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Three Skydivers Weigh In on D.B. Cooper

Could you really jump from an airplane in loafers and no helmet, in the middle of the night, in a rainstorm, and survive?

On November 24, 1971, an unidentified man boarded Northwest Airlines Flight 305 out of Portland, Oregon, bound for Seattle. Shortly after takeoff, the man handed a note to a flight attendant which said that he had a bomb in his briefcase. He demanded $200,000, four parachutes and a refueling truck ready when they landed.

Once in Seattle, the other passengers and much of the crew departed the plane, leaving only the man, a flight attendant, the two pilots and a flight engineer. The man refused the military-grade parachutes selected for him and opted instead for civilian parachutes — two primary and two reserve. At the time, the authorities didn’t know that one of the reserve chutes they grabbed was sewn shut, as it was only used for teaching and wasn’t a functional model. 

With the money and parachutes now in the hands of the hijacker, the plane took off from Seattle at 7:40 p.m. heading south. As instructed by the hijacker, the pilots flew at just 10,000 feet and were flying as slow as possible (approximately 150 knots, or 173 miles per hour). A few minutes into the flight, the man instructed the flight attendant to join the rest of the crew in the cockpit. He then proceeded to the back of the plane, opened the rear-facing stairway and jumped out into the cold dark of night, amidst rainfall and above a wooded, mountainous region of Washington state. He was never seen again.

The man — who used the alias “Dan Cooper” when he boarded in Portland, which was later miscommunicated as “D.B. Cooper” via the news — quickly became a legend. The story gave rise to books, movies, merchandise, copycat hijackers and an FBI investigation that finally closed in 2016, in part because the FBI had long believed Cooper died from the jump, thanks to the rough terrain, the terrible conditions for jumping and the fact that he was only wearing a suit, loafers and no helmet. 

Still, amateur sleuths continue to investigate America’s only unsolved skyjacking to this day, so who better to lend their insight to the case than three skydiving instructors. Who knows? Maybe we’ll catch this guy yet.

On Whether or Not D.B. Cooper Was an Experienced Jumper

Tony Bourke, USPA-rated AFF skydiving instructor: I know that there’s been some suspicion as to whether or not D.B. Cooper was a skydiver, and that would make a big difference as to whether or not he was able to survive this. Most people who do a skydive do a tandem skydive, where you wear a harness and you’re attached to a skydiver, who deploys the parachute and flies you to the ground — you don’t need any experience. But if you jumped out of an airplane for the first time by yourself, you likely would be clueless as to what to do, mostly because of the sensory overload. For my first jump, I didn’t do a tandem jump, but I had two instructors holding onto me. I remember being terrified, and I remember there being so many sensations. It was cold, and it was loud — much louder than I expected. Honestly, there was so much sensory input that it was overwhelming. 

I did pull my own parachute once I got my bearings, but my instructors were giving me hand signals and I couldn’t process that input thanks to the level of sensory overload. This is very common on a first jump, which is why there are two instructors there, in case they have to pull the parachute for you. 

Chris Peterson, skydiving instructor and owner of SkyDance Skydiving: From what I know about the case, I’d say he was definitely a skydiver.

On Cooper Picking Civilian Parachutes

Peterson: I imagine that means he was more familiar with civilian parachutes. Also, the military chutes may have been static line chutes, which means part of it attached to the plane, and it opens as soon as you jump. From a freefall chute, you can control when it opens.

Bourke: The gear we have now is a lot safer than it was in 1971. Now we fly square parachutes — which are really rectangular — and we can be very accurate where we land and we can guide ourselves. Back then though, the gear was a lot different, and the parachutes were round. You basically went straight down, and the winds took you wherever they wanted to. You didn’t have much control over where you landed. 

On Picking a Reserve Chute That Was Sewn-Shut

Bourke: I don’t know if they did this back then, but today we always teach students to do a gear check, so I think he would have been able to tell that it was sewn shut, but I’m not sure. Some people ask, “What happens if a parachute doesn’t open?” but that’s very, very rare. More likely is that a parachute will open incorrectly, with twists in the line, and then the chute can dive toward the ground. In those cases, you have to pull a handle that cuts away the main chute, and then you pull a reserve. 

A main parachute is packed in about 10 minutes and any skydiver can pack their own chute, but a reserve chute takes about an hour to pack and requires an FAA license to do it. It’s not a good idea to jump without a reserve chute, but round chutes did open easier, so there’s less of a chance it was tangled.

Maurice Mathey, photographer, pilot and skydiving instructor: Since it takes an experienced, licensed rigger with special tools to pack a reserve chute, he may not have checked it because you can’t open it up or anything. You just see the pin, and that’s it. You might also check an expiration date, because reserve chutes must be repacked every six months, even if they haven’t been used. But he may not have checked it well, or at all — he may have just trusted it and checked the main one. 

