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D.B. Cooper Redux

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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 clue—the money—he 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 some—perhaps 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.

Comments (46)

Type of parachute or not, what do you think? What would be the probability of someone surviving if you kicked him out of a car in the mountain wilderness on a cold, rainy, November night in the Lewis Mountains without knowing where he was and not being psychologically or physically suited, or dressed and equipped for survival?

I've attended four Air Force survival schools -- believe me, it takes training and some basic equipment beyond his apparent level of preparation and cognition.

Posted by: Gary Dikkers | November 23, 2011 11:50 PM    Report this comment

People still believe the ruse that he jumped? That's how you elude a search...

Posted by: Mark Fraser | November 24, 2011 6:41 AM    Report this comment

As a skydiver with many jumps from a 727, it is indeed survivable, even with a higher-speed-than-normal exit. Leaving the slipstream only takes a few seconds, then it's a normal skydive. I'm sure he is enjoying life and laughing at all his scoffers.

Posted by: Victoria Croston | November 24, 2011 7:38 AM    Report this comment

BTW - my last name is now Croston,not Jarvis. Dan...forgot to say "Good video" and that I believe you are correct. Nice job.

Posted by: Victoria Croston | November 24, 2011 7:46 AM    Report this comment

"As a skydiver with many jumps from a 727, it is indeed survivable..."

Victoria,

Sure, the jump could have been survivable. But survival on the ground is another matter. He wasn't equipped or prepared to survive the ground environment. He landed in rugged terrain in the middle of the night with no clue where exactly he was. (He could have easily landing in a steep-ravine impossible for him to climb out.)

Even surviving the jump, exposure would have claimed him unless lucking enough to stumble onto a cabin or refuge -- both rare in the Lewis Mountains.

Posted by: Gary Dikkers | November 24, 2011 11:03 AM    Report this comment

I read a story where the writer interviewed a man in prison. He claimed that he was D.B. Cooper, and that he had tossed the parachutes out the door, and had concealed himself in the ceiling of the lavatory, and then he just walked away from the airplane at some point after it had landed. Hard to imagine that he wouldn't have been discovered in a search of the airplane for clues. Interesting theory, though.

Posted by: Unknown | November 24, 2011 11:11 AM    Report this comment

D.B. survived the jump. Sadly, he sucumended to sasquatch...

Posted by: David Reeve | November 24, 2011 1:07 PM    Report this comment

Paul, the 2006 727 jump link doesn't work, can you update us with the current URL?

Posted by: David Chuljian | November 24, 2011 1:12 PM    Report this comment

The link to the world record skydive report ends in "htmlL". Delete the spurious capital "L" from the URL and it works fine.

www.avweb.com /news/features/191584-1.html

Posted by: James DeLaHunt | November 24, 2011 1:43 PM    Report this comment

Thanks, James! (I fixed it in the story, too.)

Scott Simmons webmaster

Posted by: Scott Simmons | November 24, 2011 5:24 PM    Report this comment

The perfect mystery, like Schrodinger's Cat, until the box is openened, every solution is equally true.

Posted by: Richard Montague | November 25, 2011 9:25 AM    Report this comment

Note that Gryder is using this as a teaser for his upcoming revelation in 2012--what's missing from the table, etc. What I noticed missing was any kind of survival gear, from which I infer that Gryder may be of the "he never jumped" school of thought. I spend 2-3 weeks every summer on a solo arctic kayak trip and the thought of being stuck in the woods, with no tent, food, or sleeping bag and possibly injured, trying to haul a suitcase full of money--it doesn't sound like a well thought out plan to me. If DB was as smart as Gryder says, an actual jump wouldn't make sense. Guess I'll have to wait until 2012 :-)

Posted by: David Chuljian | November 25, 2011 12:16 PM    Report this comment

See the NBC today show on Sunday morning. They are going to interview Himelsbach and my prediction is that he is going to go on camera and say he jumped but never pulled. The body and money are laying out there in a long covered crater. My story will tell you why he is wrong. Hang on! Its coming!

