I can't clearly recall where I was or what I was doing when D.B. Cooper's astonishing hijacking of a Northwest Airlines 727 on a rainy, November night in 1971 was headline news. Today marks the 40th of anniversary of an event that remains a mystery to this day. Given the paranoia over airline security today, it seems of another age.
I do remember getting intensely interested in the Cooper adventure when I started skydiving a year later. The crime was still fresh in the public memory and the investigation was still active then and remains active to this day. In the months following Cooper's hijacking, there were a handful of copycat attempts, all of them unsuccessful. But was Cooper's successful or has his body just never been found? No one knows. There are lots of theories and there's a small army of D.B. Cooper amateur investigators out there, plus a handful of books. In this video, made just this week, airline pilot and skydiver Dan Gryder hints at his own theory and although he gives us a glimpse at one important cluethe moneyhe doesn't tell us enough to make a judgment one way or another.
Improbably, Gryder talked a local bank into stacking $200,000 in small bills on a table for his video. Note the volume. It weighs 21 pounds and isn't something you'd stuff into a small carry-on. Controversy swirls around what equipment Cooper actually jumped with. Amateur investigators have turned up inconsistencies in the claimed ownership of the parachutes. Two backpack rigs and two belly mount reserves were supposedly delivered to the airplane.
One of the reserves was a dummy training pack which was inadvertently delivered to the airplane from a skydiving operation in a rush to get the rigs to the hijacked airplane. Since it was gone when the airplane landed, many assume Cooper used it as a pack for the cash, strapping it to himself with parachute cord cut from the good reserve, which was found still onboard. Since the rig he is believed to have used didn't have D-rings, Cooper may have strapped the makeshift pack to his waist with cord. Cooper is thought to have jumped with an NB-8, a Navy bailout rig, with a 26-foot Navy conical canopy.
He exited at 10,000 feet at about 180 knots, with the 727s gear down and flaps at 15 degrees. Since skydivers of the day exited airplanes flying at half that speed, it was assumed by someperhaps even the FBI--that the exit itself was unsurvivable. But I doubt that. Gryder himself has exited a 727, I know others who have as well and in 2006, I wrote about a world record skydive in which we exited at 190 knots true airspeed. I wouldn't call it pleasant, necessarily, but it's eminently survivable. At that speed, the slipstream hits you like a hammer, but it's possible to remain relatively stable. If he was experienced in free fall, Cooper might have delayed his pull to bleed off the exit speed and deployed at terminal velocity. The NB-8 had no sleeve or deployment bag, so the opening shock would have been considerable, but hardly fatal. It would have knocked off his slip-on loafers.
The landing is another matter. The Navy conical is an emergency canopy, not a sport ride. It's not steerable and having jumped them myself, I can tell you the descent rate is brisk. Cooper was over a heavily forested area with 50- to 100-foot fir trees. It was raining at altitude and dark. A tree landing under the best of circumstances is risky. In those conditions, it's a nightmare. It's not so much a question of immediate death as it is being injured and having to walk a long way out of the wilderness. Still, considering some of the revelations of 40 years of investigation, I agree with Gryder that Cooper probably survived. (Gryder thinks he landed in a different area, which was flatter and less heavily wooded.)
But if he did survive, why he never spent a dime of the money he took so much risk to get is another puzzling part of what may remain an unsolved mystery.