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D.B. Cooper, Martin McNally, and the Golden Age of Skyjacking

In June 1972, Martin McNally pulled off one of the most daring airline hijackings in American history, parachuting from the aft stairs of a Boeing 727 with half a million dollars in cash. He jumped at night at 320 miles an hour, using only a small reserve parachute. He had never parachuted before. It took the FBI nearly a week to track him down.

McNally’s heist came at the end of a wave of US hijackings that shook commercial aviation. Before the introduction of large commercial jets, hijackings were virtually unknown in the US. From 1961 to 1967 there were only nine hijackings of US commercial flights.

All of that changed in 1968. That year there were 17 hijackings and another 40 in 1969. All but four of the hijackers wanted to go to Cuba. Many were homesick Cubans who had migrated to the US after the Cuban revolution and became disillusioned with life in America. The take-me-to-Cuba hijackings had a certain innocence about them. None of the passengers were harmed and the Cuban government treated them like tourists.

In December 1968, Time magazine advised hijacked passengers to “relax… most Cubans are indeed friendly and will make your layover as comfortable as possible.” At the Havana Libre (formerly the Havana Hilton), “the rooms are still comfortable, the service is still good, and Havana still swings,” ran the article in Time. Some travelers deliberately booked flights through Miami in the hopes of being hijacked. “Is this the plane to Cuba?” Miami-bound passengers asked stewardesses with a smile.

The hijackers were not so lucky. Many, including about a dozen Black Panthers or members of other Black Power groups, languished in Cuban prisons under brutal conditions. They had expected a hero’s welcome, but were instead treated like spies, criminals, and terrorists. As word filtered back about the fate of hijackers in Cuba, the number of planes commandeered to the island declined.

But the hijackings continued, facilitated by lax airline security. Carryon luggage was almost never screened, and no identification was required to buy a ticket. Airlines considered installing metal detectors, but worried that they would annoy passengers. As a result, hijackers carried machine guns, rifles, shotguns, pistols, knives, hand grenades, dynamite, and all manner of bombs, mostly fake, on board commercial flights.

A common thread running through these hijackings was the cool professionalism with which stewardesses, as they were called at the time, managed the hijackings. They were the ones who negotiated with the hijackers, often at gunpoint, easing tensions and protecting passengers.

In June 1970, Arthur Barkley used a gallon of gasoline to hijack a TWA flight from Phoenix. Barkley did not want to go to Cuba. Instead, he demanded $100 million in cash, ostensibly to settle a grudge over a bill for $471.78 on his 1964 tax return. Barkley was apprehended when the plane landed at Dulles Airport near Washington, D.C., but his caper added something new to the mix: hijacking as a means of extortion.

Getting the money was not the problem, it was getting away with it. Then, in November 1971, D.B. Cooper figured it out. No one knows who he was or where he came from. At the Northwest Orient ticket counter in Portland, Oregon, he used the name “Dan Cooper,” paying 20 dollars cash for a one-way ticket to Seattle. While they were taxiing for takeoff, he asked for a Bourbon and 7-Up and handed stewardess Florence Schaffner a note. “MISS—I have a bomb here and I would like you to sit by me.”

She asked if he was kidding.

“No, miss, this is for real,” Cooper calmly replied.

Cooper opened his briefcase, showing Schaffner what looked like a bomb, and demanded $200,000 and two sets of parachutes. He knew that the aft stairs of a Boeing 727 could be opened in flight. As the plane flew south from Seattle, he parachuted into the night, a bag containing the money in twenty dollar bills tied around his waist. A news story reported his alias as “D.B. Cooper” and the name stuck. Despite a massive search, no one connected with the investigation ever saw him again.

Worse yet, from the FBI’s perspective, Cooper became a countercultural hero. He had beaten the system and done it in style, sipping his bourbon and smoking a cigarette, joking with the stewardesses while wearing wraparound sunglasses. “He seemed rather nice,” stewardess Tina Mucklow later said. “You have to admit he was clever,” said a Seattle taxi driver. “He didn’t hurt anybody,” another local said. “Most of the people around here kind of hope he makes it.”

“McNally’s heist came at the end of a wave of US hijackings that shook commercial aviation.”

Five parachute hijackers followed Cooper in the first half of 1972. Richard LaPoint, a troubled Vietnam veteran, hijacked a flight from Las Vegas, jumping near Denver with $50,000. Frederick Hahneman commandeered an Eastern Airlines 727 en route to Miami, eventually jumping into the night over Honduras with $303,000. Robb Heady hijacked a 727 in Reno by running across the apron with a pillowcase over his head and a .357 Magnum revolver in his hand. Richard McCoy jumped near Provo, Utah, after obtaining a $500,000 ransom in San Francisco. All four of these hijackers survived their jumps with, at most, only minor injuries, and all were soon caught.

Martin McNally’s hijacking of American Flight 119 in June 1972 was the last of the US parachute hijackings and it almost worked.

McNally commandeered a St. Louis-to-Tulsa flight using a sawed-off machine gun he concealed in a briefcase. Back in St. Louis, he demanded $502,500 in cash and four parachutes. How he bailed out over central Indiana and eluded capture for almost a week is perhaps the most remarkable part of the story—but you will have to read the book for that.

The parachute hijackers fit the cultural moment. Their exploits seemed more thrilling than sinister and less surprising than they would be today. When things turned violent in the second half of 1972, everyone agreed that something had to be done. That something was better security, beginning with metal detectors. There were 134 US hijackings between 1968 and 1972, but only one unsuccessful attempt in 1973. Airline security would not become a pressing issue again until 9/11.

Featured image by Leio McLaren on Unsplash (public domain)

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