had set her up for the role that she would now unwittingly fulfill well beyond their wildest expectations. Schaffner it seems had been perfectly cast as the completely innocent and convincingly honest airline worker who was also absolutely dead certain that Cooper was still on board that plane when she left it; and she had been the very last person to get off the plane in Seattle.
Most of the other passengers claimed that they had been completely unaware that anything was wrong beyond the supposed mechanical problem that had delayed their arrival. All Cooper had to do was play along. He surely claimed ignorance of the whole onboard drama. He simply provided investigators with the name he used when he purchased the first ticket since it too would appear on the passenger manifest
The investigators had everything they could want in Florence Schaffner; a detailed description of Cooper; a blow by blow account of the events thus far; and with absolute certainty the last known whereabouts of their suspect. The other people that had been on board the plane could add little to nothing compared to what Florence Schaffner had provided and consequently they were not detained for any substantial period of time. So convincingly honest was Florence Schaffner’s recollection that authorities never bothered to cross check for a possible second alias listed among the passenger names on the flight manifest – which would have certainly cast suspicion in the direction of the crew had it been found there.
For his part Cooper could have casually volunteered that he had enjoyed a couple of cocktails and then simply slept through the remainder of the protracted delay. He might have even feigned impatient angst; reminding the junior investigator that he was already three hours late getting home to his overtly suspicious wife. Adding that he urgently needed to find a phone and call her. After the subordinate field agent handed over his FBI calling card and prompted the suspect to call if he remembered anything, he was summarily dismissed to go about his business. Absent any sense of urgency he picked up his carry-on satchel and slung it casually over his shoulder and strode carefree into the bustling swarm of holiday travelers, never to be seen or heard from again.
The pivotal player over the entire course of events was the remarkably convincing and completely innocent Florence Schaffner. Her prominent role put her in a position to interact with the suspect up close and later to cement the audacious escape that Cooper had to have made since there was simply no other way for him to have gotten off that plane after she had seen him talking to Tina Mucklow. By permitting Schaffner to glimpse Rataczak posing as Cooper at the back of the plane seconds before she departed, the conspirators had assured Cooper’s place among the greatest of all legendary outlaws. Schaffner’s incredibly detailed recounting of the hijacking captured the imagination of all who listened; the authorities, the news media and the awed American public. Everyone involved was completely convinced that a sociopathic madman had commandeered one of the company’s planes, abducted four of her coworkers and was now headed for Mexico City with a bag full of loot and a big ass bomb.
The evidence that Rataczak and Mucklow had hurriedly gathered up and tossed from the plane would have surely convinced any remaining skeptics that Cooper had actually been foolhardy enough to leap from a commercial jetliner into a winter storm, at night, at 10,000 feet over mountainous terrain, wearing only a lightweight overcoat, a business suit and slip on loafers; that is had any of it been found!!
Clearly the biggest miscalculation by either the group of conspirators or the lone air-pirate was the flawed assumption that the Feds couldn’t possibly document the serial numbers of all 20,000 randomly selected $20 bills on such short notice but, somehow they had. It has been speculated that certain large banks keep a quantity of previously circulated, random and yet already photocopied and recorded currency on hand to thwart such would be extortionists. This rumor however, remains unconfirmed at this time. A brilliant counter measure if it were indeed available; unfortunately in this case the Feds stepped up with their own serious misjudgment. When they revealed the existence of the list that documented the serial numbers so soon after the heist, they tipped off the culprit(s) before he/they had gotten the chance to spend any of his/their ill gotten gain.
The clip-on tie with the mother-of-pearl tie-tack was clearly a sloppy oversight made by either an otherwise consummately meticulous individual or the normally very detail oriented conspirators. There are several counter intuitive actions committed by this individual, if it was in fact a lone extortionist on board. For instance; imagine having the insight to request two sets of parachutes knowing that the authorities would assume that you intend to force one of the hostages out the door ahead of you and thus averting any temptation to sabotage the parachutes. But then you realize that you lack the foresight to request helmets or goggles which are standard skydiving equipment, on a good day. Or take a moment and imagine that your cool, calculating presence of mind allows you to reclaim the one and only original hand written note before the flight attendant that had it got off the plane in Seattle; only to discover later that you are so absent minded as to leave a cheap clip-on tie with your favorite fancy tie-tack embedded in it behind! Extraordinary attention to detail coupled with unbelievably absent minded mistakes seems incongruent in the official version of events.