Posted by: Dan Gryder | November 25, 2011 4:12 PM    Report this comment

Many of you are correct - the intelligence and planning involved in pulling this off would not be consistent with attempting the actual jump into these conditions. But how do we know it was DB who didn't jump? Perhaps the man calling himself Cooper was actually a crew member who simply changed back into his uniform and walked off the airplane in Seattle.

Posted by: Walt Bates | November 28, 2011 9:22 AM    Report this comment

There is an FBI video on YOUTUBE and you can find it by searching: FBI SAC LARRY CARR 2008 D.B. COOPER EVIDENCE. At the 1:20 - 1:50 point in the video, highly experienced jumper (tongue in cheek) Larry Carr explains that the man was so panicked and disoriented that he was unable to pull the handle. Come on Larry Mr. FBI, nobody buys that. You guys botched all aspects of this and you know it. He was ready, he jumped. He pulled and he was just fine. The winds at 10,000 were out strong out of the southeast. Why did you guys spend all your efforts looking for weeks EAST of the known flight path?!?! The secret to survival in doing what he did is knowing what the winds are, and knowing where you are, and knowing when to get out. This is called "spotting". This guy self spotted, and he did pretty good. I know how he did it. Dan

Posted by: Dan Gryder | November 28, 2011 10:01 AM    Report this comment

"This guy self spotted, and he did pretty good. I know how he did it."

Self-spotting with virtual no navigation equipment on a rainy, cold, dark night into rugged mountains? Please?

Posted by: Gary Dikkers | November 28, 2011 11:37 AM    Report this comment

You need to buy a three dollar sectional and take a look at the flight path and the winds aloft before you post any more. Youve just helped me clearly illustrate why this case has gone unsolved until now. Youre blindly believing what they tell you, and the the sheep like masses of America- instead of figuring it out for yourself. Being hurt and wet in the Lewis Mountains would not have been good. Our guy made sure that never happened. If youre a pilot with at least average knowledge and tools, you can figure this out as well. Youve told me what you have READ. Now tell me what you KNOW because you went there, or talked to someone in person who was there that night.

Posted by: Dan Gryder | November 28, 2011 1:51 PM    Report this comment

"If youre a pilot with at least average knowledge and tools, you can figure this out as well."

Why yes, I am a pilot -- and also one who graduated from four Air Force survival schools, spent two years with the 82nd Airborne Division, and served a tour with MACV-SOG supporting long-range patrols along the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos and Cambodia. I have a bit of an idea what it's like to jump out of an airplane on a cold, dark night.

Actually, one of the more bizarre theories out there is that DB Cooper was a rouge MACV-SOG agent who got the idea to make a big score after returning form Indochina. (And it does have some elements of a SOG op.)

Posted by: Gary Dikkers | November 28, 2011 3:03 PM    Report this comment

Perfect! Those are excellent qualifications! You must have hundreds of actual jumps yourself. Where was your first one made at? With that kind of background you are all set to stake your claim! Simply draw the known flight path on your sectional, winds at 10,000 were 150/160 above 40 kts. Now assume a standard 6.5 m/sec average full up ROD and explain to the class why you are so sure he landed east of the flight path in the Lewis mountains like our genius FBI claims.

Posted by: Dan Gryder | November 28, 2011 3:51 PM    Report this comment

Another interesting fact: People not experienced at jump operations often go on for mindless hours about brutal high true air speed exits. Even Paul in his attachment references a C-130 exit at 125 KIAS being the same as 218 MPH and how brutal that is on a jumper. 125 KIAS exit speed feels the same to the jumper at 3000 ft as it does at 30,000ft.!! TAS is important if were talking about speed, or maybe fall rate, controlability, etc. but what were talking about is force (in this case - brutality)of the air on the jumper as he exits. Its the same molecules that make the airspeed indicator indicate that are hitting you during exit. TAS has NOTHING to do with effects on a jumper. I dont know what the fastest Ive ever exited was, but like Victoria said above, Ive never known it to be a big deal. Bill said he flew a steady 175 Indicated that night 40 years ago, and I believe him. The body in free fall decelerates within a few seconds to a normal rate. I wasnt in Thailand, but I did jump the stretch C-130 numerous times at Quincy. I would be curious to know how many jumps Paul made as a part of that team in Thailand. Our famous jumper made an easy exit from the stairs and neither the night, nor the cold air, nor the mositure nor the "high" TAS hurt him one bit.

