by Jim Bates
On January 18, 1996 the Boston Globe, a daily newspaper published in Boston,
Massachusetts carried a small article with the headline "Jet Stairs Deploy in Flight." A
Reuters news item with a dateline of San Antonio, Texas gave a brief amount of the
unusual in-flight incident:
A Trans World Boeing 727 with 72 people aboard landed at San Antonio
International Airport Tuesday night after the aircraft's rear stairs deployed in flight. TWA
Flight 199 was flying from St. Louis to San Antonio when a cockpit warning light
indicated that the stairs under the jet's tail engine had become unlocked, an airline
The pilot descended to 3,000 feet and depressurized the cabin so that the stairs,
which are behind a bulkhead door in the rear of the aircraft, could be retracted. "A crew
member reached around, grabbed the handle, and pulled, raising the stairs hydraulically,"
[the spokesman] said. A rope was tied around the handle to keep the stairs raised.... TWA
policy requires that the rear stairs be lowered when an aircraft is on the ground as a
safety precaution, and crews use the stairs to gain access.
The airline is reviewing maintenance operations at St. Louis-Lambert International
Airport. The jet was back in service yesterday.
Another newspaper story appeared the same day in the nationally distributed USA
Today, but that account had more of the story. Its headline was "Crew Member
Held by Belts Shuts Airborne Jet's Stairs" and reporter Robert Davis wrote:
A stairwell on a Trans World Airlines dropped in flight, and a crew member
tethered by seat belts pulled it closed.... The three-member cockpit crew first noticed the
problem at an altitude of 35,000 feet when a light flashed, warning the stairs under the
plane's tail were ajar. Crew members peered out a window on the back door leading to
the stairs and saw the stairs had dropped about two feet. Flight attendants moved
passengers away. The pilot descended to 3,000 feet and depressurized the cabin so the
crew could open the door and one could grab a lever for the hydraulic system that
operates the stairs. The crew member who reached for the lever was tied with seat belts
so another could hold him. The stairs rose, but didn't latch, so the crew members tied the
lever in place.... Mechanics in San Antonio serviced the hydraulic system that operates
the stairs. The plane, operated by TWA since 1969, flew its scheduled route
Federal officials showed little interest because there were no injuries and no
Part of TWA's investigation will focus on why a latch designed after the USA's only
unsolved skyjacking failed to keep the stairs closed.... "There is a lock that is supposed to
prevent [the door opening]....the stairs sometimes get stuck, requiring service before the
plane leaves the gate, but [the TWA spokesman] says he doesn't know of another in-
flight problem with the stairs.
Therein Lies a Tale
Late in the afternoon of November 24, 1971 an inconspicuous middle-aged man wearing
a plain suit and dark glasses boarded Flight 305, a three-engine Boeing 727-100
commercial jet aircraft belonging to Northwest Airlines, home-based in Minnesota. He
got on board in Portland, Oregon, north bound for the Seattle-Tacoma (known locally as
SEA-TAC) Airport in Seattle, Washington. Scheduled take-off was 4:35 P.M.
The man's name on the plane's manifest was Dan Cooper. There was also a male
passenger already on board named Michael Cooper, traveling from Missoula, Montana to
Seattle. (The press was later credited with identifying the middle-aged man as "D.B.
Cooper" and that identifier has remained in most accounts since that time.)
D.B. Cooper gained sudden notoriety as the perpetrator of the FBI's only major unsolved
"skyjacking." He became the first and only "successful " parachuting skyjacker in
American history, successful in that he disappeared with $200,000 in ransom money. His
deed led to elaborate airport security systems and to redesign of the Boeing 727 jetliner
so the rear door could not be opened in flight. (Obviously, the redesign was flawed, as
shown by newspaper reports 24 years later ).
There were 35 other passengers on Flight 305 out of Portland for a 175-mile flight-a
short hop for a 727 jet. The plane got a late start and finally lifted off the runway at 4:45
P.M.. When the plane reached cruising altitude, "Dan Cooper," sitting in an aisle seat
toward the rear of the plane, gave a stewardess a note and quietly said to her, "Read that."
She was stunned, but she was careful not to let passengers see any reaction. She showed
the note to another stewardess, who was equally shocked, but who also remained quiet,
not visibly shaken by what she had read. The first stewardess was reported to have
delivered an oral amount of the message to the aircraft captain.
