South by Northwest — Assessing D.B. Cooper

Assessing D.B. Cooper. Indeed. After one investigates the actual sequence of events leading up to and after the skyjacking on November 24, 1971, one must proceed to assess which fork in the road to take. Did D.B. Cooper survive or did he “splatter”?  Before one can investigate and begin the process of elimination to try and identify the most notorious skyjacker in history, one must sort this out.

Ralph Himmelsbach, the lead Fed, preferred to believe that Cooper “splattered.” The wise guys told him the chances of someone in a business suit without a helmet jumping from a jet airliner at 10,000 feet on a stormy night. They didn’t even think his shoes– only loafers– would stay on. How could someone like this survive hitting the ground, slogging through muddy prairies, and then through the dense undergrowth of the forest? How could he even get through the dense pine forests on the way to the ground without being shredded by the trees?

Basically all we officially know of “Dan Cooper.”

Even long after he retired, Himmelsbach searched the wilderness in the area he thought the most probable drop zone. The problem is Feds aren’t very good with street investigation. It’s not their turf. To read an FBI influenced report is to see how detailed, meticulous, analytical they can be at a higher level. They are quite logistic, which is good. But the street is not their turf. Even more so, the forest is no lawman’s turf.

Ralph Himmelsbach nor any lawman was at an advantage here.

Ralph Himmelsbach warns that the Bureau has a long memory– In Search of 1979.

What the FBI had done in the initial phase of the search in 1971-1972 was to alert the banks about the serial numbers. How often tellers checked, we do not know. The Bureau did sweeps of missing persons and felons who had skydiving skills.  They checked into missing persons. Who had not come home? What neighbors are missing? Abandoned cars? No one fit.

But the wilderness has no cross reference and no one is there to assist. This was the last known location of D.B. Cooper.

Because agent Himmelsbach preferred to believe Cooper died in the jump, he eventually limited himself to a personal pursuit of looking for a needle in a haystack. Somewhere that red parachute or pieces thereof should be found. A body. A chewed suit. Even a loafer. How about the briefcase that contained the “bomb”?  Neither he nor anybody ever found anything to indicate what happened to Dan Cooper.

As the years went by, it seemed something should turn up if he lived or died. One of those $20 dollar bills if he lived, some relic of his passing in the wilderness if he died. Nothing.

A relic was not improbable in the wilderness. The survival of some bit of clothing or parachute or even the money was confirmed in 1978 when hunter Carroll Hicks while stalking elk came across  the remnant of the warning placard that had been sucked out of the Boeing 727 when Cooper lowered the aft stairs in flight and the suction yanked it out.

Some 15 minutes after this Dan Cooper jumped with the $200,000 wrapped around his waist in the remnant of one of the parachute sacks he didn’t need. Yet not a trace of any of the clothes, parachute, briefcase has been found. Even if he survived a remnant of the briefcase should have been found. He could not have held on to that all the way down. Nada.

The search at Tina Bar.

Then in 1980 3 bundles of the ransom money were found on Tina Bar, north of Portland. One bundle was shy 200 bucks worth of 20s, making the total amount recovered 5,800 dollars instead of $6,000.00.

This changed everybody’s mind as to just where the 727 was when Dan Cooper jumped.

The calculations had undergone several adjustments even during the search in 1971. Now 9 years later it was time to reconsider. The first calculation proposed that the 727 was near Merwin Dam by Ariel, Washington, when Cooper jumped. Then it seemed the flight had to be further west, and Captain Scott, the pilot, later came to that view as well. It seemed somewhere by Woodland, Washington, was more likely.

By the time 1980 rolled around and the location of the money on Tina Bar, these were 9 year old calculations that had inspired searches that had found nothing. Now it seemed the Woodland one had to be wrong. Woodland is north of where the money was found. Nothing drifts upriver.  Could it be the original was truly the most accurate? Himmelsbach began to think so. The only answer is that Cooper drifted from near Ariel southeast to the Washougal Valley. There he splattered. Over time floods or whatever moved some of the money down to the Washougal River. There it floated in the Columbia, through Portland, past Caterpillar Island and a few bundles beached on Tina Bar.

The first arrow at top of map indicates Woodland where it was later thought probable that Cooper jumped. Star marks Caterpillar Island. Second arrow marks the Washougal. Lake Merwin and Merwin Dam are at the top of the map.

This alone seemed to explain the location of the money and the evidence it had been in the water for a while before it had washed up onto the sand bar within a 3 foot layer of sediment. Clearly flood had moved the money and enough sediment to deposit 3 feet of it, with the money scattered in it, upon Tina Bar.


However, nothing has been found in the Washougal Valley to suggest that D.B. Cooper’s remains are there. Moreover, Himmelsbach used as supporting evidence for his theory the report of a pilot, Bohan by name, who was flying his airliner behind the 727 but at a higher altitude. Bohan said the wind was 180 on the nose. Why did Himmselbach not notice that this would be a headwind from the location of Flight 305 to the Washougal? How could Cooper drift southeast into a southeast headwind? It is impossible. And Woodland is too far. If the wind at Cooper’s altitude here was favorable and drifting toward the southeast he was too far away to drift over 25 miles to the Washougal from Woodland. If Cooper jumped in either location he could not have drifted into a headwind.

How then did the money get where it was found?

Neither wind, adjusted location for the flight route, nor anything natural can explain how the money got to Tina Bar.

Because of this the location of the money did not settle the question on what happened to D.B. Cooper. It only raised questions. Did he survive? Did he find out the Feds had taken down the serial numbers and the extorted gains were no good? Did he pitch it afterward? On some dark night did he go out in a boat and dump the money in the river? If he did, when? The sediment band in which was located the money was on top of a band of sediment cast up when the Columbia was dredged in 1974, 3 years after the skyjacking.

Ralph Himmelsbach’s theory could explain it if it hadn’t been for the wind making the Washougal impossible and therewith any subsequent drift of the money in the Columbia River.

Did Dan Cooper survive and get rid of the incriminating money? With the Washougal seemingly out of the picture, and with this a defined landing location to scour removed from the equation it seemed easier to follow through on the probability that “Dan Cooper,” the “Jesse James of the Jet Age,” survived.

It is this fork that I elected to take, and this is the path that led me to my POI.

I preferred that D.B. Cooper splattered. It would be more enticing to think one can traipse across beautiful forests and suddenly find his remains or those of the rest of the money and get a whopping reward! But those chances are slim, and in 44 years no one has done so despite the example of Carroll Hicks finding a needle in a haystack in 1978.

In taking this fork, we must accept that Cooper buried his red parachute and made it out of the forest; that nobody has come across his briefcase out there with the “bomb” or didn’t know what it was; that he did not spend any significant amount of the money (though 200 bucks was missing from one bundle recovered); that he was a local Portlander or that he returned to dump the money.

The last step on the aft stairs of Flight 305 is the last sure step we know of “Dan Cooper.”

More than this we must accept the obvious clues and evidence that Cooper was qualified to make the jump.  That he took time to learn the 727 and the route. Equally, we must accept that he took the time to plan out a drop zone. He knew where to have those flaps set on the plane, what altitude to order it to fly– everything. He must have taken equal care about his escape.

Let us pursue this further in our next D.B. Cooper post.


*         *          *

For 25 years Gian J. Quasar has investigated a broad range of mysterious subjects, from strange disappearances to serial murders, earning in that time the unique distinction of being likened to “the real life Kolchak.” However, he is much more at home with being called The Quester. “He’s bloody eccentric, an historian with no qualifications who sticks his nose into affairs and gets results.” He is the author of several books, one of which inspired a Resolution in Congress.


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