Below is a rundown of some common myths/fallacies regarding the D.B. Cooper hijacking.
Note: I wrote this a few years ago and need to update some of these myths with new information (I have not changed my mind on the myths though). I plan to add some info on a few other questions in the case such as his eye color, knowledge of the 727, etc.
D.B. Cooper Died in the Jump
This is a myth pushed on the American public. Here are some facts: No one ever found his body, his briefcase, the bomb, or the parachute. Only $5,800 of the $200,000 was ever found. The probability is that he survived and took it all with him or buried it. Also, within seven months of the hijacking, five more men would stage similar hijackings, parachute from passenger liners, and survive. One researcher even studied World War II bailouts and determined an extremely high probability of survival for Cooper. Cooper even chose the best chute for the jump, the Navy NB-8 container with C-9 canopy, which one experienced skydiver on the case called “the pit bull of parachutes.” The chute he chose was meant to open successfully at high speeds, even when the jumper was tumbling. It was designed for high speed jet ejections. This was a survivable jump.
Some in the FBI would like to believe he died. That’s understandable, as they never got their man. The death fallacy is perpetuated in one of the first paragraphs of the Wikipedia entry on D.B. Cooper. There it says that the majority of evidence points to him dying in the fall. The source of that entry is footnoted to an official FBI page on the case.
On another note, this man successfully hijacked a 727 without physically hurting anyone, and then parachuted into the cold, dark, rainy night. Getting away once he landed seems like child’s play compared to hijacking a plane and then parachuting out. Besides, the ground search really did not begin for almost 48 hours after he landed. He likely got away, with help, or without.
It Took Special Training to Operate the 727’s Aft Stairs
The aft stairs on the 727 were no secret. Passengers boarded and deboarded using those stairs all the time. Who operated the stairs? Stewardesses did. Any passenger sitting near the stairs on takeoff or landing could see how it was done. Furthermore, there were instructions near the stairs on how to operate. D.B. Cooper may have believed the stairs could be operated from the cockpit, but that does not mean he had some secret knowledge or CIA connections, it just means he thought it could be done. He also knew that a plane could easily fly with stairs open, just like a military plane like the B-24 could fly with stairs down or bomb bay doors open.
D.B. Cooper Was an Experienced Skydiver
No experienced skydiver (myself included) would have attempted this jump, and if they did, they would have used a helmet, gloves, goggles, and boots. They would not have done it at night, in the rain, cold, and wind. D.B. Cooper may have jumped before, but he certainly was no pro. This profile actually fits William J. Smith very well. He was familiar with putting on a parachute, as he had done many times in the Navy. But, he may not have actually had to use one very often, if at all. Aircrew training would have involved parachute familiarization, and very often use of a parachute in an environment similar to parasailing or being dropped from a tower to simulate a jump.
D.B. Cooper specifically asked for two front and two back parachutes, indicating that he most likely wanted military chutes (an experienced skydiver would have just asked for a rig, or used the terms main and reserve versus front and back. D.B. Cooper also expected the chutes would come from McChord Air Force base, a short distance away from SEATAC Airport. He specifically mentioned McChord’s location, chose the military parachute, and was able to put it on quickly, which is no small feat. He also knew where the parachute information card was located. All of this indicates a familiarity with military parachutes vs. civilian chutes.
D.B. Cooper Landed in the Mountains, Deep Forest, or Water
D.B. Cooper likely landed between Battle Ground, WA and Orchards, WA. This area is not heavily forested, and it is certainly not mountainous. In 1971, like today, there are many wide-open spaces and farmer’s fields. Although not a perfect landing spot, it was good enough. This is south of Lake Merwin, and north of the Columbia River. There is very little water there. The odds that he landed in water are almost zero. Chances are he landed in a field, was uninjured, and walked away. If he was hurt, he got away, and was likely not missed at work for a while due to layoffs or a furlough.
D.B. Cooper Did Not Know Where the Plane Was While in the Air
Someone like William J. Smith with aviation experience would have been able to get a general location of where he was. He knew the starting point, air speed, altitude, direction, and time in the air. He also would have been able to see landmarks south of Seattle like Tacoma, the Lake Merwin Dam, and Interstate 5. Also, once he was under his canopy, he would have plenty of time to get his bearings before landing. Note: William J. Smith was very used to looking at targets from the air and analyzing aerial photographs.
D.B. Cooper Worked Around Exotic Metals at Boeing (The Clip-On Tie)
First, Boeing was headquartered in Seattle. If he was an employee of Boeing or of an airline, he would have been found out quickly. It is more likely that he nothing to do with Boeing or an airline or the Seattle area. Of another note: only one clip on tie was analyzed. No other ties from other industries were used for comparison. Metals like titanium were found on the tie, but so were silicon, calcium, and iron. In fact, these three elements made up the majority of particles on the tie. Titanium was found in very small quantities. Actually, gold was found in the same percentage as titanium, yet no one is saying D.B. Cooper worked in a gold mine. Spiral aluminum shavings were found, which makes it more likely that the tie came from someone who worked in a machine shop, not some super-secret factory. Railroads had machine shops at every rail yard. The clip-on tie was well worn, and dirty, which is not the kind of tie worn in a high tech factory setting like at Boeing. However, it would have fit perfectly at a railroad repair facility.
