Local Man Tried to Help Solve Famous Skyjacking
By Tom Embrey
During a lengthy military stint, mostly with the U.S. Air Force, Ron Wilson jumped out of aircraft more than 750 times.
One jump he remembers more than most is one he didn't make.
In late November 1971, Wilson helped re-enact the only unsolved hijacking in U.S. history. The day before Thanksgiving of that year, a man later known as D.B. Cooper hijacked a 727, collected a $200,000 ransom and then jumped from the plane.
Two days after the hijacking, Wilson took part in the re-enactment to determine if the jump could have been made, and where Cooper may have jumped from the plane.
The Air Force brass wouldn't let Wilson and another man, Dave Saiz, jump because the plane was not deemed safe to parachute from, Wilson said.
"Oh, I wanted to jump," Wilson said. "We kept a log book, where we jumped, how high we jumped, what type of aircraft. How many guys would have been able to log (a jump from) a 727 in there. That was one of a kind."
This year is the 40th anniversary of Cooper's bold act. The incident remains a hot topic today.
Earlier this summer, an Oklahoma woman claimed her uncle, Lynn Doyle Cooper, a Korean War veteran who died in 1999, was the infamous hijacker.
A new book on the incident, "Skyjack: The Hunt for D.B. Cooper," recently hit bookstores and is available at The Country Bookshop in Southern Pines.
According to accounts of the incident, a man calling himself Dan Cooper approached the counter of Northwest Orient Airlines at Portland International Airport the day before Thanksgiving 1971 and bought a one-way ticket on Flight 305 to Seattle.
Once on board, he ordered a drink, lit a cigarette and passed a note to a flight attendant that said he had a bomb in his briefcase and that he would detonate it if necessary.
He requested $200,000 in unmarked bills and four parachutes. He also requested the plane be refueled when it landed.
The plane circled Puget Sound for two hours before landing in Seattle.
Stationed at McChord Air Force Base in Washington state, Wilson recalled receiving a phone call from authorities requesting four parachutes. He said he called his superior officer, who denied the request.
"We got a call from the police, I guess," Wilson said. "They wanted two main parachutes and two reserves. I called my commander and he said 'hell, no. We're not getting involved in this.'"
Cooper eventually got the money and the parachutes and freed all the passengers except for a stewardess, the pilot and cockpit crew.
The plane took off for Reno. When it landed, the back door of the plane - which had been flying low - was open and Cooper was nowhere to be found.
It wasn't long before federal authorities sought the help of the Air Force.
"Within the next two days, they came down and wanted our assistance with an experiment," Wilson said.
Wilson and two others helped re-enact the possible jump - on the same plane with the same crew - in an effort to clarify discrepancies n information, he said.
Wilson said, as he understood it, statements made by the pilot and flight crew about what happened the night of the hijacking contradicted those of the plane's engineer, who said the plane's ramp door should not have closed and reopened if someone jumped out.
On the plane, Wilson and Saiz walked out the ramp and stood on the last step.
"The two of us made two trips down to the edge and back," he said. "We were right over the Pacific (ocean), and the thing I remember is they have flimsy sheets of plastic lining the stairwell. That thing was rattling, and there was big chunks flapping. That made an impression on me."
Once both men returned, a sled filled with sandbags to approximate the weight of Cooper and the money he allegedly had was dropped from the plane to determine how the rear ramp door would react and where he may have jumped out.
The experiment reproduced the upward motion of the tail section described by the flight crew at 8:13 pm. Based on this experiment, it was concluded that was the most likely jump time. At that moment, the aircraft was flying through a heavy rainstorm over the Lewis River in southwestern Washington.
Before the re-enactment, initial extrapolations placed Cooper's landing area on the southernmost outreach of Mount St. Helens, a few miles southeast of Ariel, Wash., near Lake Merwin.
Wilson, who came as close as any to making a similar jump, said it was definitely possible to survive, but he doesn't think Cooper did.
"I think he drowned," Wilson said.
"I don't know if he thought this thing through," Wilson said. "If he did, he could have seeded some of the money in the water and that would have set them off the track."
In 1980, an 8-year-old boy vacationing with his family discovered ackets of money along the Columbia River near Ariel, Wash., that were later determined to be some of the ransom money given Cooper.
Wilson, who taught school in Southern Pines after his military career, has a scrapbook of photos and newspaper articles about the incident. As for the jump he never made, it is no mystery to Wilson what would have happened.
"I could have made it," he said, "if they had let us jump."
Contact Tom Embrey at email@example.com.
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