Posted by: Dan Gryder | November 28, 2011 6:32 PM    Report this comment

It's not surviving the jump that is at issue. It was survivable. (Unless he impaled himself on a tree, landed and cracked his noggin on an darkened boulder, or fell in a lake and drowned.) The questions are what shape he was in after landing, what kind of terrain did he land in, did he have any clue exactly where he was, and could he have survived the ground environment?

It's possible, but in my opinion not likely. No inside information, but I have to guess his bones lay somewhere in the Lewis Range of the Cascade Mountains.

I also have to admit that until Paul wrote this blog, I hadn't thought about DB Cooper for years.

If he did survive and we ever meet, I'll owe you a beer.

Posted by: Gary Dikkers | November 28, 2011 7:32 PM    Report this comment

Deal! He survived and I know right where you are. Darker is better, if they have that in cheese land. The flight crew didnt get the white light and subsequent pitch change until 2011 which meant that the Lewis range was 20 nm in the rear view mirror by the time the vane was even touched for the first time. I just wish somebody could tell me why all the effort was placed in searching EAST of I-5.

Posted by: Dan Gryder | November 28, 2011 9:57 PM    Report this comment

Paul Bertorelli says in part: '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...'

Robert replies: According to an audio interview posted at Wiki/DB Cooper, an interview of FBI agent Larry Carr, no one was actually LOOKING for the money within six months after the hijacking. Why? Because the list of numbers ran thirty-four pages, with several rows of non-sequential numbers per page. This list was given to banks in the Northwest, the Federal Reserve Banks, and some casinos in Nevada. It was a nightmare for tellers to try and compare each and every incoming twenty to that massive list. Within 3 to 6 months, Carr admits, most had given up the effort.

I interviewed a Treasury Department official in 2010 about this Cooper money. He told me that they were looking for a while after the hijacking, but it was the same thing, no matter what Himmelsbach and the FBI claim now. After that time, the hijacker could have easily spent the money. The Treasury Department official also added that tens of thousands of worn out or damaged bills are sent in to them each for normal currency replacement by banks, businesses, and individuals. He said they do NOT check or record the numbers. He said they simply check to see that the numbers can be read, and that the bills are not counterfeit. Then...they issue a check out to the bank, business, or individual...and then shred the old bills.

Posted by: Robert Blevins | November 29, 2011 12:12 AM    Report this comment

Slight correction to previous post:

The Treasury Department official also added that tens of thousands of worn out or damaged bills are sent in to them each DAY for normal currency replacement by banks, businesses, and individuals.

Posted by: Robert Blevins | November 29, 2011 12:15 AM    Report this comment

"125 KIAS exit speed feels the same to the jumper at 3000 ft as it does at 30,000ft.!!"

No it doesn't. I've exited Otters at plus 100 knots and the C-130 at 125KIAS at 25,000 and the latter was much different. The air really whacks you in a way it doesn't at the lower TAS. It feels way different. Part of it is temperature.

These record big ways had a lot of exit injuries. Some were due to collisions between 80 jumpers piling out in 10 seconds, some were just sprains and dislocated shoulders from the exit itself. That's no different from the sort of thing you see in ejection seat injuries that don't go as planned.

I know of two accidental reserve deployments right off the ramp at high speed, due to a handle getting bumped. One resulted in a pretty nasty arm and shoulder injury, the other was benign.

I've exited hundreds of times from Otters and CASAs at 90 to 100 knots KIAS in large groups and never seen the potential for exit violence as in the C-130 at high altitude.