The presumption that a massive search effort would be mounted almost immediately over the projected drop zone was sound planning. That the search would turn up the discharged debris and lend irrefutable proof to an otherwise highly implausible story looked great on paper. However, the weather, altitude, terrain and the uncertainty of the exact location erased any chance that the intended counter measures would be recovered in a timely fashion. Too little debris scattered over too large and desolate an area of mostly impassable, frozen mountain terrain meant that little if anything would ever be recovered. Consequently any dispersal of the remaining ransom money could easily lead authorities back to one of the five conspirators. That possibility was a chance the conspirators felt was too great a risk to take. That left them with only one remaining option and that was to simply keep quiet, lay low and go on about their lives as though nothing had ever happened, and that is exactly what they did.
It has been suggested that all of the ransom money may have been jettisoned along with the debris in a daring charade intended to draw attention to the lax airline security maintained by the airline industry at the time; a level of security that placed passenger convenience and public perception above the lives and safety of airline employees. Northwest Orient Airlines was one of many airlines that had been involved in protracted labor disputes in their recent history, and according to some, flight security and hijack prevention had both appeared on the agenda as issues in some of those disputes. So, in theory, it could be considered a possible motive, but a rather unlikely one. It has been established that real life Robin Hoods are exceptionally rare and are far more likely to be found in the frames of a Hollywood film than they are in everyday life.
The four crew members that remained aboard flight 305 all the way to Reno that night provided their firsthand accounts to investigators immediately following the crime and to a hastily called news conference at the Reno Airport that night or early the following morning. After that the four remained remarkably silent on the subject, declining to discuss the hijacking at length with anyone for many years to come. Tina Mucklow would continue on as a flight attendant for a decade and then abruptly quit her job and enter a convent. She remained cloistered for yet another decade. When she did emerge from the convent she changed her name and continued to refuse any inquiry regarding the hijacking of flight 305. Is this odd behavior? Maybe, maybe not. Is it evidence of guilt? No, not really. The decisions that people make or what they do or do not do in their private lives is none of our business, no matter how strange we may find it or what we may “think” it to mean.
There are two more minor details, beyond that of the curious little paper sack, that that are often passed over in this case that any interested party should take note of; these points of interest are as follows:
- The suspect seemed to have an intimate working knowledge of that specific model of commercial airliner; precisely what the minimum safe airspeed at low altitudes was and that the aft air-stair could be safely deployed while in-flight (the Boeing 727 is the only commercial jet airliner ever produced with that feature). This may suggest that the suspect was a former airman, since civilian aviation crew members would not have had reason or the opportunity to gain that knowledge as part of their civilian training.
- The CIA reportedly used Boeing 727’s over Vietnam to drop personnel and supplies behind enemy lines. They allegedly chose the 727 for its ability to drop the air-stair while in-flight. The Boeing Corporation manufactured only four of the military version of the 727; three of which were ultimately assigned to the 201st Airlift Squadron, Air National Guard, District of Columbia based in Washington D.C. Coincidently; Northwest Orient Airline’s flight 305 originated that morning of November 24, 1971 out of Washington D.C. Also curious to note is that the Washington (State) Air National Guard is based out of Camp Murray in Tacoma, Washington and that the suspect reportedly recognized the city of Tacoma and other area landmarks from the air as they were circling in the holding pattern prior to landing in Seattle.
I would like to stress to the reader that the fantastic conspiracy described above very likely never occurred at all, in any form or fashion. The discussion presented here serves only to make the observation that it was physically possible to do so at the time and not to suggest that it was probable in the least. The four crew members implicated as co-conspirators in this version of events were thoroughly interviewed by investigators and have since continued to cooperate fully with the authorities in charge of the case. They have not at any juncture been considered viable suspects in any capacity. I trust that the authorities in this case had and continue to have sound reasoning for excluding these four individuals from consideration as suspects, and I suggest to the reader that we all must accept this as fact and let it go at that.