Accounts are blurred as to what actually happened to the note itself. One version, given
much later, by a freelance writer (Richard T. Tosaw, former FBI special agent who
became a finder of missing heirs) published in Parachutist Magazine (the
official publication of the United States Parachute Association) reported that the note
stated: "I HAVE A BOMB IN MY BRIEFCASE. I WILL USE IT IF NECESSARY. I
WANT YOU TO SIT BESIDE ME. YOU ARE BEING HIJACKED." A newspaper
story some time after the event said that the first stewardess who was shown the note was
also shown the inside of the man's briefcase, in which she saw what she thought was a
However, the actual wording of the note remains a mystery. A book published in 1985
("D.B. Cooper: What Really Happened" by Max Gunther; Contemporary Books Inc.,
Chicago) cited that the note "was neatly hand-printed in ink. Its precise wording is lost to
history, for the business-suited man [the hijacker] reclaimed it." The book author (a
former editor for Business Week, Time, and True magazines) went on to write that two stewardesses remembered "its gist with stark
clarity." Gunther noted, "It said that the man had a bomb in his case. He wanted
$200,000 in twenty dollar bills and four parachutes to be delivered to him when the plane
landed in Seattle. If his demands were not satisfied, he intended to blow up the airplane.
Gunther went on to describe what happened when the pilot came back to the middle-aged
man's seat to see if the matter was a hoax. Moving into a seat next to the skyjacker, who
had moved over to a window seat, the captain quietly asked: "What's this about a
"The man opened the case and closed it again quickly. In that brief glimpse, [the captain]
saw two red cylinders and a jumble of wires. " Persuaded by what he had seen, the
captain reported to the flight deck and radioed SEA-TAC Airport.
D.B. Cooper ordered that the 727 was to circle SEA-TAC until the money and the four
parachutes were ready to be delivered to him. Northwest's president was reached at home
in Minneapolis and made a quick decision: "Do whatever the man demands.':
The hijacker's demands were met when the plane landed in Seattle. Harried airline
officials and FBI agents had to hustle to acquire what the skyjacker demanded and have it
ready for him in less than an hour.
The parachute types specified by D.B. Cooper, according to author Gunther, were
acquired from a sport parachute center in Issaquah, Washington-two standard
emergency back-type and two chest-type auxiliary parachutes (the latter generally termed
reserve chutes, for back-up emergency use if the main chute should malfunction when a
sport parachutist was making a jump). The parachute center in Issaquah provided the two
chest packs and Earl Cossey, a parachuting instructor at the Issaquah drop zone as well as
an FAA Master Parachute Rigger, contacted at his nearby home, brought two back-type
rigs from his parachute workshop there and delivered them to the parachute school. (The
types and number of parachutes asked for by D.B. Cooper led to early speculation that
the skyjacker might have freefall parachuting experience and that he might have an
The FBI prepared the ten thousand $20 bills that made up the $200,000 demanded. To
identify the money, all the bills were photographed with a high-speed Recordak machine
to create a microfilm later to be used to prepare a list of serial numbers.
Everything the skyjacker wanted was ready at the airport when the airport tower radioed
the plane at 5:24 P.M.. -"We're ready down here.': Flight 305 touched down sixteen
minutes later, at 5:40.
With money and parachutes on board, all passengers and two of three stewardesses were
freed. The hijacker ordered the plane to be flown to Mexico. Following the hijacker's
instructions, the 727 was fully refueled for a southbound flight and a refueling stop in
Reno, Nevada, after which the plane would head across the U.S.-Mexico international
border. The hijacker made no demands about the route to be flown. Instead, he gave the
pilot instructions to fly with landing gear down, flaps set at 15-degrees, not exceed speed
of 150 knots (172.5 mph), and not to fly above 10,000 feet altitude. The stewardess and
three flight deck members were not to leave the crew compartment. As the stewardess
closed the door she saw the man strapping a canvas sack about his waist. The man later
known as D.B. Cooper was then alone in the large passenger compartment.
