Air Stair Millionaires
By Sam Longo AME A&P
Boeings B727 “Whisperjet” was a watershed aircraft, introduced after its tried and true B707. With strong sales, over 1800 were manufactured between 1963 and 1984.The Company incorporated many innovative concepts into its winning design. With three Pratt and Whitney JT8D’s adorning its tail and its APU nestled neatly between the main gear wheel wells, the trailing end of the fuselage allowed room for the first retractable aft “air stair”. The airline operators loved the design allowing passenger to board without the aid of additional airport equipment, especially handy at smaller airports. In fact, during the early 1970’s a number of very entrepreneurial, gutsy passengers made the 727 their unequivocal aircraft of choice!
On November 24, 1971, in Portland Oregon, one such passenger, Dan Cooper was the last person to purchase a ticket on Flight 305 bound for Seattle Washington. Before he paid his $20 for the one way ticket he asked the agent to confirm that the Northwest Orient flight was flying a Boeing 727. With no other luggage he grabbed his briefcase and climbed aboard. It was a light load with 36 passengers and 6 crew members, so he settled himself into one of the aft seats closest to the rear door.
Once airborne he passed the flight attendant a note indicating that he had a bomb in his briefcase and was high jacking the aircraft. He demanded $200,000.00, two parachutes and a refueling truck ready to meet them in Seattle. In exchange he would release all passengers. The aircraft circled for a few hours while the FBI and Northwest Orient scrambled to meet his requests. The plane landed, the money and parachutes were supplied and the passengers released. After refueling, he kept one Flight Attendant and three Flight Crew members on board. The plane then departed south, destination Mexico.
Using the inflight interphone, he gave the pilots specific flight instructions, 15 degrees of flap, with gear down, maintaining 10,000 feet, without pressurizing the cabin. This made for a very slow airspeed (approx. 120 MPH) and high rate of fuel burn. After a quick lesson from the flight attendant on how to operate the aft air stair, he sent her forward to the cockpit. At around 8pm, somewhere over the wilds of Washington State, the flight crew saw the aft air stair “open light” illuminate. With the money tied around his waist (1.16 million in 2014 dollars) he jumped into the cold (-57 degree C) stormy night sky and vanished forever. The legend of D.B. Cooper had begun, and with it the floodgates of 727 “skyjacking” was opened wide.
The following April, Richard McCoy Jr. a former Army Green Beret, successfully sky-jacked a United 727 and bailed out over Utah with $500,000 in ransom money. He was arrested two days later after landing safely. With the new “Air Piracy” laws freshly minted he just missed the death penalty and got 45 years in prison. After escaping from prison three years later he was killed in a gun battle with authorities.
In all, a total of 15 “copycat” hijackings similar to Cooper’s were attempted with varying degrees of success in 1972 alone. All were killed or captured except for D.B. Cooper. The other 16 hijackings in that year were almost all diversions to Cuba.
The Cooper incident and others like it that year marked the beginning of baggage and carry on checks, thus ending the carefree aircraft boarding some of us may still remember. In 1973 the FAA made searching bags and passengers mandatory. In addition, the FAA required all Boeing 727’s to be retro-fitted with a “weather vane” type device that would not allow the door to open in flight, subsequently named the “Cooper vane”.
As for the legend of D.B. Cooper, despite an exhaustive investigation the case remains the only unsolved sky piracy case in aviation history. Only two pieces of concrete evidence were ever found in the large potential drop zone. In 1978 a hunter found a placard containing instructions for lowering the aft air stairs of a 727 near Castle Rock, Washington. Then in February of 1980 an eight-year-old boy, Brian Ingram, uncovered three packets of partially decomposed money in the sand banks of the Columbia River, 14 km downstream of Vancouver, Washington. These packets of $20 bills had the serial numbers verifying them as Cooper’s ransom money, totalling $5,800.00.
Even young Brian never quite became a millionaire. In 1986 after lengthy negotiations the recovered bills were divided between Ingram and Northwest Orient’s insurer. In 2008 Brian Ingram sold fifteen of his bills at auction for $37,000. The Northwest Orient 727 “N467US” changed hands a few times and was unceremoniously scrapped in 1996 for parts in a Memphis boneyard.
As for Mr. Cooper, his fate remains a mystery. Did he perish that dark, stormy night in 1971 or is there a very old man in a rocking chair somewhere reading this column, quietly praising the qualities of Boeings 727 with a wry, wrinkled smile on his wind weathered face?
For more published writing by Sam Longo go to http://www.samlongo.com
Air Stair Millionaires