Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

DB Cooper: The Legendary Daredevil

'Everything Is Ready'

With the cash and parachutes on hand, the ground team radioed Capt. Scott at 5:24 p.m. with a simple message: "Everything is ready for your arrival." The plane landed at 5:39, barely 30 minutes behind schedule. Cooper ordered Scott to taxi to a remote, well-lit position on the tarmac. He ordered the cabin lights dimmed—a deterrent to police marksmanship. He specified that no vehicle should approach the plane and that the person chosen to deliver the chutes and money—a Northwest employee, it turned out—should arrive unaccompanied.

The airline employee drove a company vehicle to a point near the plane. Cooper ordered Mucklow to drop the aft stairs. The employee carried two parachutes at a time to the stairs, where he handed them over to Mucklow. The same courier then delivered the cash in a large, canvas bank bag.

With his demands met, Cooper got busy. He allowed his 36 fellow passengers and attendant Flo Schaffner to leave the jet via the same aft stairs.  He did not release Tina Mucklow or the three men in the cockpit, Scott, Rataczak and Anderson.

Through Capt. Scott, an FAA official asked Cooper for permission to come aboard the jet. He apparently wanted to warn the hijacker of the consequences of his air piracy—including a possible death sentence. Cooper told him to stuff it and denied the request.

Meanwhile, as Mucklow stood by Cooper read an instruction card for operation of the aft stairs, which lowered by gravity from the underside of the rear of the fuselage through employment of a simple lever similar to an automobile emergency brake. Cooper questioned Mucklow carefully about the stairs, and the flight attendant said she did not believe they could be lowered during flight. Cooper told her flatly that she was wrong.

The hijacker then used the flight attendant's cabin phone to give the cockpit personnel instructions on how and where to fly. He ordered an altitude not to exceed 10,000 feet, with wing flaps set at 15 degrees and airspeed of no more than 150 knots. Cooper warned the pilot he was wearing a wrist altimeter to monitor the altitude.

Larger jets could not have maintained such a low airspeed. But Cooper obviously knew that the lightweight 727 (just 50 tons without fuel) could fly as slowly as 80 knots in the dense air at 10,000 feet. Even with a full load of fuel the jet would have no problem maintaining a speed of 100 knots.

Skydivers prefer slower airspeeds to diminish the buffeting effects of the wind, but a dive at 150 knots is acceptable for an experienced jumper. And Cooper chose Flight 305 as much for its airplane as for its destination. The Boeing 727-100 has three engines, one high on the fuselage immediately in front of the vertical tail fin and two others on either side of the fuselage just above the horizontal tail fins. He knew that neither engine intakes nor exhaust would interfere when he lowered the aft steps and stepped out into the night sky.

Cooper told the crew he wanted to go to Mexico City, but First Officer Rataczak said the jet would have a range of just 1,000 miles at the altitude and airspeed the hijacker had ordered, even loaded to capacity with 52,000 gallons of fuel. Mexico City was 2,200 miles away. After a brief back-and-forth, the crew and Cooper agreed to an intermediate refueling stop in Reno, Nevada.

Before leaving Seattle, Cooper ordered a full refueling. A tanker truck was hurried to the jet, but a vapor lock slowed the process. Cooper again displayed his detailed knowledge of the 727. He apparently knew the jet could take on 4,000 gallons of fuel per minute. When the refueling process was not complete after 15 minutes, he demanded an explanation and made threats. Chastened by a man with an apparent bomb, the fuel crew soon completed the job.

In the meantime, the hijacker and cockpit crew negotiated the flight path. A straight-line route from Seattle south-southeast to Reno was impossible at Cooper's assigned altitude of 10,000 feet. The 727 would have passed perilously close to several high peaks of the Cascade Range, including Mt. Rainier (14,411 feet), Mount St. Helens (9,677) and Mt. Adams (12,276). Capt. Scott and Cooper compromised on a standard low-altitude route—known as Vector 23 in the Jeppesen air navigational charts—that passed safely west of the high peaks. Vector-23 allows planes to maintain altitudes as low as 5,000 feet.

Finally, Cooper told Capt. Scott that the cabin should not be pressurized. The hijacker understood he could breathe normally at 10,000 feet, and he also knew the equalized air pressure inside the jet and out would minimize the potential for a violent surge of air when he dropped the aft stairs.

With all the essential flight details settled, Cooper ordered a prompt departure. The 727 taxied, rumbled down the runway, went aloft and tucked its wheels. The time was 7:46 p.m., two hours and six minutes after Flight 305 had landed in Seattle.