About 8 o'clock the flight engineer saw a red "door open" warning light appear on his
array of flight instruments. No specific door was indicated but the flight crew suspected
it was for the passenger stairs in the aft section, beneath the plane's tail assembly and the
rear-mounted engine. The 727 was the only plane to have such passenger access. At 8:10
PM., 24 minutes into the flight south, the 727 crossed the Lewis River in southeast
Washington, about 25 miles north of Portland. Author Gunther wrote: "Passing over the
river, the plane performed an odd little curtsy and needed to be trimmed to bring it back
to level flight." When the plane landed in Reno, D.B. Cooper was gone. So was the
money and two parachutes. Nothing has never been ascertained about what happened to
the man who commandeered the 727.
Over the course of eighteen days after D.B. Cooper disappeared from the airplane a force
of 200 soldiers from Fort Lewis Washington tramped across a ten-square-mile area in an
intensive search of the rugged forested area over which it was calculated the skyjacker
had bailed out of the 727. But there are also scattered farms on lower land areas, which
would have made ideal landing areas. The FBI had used a computer to pinpoint his exit
point as being over Lake Merwin, which was formed by damming the Lewis River.
But no sign of the hijacker's body was found, nor any clue as to what happened to him-
no parachute or parts, no clothing, no money.
A couple of crafty men later tried to capitalize on D.B. Cooper's daring deed. Instead
they became captured and convicted criminals themselves. Just over a year later, in
December 1972 two men were found guilty in a federal court of defrauding a former
national magazine editor with a sham interview with skyjacker Cooper. The two men got
$30,000 from the editor by having one of the men pose as the parachuting hijacker. After
five hours of jury deliberation the two arrested men were found guilty on all of several
counts of federal fraud charges.
On February 13, 1980 an Associated Press newspaper article reported that an eight-year-
old boy on a family picnic along the Columbia River, about five miles northwest of
Vancouver, Washington, discovered $5,800 in three bundles of weathered $20 bills. The
money-by its serial numbers-was identified by the FBI as part of the amount given to
Later in 1980, on July 12, a distraught young man, thought to be between the ages of 17-
20, and wearing mirrored aviator glasses, commandeered a Northwest Airlines 727 at the
Seattle-Tacoma Airport as it taxied to a runway for a flight to Portland, Oregon. He said
he had a bomb in his briefcase and demanded two parachutes. Some three hours into the
standoff, the "wannabe" hijacker let women and children among the 52 passengers and
seven crew members leave the airplane, now parked on a taxiway. A newspaper report
later said, "A female flight attendant slipped [the man] three valiums in a drink." That
apparently had a welcome effect on him since he later allowed all passengers and two
crew members to also leave. The UPI newspaper report also said he "slowly reduced his
demands from $100,000 and two parachutes to a rental car and three cheeseburgers." The
confrontation lasted about ten hours before an FBI agent-an expert in hijacking
situations-persuaded the young man to surrender. He was taken to a youth detention
center and in court the next day he was charged with first-degree kidnapping and first-
La-La Land Gives it a Try
In 1981 Hollywood's Polygram Pictures produced a fanciful, highly speculative,
romanticized, "what if" movie, "The Pursuit of D.B. Cooper," said to be based on the
book "Free Fall." It starred Robert Duvall, Treat Williams, Kathryn Harrold, and Ed
Flanders. The musical score included the song "Shine," written and sung by Waylon
Jennings. But name actors and the singing of a renowned country musical star didn't help
the picture. One reviewer called it "a disposable movie. " It didn't last long in
"Cooper Capers" / "Cooper Day"
Five years after the skyjacking in 1976, the people of Ariel, Washington began
celebrating the event with a "D.B. Cooper Party." One fan said, "I like to think the guy
got away with it." Also, in 1984, members of the USAF squadron that sent two F-16s in
pursuit of Cooper (locating only the plane, not the parachutist) held their own affair, the
"D.B. Cooper Debacle Dining-In, " a formal dinner at McChord Air Force Base.
Twenty years later annual parties, known as the "Cooper Caper" or "Cooper Day, " and
always on the Saturday after Thanksgiving and including one or more parachute jumps,
continue to be held at the Ariel Store and Tavern, says current owner Donna Elliott. She
added that people from all over the world make it a point to visit Ariel to take part in the
annual parties celebrating D.B. Cooper's spectacular escapade. "We even have a
"Cooper's Corner" here in the store and tavern with all kinds of newspaper and magazine
articles about D.B. Cooper."
The criminal had become a cult hero.
The author can be contacted via e-mail: ParaHistry@aol.com
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