Also, I did a few rear facing exits from the 130, with five or six abreast. There's a nasty pool of turbulence near the edge of the ramp and if you don't know about it, it will rip the legs from under you and there's not much to hold on to.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | November 29, 2011 10:04 AM    Report this comment

Come on Paul. You got to think about this one. Indicated is indicated. There is a difference between 100 KIAS and 125 KIAS in terms of "how it whacks you" But there is no difference in a jump at 125 KIAS at 3000 MSL or a jump from the same plane at 125 KIAS and at 30,000 in terms of "how it whacks you" Its impossible. (other than air temp being colder) Its those same pesky molecules doing the "whacking" through the pitot tube that cause it to indicate that are hitting you. Thats why a heavy airliner can fly the same "indicated" approach speeds at Miami that they would at Denver. There is no correction to the crew, just a higher TAS. To an extreme, the shuttle in orbit still has an airspeed indicator, but it indicates zero, even though the craft is "truly" flying 6000 kts or so.

Posted by: Dan Gryder | November 29, 2011 2:14 PM    Report this comment

Well, actually, I have researched it Dan. There's a paper out there somewhere--I'll see if I can find it--that discusses flight dynamics of opening shocks at various altitudes. The upshot is that openings in the 20s are higher G than lower opening because of TAS.

Ditto the dynamics of the exit. Or consider this. If you approach an airport at high elevation, the indicated airspeed you use will be the same as a multiplier of stall speed. But your actual speed will be greater--you need more runway because of speed and lower air density.

But that lower density doesn't help you much by making the molecules "softer" as you seem to imply. You'll feel the dynamics of the higher speed.

OK, found it: Fundamentals of Aerospace Medicine by David, Johnson and Stepanek. "Opening shock is increased when the canopy is deployed at high altitudes. This is because the freefall terminal velocity is greater at high altitudes..."

The exact formula is: maximum deceleration sustained (in Gs) is proportional to the square of the jumper's speed, prior to deployment.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | November 29, 2011 3:42 PM    Report this comment

So, a parachute is a deceleration device. On that we can agree. But when you throw you body into the slipstream, you're nothing but drag and thus you are a deceleration device, too, subject to the same proportional dynamics. True airspeed matters.

And I can tell you at 190 knots, it ain't the same as 120 knots at lower altitude. After I cleared the snot off my visor and gettingt feeling back in my fingers, I had time to ruminate on this.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | November 29, 2011 3:48 PM    Report this comment

So what were talking about is "brutality" in the DB Cooper case. The FBI says it wasnt survivable because of the "brutality" of high TAS, cold, disorientation. All bogus. Lets say you were able to be the spotter and stand on the step of the 727. Youre at 3000 MSL and the guy up front flies a perfect 180 KIAS. You test the waters by sticking your hand out in the stream for a second and note a (arbitrary for example purposes) force of 8 pounds per square inch on your hand. The next day you do the same thing but you are at 20,000 feet and the same guy flying flies a perfect 180 KIAS again on his airspeed indicator per the Boeing books. Youre out there on the step again and you stick your same hand out. Youre telling the world that the force on your hand is now more than 8 pounds per square inch? Really? This is what were talking about. At altitude the 727 would have a much higher TAS, but the force on your hand as you stand on those stairs is EXACTLY the same. Bernoulli was a close friend of mine in '64. Indicated is caused by pressure i.e. "brutality"! Indicated is indicated and it (indicated) has no idea how high you are or how cold it is. Never trust a doctor.

Posted by: Dan Gryder | November 29, 2011 4:24 PM    Report this comment

I'm not suggesting Cooper couldn't or didn't survive the exit and opening. I already said it was clearly survivable. I am only making the academic point that higher altitudes and higher TAS, the opening forces escalate. So do the exit dynamics.

And you'll feel it,

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | November 29, 2011 6:17 PM    Report this comment

And Dan scores his second beer...

Posted by: Dan Gryder | November 29, 2011 7:11 PM    Report this comment

You guys have omitted the fact that comparing exits from a C-130 and an Otter involve two totally different airflow patterns. Kinda like comparing apples and oranges....both are fruit, but different kinds. Interesting to read none-the-less.