D.B. Cooper Was a Commando
Some say that D.B. Cooper had to be a Vietnam era commando or part of Special Forces. Due to his age, D.B. Cooper was likely a World War II era veteran, and not from the Vietnam era. The D.B. Cooper hijack seems very amateur compared to what special operations forces are capable of. If he was a commando, then it would have shown in his style. His training and experience would have been visible. Profiles put Cooper as having just enough information and training to be dangerous. He just does not fit the profile of special operations.
Robert Rackstraw or Walter Reca Was D.B. Cooper (PROPAGANDA AT ITS WORST)
This is the biggest fallacy that I’ve come across. These two suspects are a great example of how money can buy air time on the news. In a lot of ways, it reminds of me of how the news can impact public perception. Neither Rackstraw or Reca looks remotely like the witnesses’ sketch. At least five witnesses gave input into the sketches. None of them described anyone remotely looking like Rackstraw or Reca. Rackstraw has light colored eyes, was 28 at the time, and the flight attendants in their early 20’s. No woman in her early 20’s mistakes a man a few years older than them to be in his mid-40’s. Tina Mucklow who spent five hours with D.B. Cooper went on Case Closed and stated that Rackstraw was not Cooper. As for Reca, the supposed secret agent…he claims to have landed near Cle Elum, WA. This is well over 100 miles away from Flight 305’s flight path. Jumping from 10,000 feet will not result in landing over 100 miles away. Again, pure PROPAGANDA!!
D.B. Cooper Was Canadian
It was noted by the ticket agent and stewardess Tina Mucklow that D.B. Cooper had a neutral accent, therefore leading some to believe he was from the Midwest, or from Canada. It has been mentioned that he asked for “negotiable currency” which further perpetuated the myth that he was from Canada. The third set of crew notes mention negotiable currency, but the first notes only mention that he asked for $200,000. And, a neutral accent could have come from many places in the United States. The ticket agent Dennis Lysne only spoke to the hijacker for a few seconds, but Tina Mucklow from Philadelphia spoke with him for almost 5 hours. Someone from Philadelphia might have thought an East Coast accent was actually normal. Chances are the hijacker was not Canadian. NOTE: When I first started to seriously research the case, I started to look at Canadian born parachutists. This actually helped lead me to who I believe is the real hijacker, an American from New Jersey. This is one of the many twists and turns of the D.B. Cooper case.
D.B. Cooper Acted Alone
This is not necessarily a fallacy but is something to think about. D.B. Cooper was the last person to buy a ticket, and possibly one of the last people to board the plane, yet he was able to get the exact seat he wanted in the rear of the plane. He spent almost five hours on the plane, yet the information we have on him barely fills up a couple of pages. He pulled off a major heist, parachuted into the night, landed, and got away. Could he have done all of this alone? Yes, he could have. However, pulling off this whole thing alone was a big feat. I used to be 90% sure he acted alone, but now I’d say I’m around 90% he had help somewhere along the line, most likely on the ground, and most likely from other railroad employees. If he had help in the air, then he had an accomplice who was a passenger, or he was tied in with someone who could help him keep things going in the direction he wanted. I have my theories and have found some unusual coincidences, but I won’t publish those as of yet. If someone was interested in digging deeper into this, I’d recommend looking at the background of every passenger on the flight and find out who was who, and if all the names were real. After that, take a look at other people on the plane and see if there are any connections to the East Coast and to the railroads through their family members. There are one or two interesting coincidences there. I’ll leave it at that.
The Money Never Went Into Circulation
Again, not necessarily a fallacy, but not a certainty. There were 10,000 $20 bills (actually maybe 9,998). The bank had photos of the bills, and a list was circulated after the hijacking. The problem is that the list of bills was not in numerical order, and it was delivered on photostat pages using early 1970’s technology. The FBI targeted banks and casinos with the list. Banks might have been happy to look for the money, but casinos might not have had the same motivation. The majority of the 10,000 bills were 1963A and 1969 series $20’s. The total amount of $20’s printed in those series was over 1.4 billion. Now, imagine trying to find a single 8 digit serial number in a pile of a billion. There is a very good chance that even if a $20 had gone into circulation that it would not have been found. Furthermore, if D.B. Cooper had doctored the money, say by changing a 3 in the serial number to an 8, then he could very easily have spent well over half of the money (still about $600,000 in today’s dollars). If he was able to erase part of the 8’s and make those 3’s, then he would have been able to spend over 80% of the money. Finally, roughly 40% of the bills were 1963A series, so simply erasing the A on those 20’s would have allowed him to spend that money too. One of Bill’s hobbies was printing, so by tweaking the bills just a little bit, he could have spent most of the loot completely unnoticed.
