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And he used to be such a nice, quiet boy

The Skywayman

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I read this true story in a trashy tabloid paperback years ago, so I may not be translating it right but here goes.

On Thanksgiving eve 1971 a flight to San Fransciso was boarding on a bright autumn morning. One by one the passengers made their way to their seats, anxious to get to where they were going to do what they do. But one man had a different agenda, for him today was most definately not business as usual. His passport named him as Mr D B Cooper.

In 1971 airport security in America was not too tight on internal flights. Palastinian terrorists were a middle eastern issue and nobody had even heard of Black September.

The first three hours of the flight went without hitch. Captain Mike Richards made his final approach into Denver, Colarado to refuel. Just as the plane was beginning nose down Cooper, or whoever he was, started to cough and retch. He got out of his seat, part doubled over and made his way down the aisle to the front of the plane where the bathrooms were located. He passed the hostess, who he nearly retched on, and she quickly dove out of his way. However instead of going into the toilets he opened the door to the flight deck, drawing a weapon as he went.

“Everybody stay calm. The aircraft has been highjacked. Nobody may leave.” Words that send a shiver down any spine. But now the passengers of this flight were hearing them for real, not in a nightmare. The plane was under the control of a mysterious madman.

The announcement had been made shortly after the plane had taxied to a halt at Denver international. The usual airport vehicles, refueling trucks, baggage trucks and so on were well away from the plane. Instead patrol cars of the Denver sheriff’s department screeched to a halt in a loose cordon around the plane. Bullets were checked, and shotguns were cocked and aimed. In those days counter-terrorism techniques left a lot to be desired. If anybody had actually shot the plane they could have blown them all sky high.

D B Cooper made his demands over the aircraft radio. He did not claim membership of any known groups, he seemed remarkably calm, and his accent was American. He said he wanted two million dollars in used notes and two parachutes delivered to the plane before he would let the hostages go.

After consulting with the District Attourney the Sheriff ordered the release of the money and had it delivered to the airport within the hour, along with the parachutes (but why two?).

The money arrived shortly after two a.m. Cooper then allowed the passengers and the hostesses to leave the plane. The flight crew had to stay on board. It was time for phase two.

Cooper then reached into his jacket and pulled out a very professional looking map with exact co-ordinates and flight time to a set destination. Furthermore, curiously, he insisted that the plane take off with the rear pressure door open. This lack of cabin pressure meant that the plane would be very heavy, would have to fly very low to avoid the crew blacking out through lack of oxygen in the air, and it would definately use more fuel.

A fuel truck arrived shortly and refuelled the plane. On the underside of the truck was a deputy sheriff who managed to get under the aircraft fuselage.

Cooper had left the pilots alone in the cockpit while he returned to the freezing cold cabin. They had debated various options. They could not call out as Cooper had now smashed their radio. They could use their oxygen masks and fly higher than he had instructed. This would cause his to pass out through lack of oxygen (known as hypoxia). They could try and tackle him, but he was armed with what appeared to be a pistol, so that wasn’t a good idea. They could circle back to the airport but he probably had a compass on him so they would soon be found out. The high altitude idea seemed the best option.

The next thirty minutes of flight seemed like a lifetime. They flew over the rocky mountains at hair-raisingly low altitude, seeing white mountains appear out of the darkness time and again. They flew higher and higher till the mountains dissappeared from view. The flying time Cooper had instructed came and went. He had left no further instructions as to what they did next. The Captain, first officer and navigator drew lots and the navigator lost. He left his wallet with the pilot and went aft to deal or deal with the mysterious Mr Cooper. He opened the door, feeling a blast of freezing cold air hit him, and peered into the dimly lit cabin.

It was empty except for one ripped parachute and an empty sports bag.

His heart skipped a beat and he checked all the seats, nothing. He grabbed a window-smash hammer as a weapon and checked the small bathroom. Again, empty. The Galley too was empty. D B Cooper, the crazy bastard, must have jumped out of the plane with his ransom money.

“He’s gone, Mike, he – he jumped I think.” The navigators lungs heaved with the cold air. Captain Richards circled around, his co-pilot searching the dark air for a parachute. Nothing to see but blackness.

They altered course back towards the airport. The radio was unrepairable so Captain Richards flashed morse from his running lights C-L-E-A-R-1. Clear runway one.

The gathered police, national guard, who had turned up late looking for action, ground crew, police negotiators,T.V. crew and anybody else pulled back to a safe distance. The aircraft touched down without a hitch, and police cars raced to catch it as it taxied to a halt. Not that it did them any good as it took a further minute for a stair truck to arrive, by which time the navigator was standing in the doorway with his hands up.

In the privacy of the airport police station the sheriff took their statements. The map suggested that he had jumped in a heavily forested area of the colarado river. The hunt for the highjacker D B Cooper had swung in motion.

Over the next week the area was scoured. Sheriff’s department, airport police, national guard, local mountain guides, volounteers, media, everybody was on the hunt. The possible drop zone consisted of over a hundred square miles of inaccessable woodland, craggy hills, unpassable creeks, and inhabited by wild animals.

The search turned up absolutely nothing. Then one day about a fortnight later an announcement was placed in the Denver Herald, supposedly from D.B. Cooper. It read ‘I was forced into this action by an uncaring government, I needed the money to cure my illness, I wish no harm to anybody’. Very odd, and possibly a hoax or a red herring. A million dollars was placed on Cooper’s head.

The F.B.I. was called in to deal with the case. Who was this man? Possibly a nutcase, but they never knew for sure. They simply had no leads. Whoever he was before this action he would have been a very law abiding and very clever man.

So who could have possibly have the skills to pull this off? Only the fire department’s smoke jumpers had that kind of ability, and furthermore that kind of brass balls. Several were brought in for questioning but none were charged.

In the media opinion was divided by Cooper, some wanted him on death row, others had a grudging admiration for this audacious man. After all he had got away scot free with millions without harming a soul.

Or had he? Nearly a year later a woodland tracker was out hunting with his hounds when he noticed some tell-tale yellow tarpaulin in a tree. The straps had been cut and there was no body. Any foot prints would have long since washed away. And in those days D.N.A. profiling was two decades away.

On the other side of the mountain the following summer a family camping came across some used $20 bills on the bank of a stream. Further up they found ten more. The notes were examined by the F.B.I and found to be part of the ransom money. They were covered in silt and red clay mud which indicated that they had washed downstream from one of the Colarado tributaries.

The media intrested was renewed. D.B. Cooper – Where Are You? T-shirts were sold in Denver and the man was becoming a local folk hero. Local D.J.s dedicated songs to him. But in the end it all came to naught and the case on D.B. Cooper has remained open since 1970.

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Written by Nick Gilmartin

April 24, 2008 at 9:31 pm

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