Posted by: Victoria Croston | November 29, 2011 8:01 PM    Report this comment

Dan, (now going for his third beer) states: Hey Vickie! You are correct! However the debate has to do with indicated vs. true aarspeed. Airflow patterns will be different with each platform. Thats why I created the imaginary 727 scenario (see above)that anyone could easily visualize. Standing on the stairs and holding your hand out feeling the force of air while the pilot flies a constant 180 KIAS (be about 185 KTAS) is the same force that one would feel on the same hand while the same plane (727) is flown by the same pilot at 20,000 MSL looking at the same airspeed indicator showing 180 KIAS (about 250 KTAS) Where you at, I'll be right over.

Posted by: Dan Gryder | November 29, 2011 8:20 PM    Report this comment

From my understanding of flying and skydiving, you are correct Dan.

Posted by: Victoria Croston | November 29, 2011 8:28 PM    Report this comment

If everybody pays up this will have been the best forum Ive EVER been on!

Posted by: Dan Gryder | November 29, 2011 8:47 PM    Report this comment

It's already the best, since I am on it. I don't drink beer though, so enjoy one for me. To change the subject, are you attending the WAI conference in Dallas in March?

Posted by: Victoria Croston | November 29, 2011 8:58 PM    Report this comment

Thinking of others first, I accept your sacrifice. By my calculations thats makes four for me! I'm not sure about WAI next year, I'd like to but need to finish a few other projects first. Like the DB Cooper documentary. Didnt we meet at WAI Orlando first a few years ago? Or was it SnF?

Posted by: Dan Gryder | November 29, 2011 9:05 PM    Report this comment

WAI and also Oshkosh. I wanted to get the DC-3 rating while in Georgia visiting a skydiver/ pilot friend of mine. Still want to. Maybe someday.

Posted by: Victoria Croston | November 29, 2011 9:10 PM    Report this comment

Wasnt your mom Rosie the riveter?

Posted by: Dan Gryder | November 29, 2011 9:56 PM    Report this comment

Yes, Rose Will Monroe. She was the first human face as Rosie in 1942 when she appeared in war bond films with actor Walter Pidgeon. As a real riveter on B-24s and B-29s, she was honored to do her part to help bring our soldiers home safely. Thanks for remembering!

Posted by: Victoria Croston | November 29, 2011 10:17 PM    Report this comment

That is a huge legend, I do remember - and I remember her service to our country during one of the most critical times we ever faced. There needs to be a story on her/you sometime!

Posted by: Dan Gryder | November 29, 2011 10:48 PM    Report this comment

I didnt make it over to Thailand, Im not near qualified for that kind of RW or camera slot! But I have a couple of friends that were on it and really enjoyed it. I noticed that you said "we exited at 190 ktots true airspeed." So you were on these attempts and jumped as a photog or participant?

Posted by: Dan Gryder | November 30, 2011 9:25 AM    Report this comment

Yes, I was in Thailand. Click the link in the blog for the full story.

Here's the wiki page on Rose. Honored to mention it and have a real live connection here on Avweb.

en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rosie_the_Riveter

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | November 30, 2011 11:32 AM    Report this comment

If the "DB Cooper caper" were a SOG rouge operation, it would not like have been solo, but would have support on the plane an on the ground. Someone on the plane to help with navigation and spotting, and someone on the ground to mark the LZ with a strobe, and help with recovery and first aid if needed.

Did the FBA ever uncover any signs of assistance? Did the flight crew see anything that looked like a strobe on the ground?

Posted by: Gary Dikkers | December 2, 2011 4:55 PM    Report this comment

I would never jump out of an airplane, but I do know there's a difference between rouge and rogue. Although it does amuse me to imagine SOG commandos wearing women's makeup, I couldn't resist the opportunity to point this out, as it's the second time in as many weeks I've seen the improper usage of the word.

Posted by: Mark Consigny | December 6, 2011 1:53 PM    Report this comment

Mark~

Good catch. I do know the difference.

Best.

Posted by: Gary Dikkers | December 6, 2011 7:37 PM    Report this comment

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