Even if the FBI had found a $20, it likely would not have helped much. It’s possible that if there were a lot of bills discovered, it could indicate where the money was spent, and possibly generate a lead. It is also unlikely that the Federal Reserve was able to track every serial number of the bills when they were eventually destroyed (the average life expectancy of a $20 bill is around 7 years). So, if D.B. Cooper wanted to spend the money, he could have with minimal risk. To actually find a single $20, it would have been better to have banks and casinos turn in every $20 from the San Francisco Mint (letter L) from the 1963A and 1969 series. Roughly 7,500 of the 10,000 came from the San Francisco Mint. This could have narrowed down the search and increased the odds of finding one of the bills.
D.B. Cooper Was From the Seattle-Tacoma Area
While en route to Seattle, D.B. Cooper said to flight attendant Tina Mucklow “looks like Tacoma down there.” Later, while waiting for the parachutes to be delivered, he stated “McChord Air Force Base is only 20 minutes away”. These two comments have led some to believe he was from the Seattle area. Chances are he was not from the area. Flight 305 took off from Portland flying north. Tacoma was the only sizable city between Portland and Seattle. It’s population in the 1970 census was 154,407. Portland airport to Seattle-Tacoma Airport is around 130 miles. Olympia, Washington is about 30 miles southwest of Tacoma, and had a 1970 population of 23,296. Seattle had a population of 530,831 in 1970. There was no confusing Tacoma with any other city on the short route. He knew the direction they were flying, so Tacoma was the only city of its size, and would have been easily recognizable from the air, even at night. Seattle-Tacoma Airport is actually south of Seattle, so Tacoma is the only city he would have likely seen. Even if he was guessing, it was an easy guess.
Tacoma was a transportation hub, given its location on Puget Sound. Also, the Northern Pacific Railway Company had its regional headquarters in Tacoma. There would have been miles and miles of rail lines visible from the air. The hijacker certainly would have looked at a map or even aerial photos before the flight. Someone trained in aerial reconnaissance would have learned to specifically look for railyards and bodies of water. Furthermore, the hijacker likely flew the route once before to get a lay of the land. Knowing that McChord Air Force Base was 20 minutes away does not mean he was from the area. Any map would have shown the location of McChord, and anyone he talked to from the area would have known too. Knowing where an Air Force base is does not mean you are from the area. The hijacker would have expected the chutes to come from McChord and would have put that part into his planning. When given the choice between a civilian skydive rig and a Navy rig (parachute inside) he chose the Navy rig, and put it on easily, which is not simple to do.
So, knowing cities and landmarks from the air does not mean you are from there. I’ve never lived in Pittsburgh, but I know what it looks like from the air due to the rivers and bridges. The same goes for many other cities, especially industrial ones or ones located near water, just like Tacoma. Someone who knew basic geography, or had a road map, would have known where Tacoma and McChord Air Force Base were.
D.B. Cooper was a Common Criminal and a Low Life
I really won’t give this fallacy a lot of attention. The only person who has pushed this fallacy is retired FBI agent Ralph Himmelsbach. Himmelsbach called him a “rotten, sleazy crook.” He claimed he was a poorly dressed low life who used vulgar language. Yet there is zero evidence for this. Everyone who interacted with D.B. Cooper says he was a gentleman. The stewardess who spent over four hours with him said he was nice the entire time. He was well spoken, and courteous. He even made a point to order meals for the crew to be available when landing in Seattle. This hijacking is very likely the only crime D.B. Cooper ever committed in his life. The bottom line in my mind is that Agent Himmelsbach may simply be looking at D.B. Cooper as a law man looks at a criminal. No one in law enforcement likes to get beaten by the criminal.
D.B. Cooper Was From Latin America or an American Indian
This fallacy comes from the olive complexion and dark brown eyes of D.B. Cooper. Here’s a newsflash for everyone. If you’ve been to the Northeast U.S. and lived among family, friends, and others who are of Eastern European (Hungary, Romania, etc.) or Southern European (Italy, Greece, etc.) descent, you know that olive skin and dark eyes are not unique to Latin America or American Indians. Go visit Italy, Greece, Hungary, Turkey, or any of those countries. You’ll see plenty of people with olive complexions and dark eyes. The mass immigration to the United States in the 1900’s was predominately from Eastern and Southern Europe, not from Latin America. The population with American Indian descent was minor compared to those with European descent. The probabilities just aren’t there. Also, D.B. Cooper did not have much of an accent, and if he did, it was purely English. Even a hint of a Spanish accent would have come out during the hijack. William J. Smith had Hungarian and Polish roots.