Drop Zone and D.B. Cooper!

America’s first and most infamous skyjacker, D.B. Cooper,  is said to have made a fatalistic jump from the aft stairs of the Boeing 727 on that night so long ago, November 24, 1971. From that point forward both the Feds and so many in the press were disposed to believe that “Dan Cooper” could not have survived the jump. This attitude has remained ingrained in us today.  Despite a number of living suspects having been put forward in the popular forum, despite the popular wish that he had made it, most nevertheless think he didn’t have a chance.

However, greed inspires others; and from this we get a clue. Soon there were other skyjackers, all hitting 727s because those were the only aircraft with rear stairs that could be lowered in flight. Richard Floyd McCoy is the most famous example of the successful copycatter, but he eventually got caught. His mistake? He hadn’t jumped in a wilderness area.

Richard Floyd McCoy — some think he was D.B. Cooper because he carried off a $500,000 smackeral 727 heist in copycat of Cooper. There is some resemblance, but the stewardesses said it was not him. He died in a shootout with the G-Men.

It would seem that D.B. Cooper jumping into the rugged and untamed wilderness north of Portland was his biggest mistake. Even if his chute opened, how could a man in a business suit survive slicing through the pine branches and then finding his way out of the thick underwood?

The question is probably not necessary. Dan Cooper did appear to have thought things out. Dropping into a wilderness wasn’t his big mistake. It was rather the result of inspiration. And, in truth, he really didn’t drop into “rugged wilderness.” He chose a compromise.

The revised drop zone placed Cooper as having jumped around Woodland, Washington, near both the Lewis and Columbia rivers. The wind (as last recorded) was from the west, meaning he would drift easterly.  Placing him at about 180 pounds, his drift would be in a confined track line east/southeast of the Woodland area.

This area between Woodland and La Center is hardly wilderness. Huge fields checkerboard with stands and oases of woods. There is more than enough room to get a small plane in. There’s more than enough country roads to access most of the area.

Rumors of such a get-away plan naturally surfaced early. One such account even found memorial in the late great In Search of in 1979, in which we were told that unsubstantiated rumors said that locals near La Center, Washington, saw such a small aircraft coming and going from a field days in advance, responding to the signaling flashes of the headlights of a parked car.  After the skyjacking it stopped. Were these events rehearsals?

La Center

La Center was then a very small farming town in the forest. In Search of reminded us that most of the town was that Thanksgiving eve in the Free Evangelical Church attending the wedding of the town’s popular music teacher. Could D.B. Cooper have known about this?

La Center is at the southern area of the probable drop zone.

Such a scenario as outlined by the rumors would mean an accomplice. But did D.B. Cooper take that chance? Those who copycatted him did not.

But we must remember that copycats don’t have original inspiration. None could possibly plan as much as Cooper had. Cooper was the first. He set the precedence. The original inspiration was his. It is not surprising that Cooper alone was never caught. He was never caught because he jumped toward a wilderness. Every clue underscores how he had planned meticulously in advance. He told the pilots how to fly that plane, at what altitude, at what degree to have the flaps down, and he even knew the aft stairs could be lowered in flight, which even the stewardess didn’t know.

Dropzone

The most probable drop zone. Huge bottom land fields west of Woodland and interspersed fields all the way to La Center southeast of Woodland.

One thing Cooper didn’t know– he didn’t know that those aft stairs after being lowered would bounce back up when he jumped off, that is, they would come back up and then lower again. Acting like a rudder, it caused the entire plane to dip its nose a bit– to “genuflect.” The crew, huddled in the cabin at Cooper’s orders, figured it was about 8:15 p.m. Since the rear door placard was found  about 13 miles east of Castle Rock, wind drift tells us that  Flight 305 was west of Castle Rock at that moment. Close to 15 minutes later and the flight would be around Woodland when Cooper jumped.

Dropzone-closer

Beetling in a little closer, we see the field network. It is more developed today than back then, but it was hardly wilderness.

D.B. Cooper would have to have things timed perfectly. What is the point in going to all this trouble just to jump into thickets and woods? He must have flown the route before. He must have flown it in a private aircraft to check landmarks from the sky. That night he had ordered the pilots to fly that Boeing 727 under 200 mph– a speed that a small private aircraft can make. He had things timed.

Even if the La Center reports are just rubbish, it is a scenario that must have been considered by Cooper. Whether those were test runs that were later abandoned for another method of picking him up we do not know.

Dropzone-closer2

Even closer. . .

What we do know is that the terrain between Woodland and La Center is hardly wilderness.

The original drop zone estimate around Ariel further north, with wind drift, would have placed Cooper in some of the nasty, dense forests, and thus it seemed much more reasonable to assume Cooper didn’t make it. But the revised drop zone seems far more survivable.

There are those that can logically argue that such precision was not possible. There was no way that Cooper could have known exactly what path that Boeing would fly on the way south. Not entirely true. Due to the altitude he dictated, there was really only one way south in order to avoid the large mountains. This was back to Portland.

I don’t think he could have afforded to have a plane standing by near La Center, however, as that presupposed he knew what the wind drift would be like. It could be, however, that he figured La Center would, in fact, be the center of his drop zone no matter what, since the airliner would normally be a little further east in its flight path.

We can second guess it forever. But one thing is fairly certain. Cooper was really not jumping into a wilderness area. Rural yes. Interspersed with swaths of forest definitely.

There was no way possible that Dan Cooper could have drifted to any location near the Columbia River down stream of where only 3 bundles of the ransom money were later found in 1980 at Tina Bar north of Portland. The fact the money was found there suggests it was later dumped.

Cooper
Latin looking, a bit tanned, thin, cool, smoking his Raleighs and drinking bourbon and soda. This image captured our adventurous imaginations in the antiestablishment era and we still wonder today who this enigma was.

D.B. Cooper pulled off the daredevil crime of the century and in some respects succeeded. Even if he didn’t get a chance to spend his ill gotten gains, he may indeed have survived. He became the “Jesse James of the Jet Age”– smooth, whiskey drinking, smoking his Raleighs, in a black business suit. Success or failure, it remains amazing he has not been identified.  He has left enormous mystery in his wake, and now 44 years later people still want to know what happened to this outlaw of the outer limits.

*         *          *

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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