Saturday 16 December 2017

Review: Non-fiction: Skyjack: The Hunt For DB Cooper by Geoffrey Gray

Crown Publishing, £15.45

Mystery: The 727 after the
hijack and an
artist's impression of the
mysterious vanishing man
Mystery: The 727 after the hijack and an artist's impression of the mysterious vanishing man

On the afternoon of November 24, 1971, a man in his mid-40s, between 5ft 10in and 6ft, wearing a light raincoat over a dark suit and carrying an attaché case, bought a one-way ticket at the Northwest Orient Airline counter at Portland International Airport in Oregon.

The flight to Seattle was a short one, just half an hour. He paid cash -- $18.52 plus tax, total $20. The plane was only a third full.

He took his seat at the back, lit a cigarette and ordered a bourbon and soda.

The plane took off at 2.50pm local time. He passed the stewardess a note. Florence Schaffner, 23 years old and good looking, was no stranger to messages from male passengers. She slipped it into a purse. "Miss," said the man, "you'd better look at that note. I have a bomb."

She retrieved the note and opened it: "I have a bomb in my briefcase. I want you to sit beside me."

Schaffner sat down. She asked him to open his briefcase. Inside, as she tells it, there were six red cylinders, a tangle of wires and a battery.

It was the start of a story that has remained a mystery from that day to this. The only unsolved plane hijack in American history, it is also the only one that belongs not in the category of political terrorism but of criminal derring-do. For what happened next almost defies belief, and the man who did it has never been found, dead or alive, nor has he ever been identified.

There have been many theories, many would-be relatives and some pieces of what may be evidence. The FBI reinvestigates from time to time and it comes as no surprise that last week, four decades on, another claimant -- a maybe-niece -- has made her way on to the American news agenda, clutching a photograph of the man she claims was the hijacker.

"I want $200,000 by 5pm. In cash. Put in a knapsack. I want two back parachutes and two front parachutes," the passenger told the stewardess. "When we land, I want a fuel truck ready to refuel. No funny stuff or I'll do the job." She took the message to the captain, then resumed her seat.

The man was polite. "He paid for his drink and told me to keep the change," Schaffner told Geoffrey Gray, author of Skyjack: The Hunt for D B Cooper, a new book about the mystery. She also thought he may have been a local, because he stared out of the window and said: "Looks like Tacoma down there."

"He wasn't nervous," another air hostess told investigators later. "He seemed rather nice. He was never cruel or nasty. He was thoughtful and calm all the time."

The captain told the passengers that their arrival at Seattle had been delayed because of "a minor technical difficulty" and circled for two hours while FBI agents got the money from local banks. The FBI men made a microfilm photograph of each note.

The bundle (which would be worth more than $1m today) weighed 21lb. The plane landed at 5.45pm. The airline's Seattle operations manager brought the money and parachutes on board and the hijacker allowed the passengers, stewardess Schaffner and the senior flight attendant to leave the plane.

During the refuelling, he outlined his instructions -- he wanted to fly south-east towards Mexico City at minimum possible speed and at no more than 10,000 ft. To make sure of this, he insisted that the landing gear remain down, wing flaps be lowered and the cabin remain unpressurised. He also asked that the rear exit door should be open and the aft staircase left down. (The Boeing 727 had a rear door and folding stairs which opened from the rear underside of the plane). When told this was unsafe for take-off, he said he would let it down himself.

At 7.40pm the plane took off with four crew aboard -- two pilots, an engineer and a stewardess. The hijacker told them all to stay in the cockpit. Twenty minutes later a warning light went on showing that the rear door had been opened and a few minutes after that, the plane's movement suggested that the stairs had been lowered. The weather was wet and freezing cold, the terrain below was pine forests. And into that the hijacker parachuted with his $200,000 and has never been seen since.

He has entered legend as DB Cooper -- the result of a reporter's error. The name he gave when he bought his ticket was Dan Cooper. Nobody knew exactly, or even roughly, where he'd jumped and it was a hellish place to search. In any case, he wouldn't be there unless he was dead. And most people hoped he was alive. For this had been a heist worthy of any movie; nobody had been hurt, no damage had been done -- this was an amazing act of bravado.

In 1971 in the States, it was a story to lift the spirits of a traumatised people. That year, the nation had endured courtroom dramas of humiliation and horror: Lieut William Calley had been found guilty of leading the My Lai massacre in Vietnam; Charles Manson and his followers had been found guilty of the crazed killings of the actress Sharon Tate and six others in Los Angeles.

In 1980, a boy found three packets of the ransom cash in a river near Vancouver, Washington. Some of the notes were missing. The following year, a human skull was found nearby, but it turned out to have been a woman; a portion of parachute was found in the same river, but examination showed it couldn't have been Cooper's.

Nobody has ever come forward claiming to be him -- that would lead directly to jail -- but many have claimed him as a relation. Since 1971, the FBI has processed 1,000 "serious suspects". In 1972 Richard McCoy, a Sunday school teacher and former Vietnam helicopter pilot, put himself in the frame by staging a copycat crime, jumping from the same kind of plane over Utah with a $500,000 ransom. (After that, the rear belly door was removed from Boeing 727s).

He was arrested a few days later with the money, was sentenced to 45 years in prison, escaped using a model gun, then was killed in a shootout. He wasn't DB Cooper.

Last week, Marla Cooper from Oklahoma has been on American TV claiming that her uncle, Lynn Doyle Cooper, was the man. She says she remembers as an eight-year-old her uncle and his brother planning something mischievous. Later, he said: "We did it. Our money problems are over. We hijacked an airplane."

And she says that, just before he died in 1995, her father talked to her about her uncle: "Don't you remember, he hijacked that airplane?" She has contacted the FBI and provided them with a guitar strap of his to match fingerprints. The FBI says there are no fingerprints. Her mother Grace Hailey has now backed her up, saying she has a "gut feeling" her brother-in-law was the man.

Last month, the FBI said it was investigating a "promising new suspect". But as with so many of the elements of this 40-year saga, it may be just another leap in the dark.

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