On the Choice of Plane

Bourke: The only modern airplane that I’ve ever seen with a rear exit is a 737. We don’t really have those exits anymore. The rear tailgate is the only way you can exit a passenger airplane without dying, so it makes sense that he would pick that plane. If you tried to jump out of an Airbus, you’d either hit the wing or the tail at 150 miles per hour and that wouldn’t be good.

On the Speed and Altitude

Bourke: A height of 10,000 was normal exit altitude back then, though now it’s about 12,500 feet. As for the speed, the slower the plane goes, the more control you have. The airplanes I jump out of are normally going about 90 miles per hour, but Cooper jumped out going about 150 knots, or 173 miles per hour. Even an experienced skydiver would have been thrown around a lot by that, but they would have been able to get their footing pretting quickly by arching their back with their belly to the Earth. But if he’s not experienced, he could have just kept tumbling until he hit the ground, never getting a chance to pull the chute.

Mathey: We normally jump between 10,000 to 12,000 feet, and some drops go to 14,000 feet, even 15,000 feet, but higher than that would require oxygen. The speed of the plane is more important, but at 100-some-odd knots, that’s not going to be a problem.

Peterson: Being able to control your body is likely why he ordered it at a lower airspeed, but it may also be the airplane, as you may not be able to open that back door if the plane were going too fast. Jumping from 10,000 feet also would have gotten him to the ground quicker. If I was jumping from 10,000 feet and trying to make a break for it with some cash, I may wait until I’m only a couple thousand feet from the ground, that way it increases my chances of getting away.

On His Landing Conditions

Bourke: People do skydive at night. I’ve actually done 26 or 27 of them and I have a world record in night skydiving, as I was part of a 64-person skydive at night. It’s a lot more dangerous, though. And even if you’re at 10,000 feet, that’s 10,000 feet above sea level, not the ground. You also want to jump into an open field, especially with a round parachute that you can’t steer, and since he was jumping in the woods and mountains, possibly through clouds due to the rain, he likely would have deployed his parachute right away, otherwise he may not notice the ground until you start seeing trees around you, and up in the mountains, even a broken leg can be deadly.

Overall, the whole thing is just dumb. All this tells me that he wasn’t a skydiver, because these conditions are unlikely to create a positive outcome. You do that out of desperation, not because it’s your bright idea — that’s not a “plan A.”

Mathey: Jumping at night is difficult because you can’t see where you’re landing. Whenever we do night jumps, we do it on a full moon to get as much light as possible. The rain is going to make his visibility even worse, too. Landing will be difficult in this condition, especially into a forest. There are procedures for landing in trees, though, as you can cut yourself free from the canopy. It’s not a piece of cake, but if he’s experienced, he’ll know the procedure. 

Peterson: That’s a pretty hardcore jump. It would have been stealthy and hard to track, but those aren’t ideal jumping conditions. I’ve jumped in the rain. It hurts, but the parachute works, it just affects visibility. If he got enveloped in a cloud, it would have been very difficult to land safely, though that’s not to say it would be impossible. He’s going to land no matter what, so sheer luck could have landed him perfectly safely. Or, he could have landed in a tree and rotted to death up there. 

On the Importance of a Helmet

Bourke: A helmet isn’t super important, unless, of course, it is. We mostly wear them not to hit our heads when exiting the plane and just in case we have a rough landing. I’ve done about 1,600 skydives and just once I hit my head on the door pretty bad. That’s really the only time it prevented any kind of injury.

Peterson: A helmet doesn’t matter. I jump without a helmet. I mean, if he landed on a boulder and smashed his head open, he would have died, but not having a helmet is no reason to think he didn’t make it.

Mathey: You don’t need a helmet. 

On Jumping in a Suit and Loafers

Bourke: Back then, common injuries were ankles, but people jump barefoot, so loafers aren’t too bad. Though if I were jumping into trees, I’d want a thick pair of boots.

Mathey: It’s better to have protection, especially if you’re landing in the trees, but it’s not needed.

Peterson: You can skydive naked if you want to.

On Whether or Not He Lived

Bourke: I’d say he had a 50/50 chance at best. If he knew the mountains, maybe he’d make it, but it doesn’t seem super likely that he did. I’m sure he exited the plane, but I don’t know if he was able to deploy his chute or if he was just tumbling the entire time.

Although, who knows, maybe he was a skydiver. None of the things he did were smart, but every now and then, you run into people who skydive who are just dumb as shit, so, maybe he was a skydiver.

Peterson: If I was in his shoes, I feel like I could have done it. If someone had a certain amount of skill in this, they could have pulled it off. It’s a great legend for skydivers — we love this story. Unless a bear dragged him into a cave and ate him alive or he drowned in a lake, he could have gotten away with it, for sure. He also could have been killed doing it. That’s why it’s a great mystery, because we’ll never know.

Mathey: He had a really good chance. I wonder, though — because people like this tend to want attention, so they talk later on and get caught. But if he kept a low profile, he’d get away with it. That’s why he’s something of a hero to skydivers.