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D.B. Cooper: Rackstraw Revisited

Tom J Colbert (TJC), co-author of “The Last Master Outlaw” and the force behind what we can call the Robert Rackstraw theory, recently made a big splash in the media about a possible D.B. Cooper find, including the possibility of the first physical evidence recovered from the case in decades. The physical evidence will have to wait for a future post, but TJC released a new theory regarding Cooper’s possible escape from law enforcement, outlined in a pdf circulated to a few Cooper investigators. Information about the theory is available on his website, which is where I will take any quotes from, though I intend to summarize the theory instead of quoting.

Here is a summary of the escape theory sent to me: A small private aircraft was doing touch-and-goes at a remote airfield in Washington the day before the hijacking. This aircraft was later used during the hijacking. It had an oversized anti-collision light on the tail, making it visible from the 727 above. Cooper waited at the bottom of the stairs until he saw the red beacon, signalling that 305 had traversed the jump point. Cooper jumps, lands within 1300 feet of his target (!), and is whisked away by a ground crew driving a truck. Cooper is taken to the remote airfield and is picked up by the Cessna which received a signal from the truck. They (Cooper and the pilot) fly VFR, below radar, over the Lewis River to Lake Vancouver. They plant some of the ransom money ($50k) and the briefcase bomb in Lake Vancouver to make it look like Cooper drowned. Then they go to a final airport, and The Hijacker (who, as far as I can tell, is not named by the storyteller) flies out on another aircraft. Years later, a buddy of Rackstraw’s gives some of the ransom money to the Ingram family, who plant it at Tina Bar on the Columbia… which happens to be the same place that dredge spoils from Lake Vancouver ended up. And by some miracle, those spoils included remnants of the original 50k planted in Lake Vancouver the night of the hijacking.

There’s a lot to unpack here:

-A precision jump under these circumstances would have been impossible. Cooper may have manipulated the 305 crew to go south, but the actual route was chosen by ATC and the flight crew. In fact, 305 was given permission to go anywhere it needed to. Thus, *maybe* Cooper could have jumped within a few miles of his preferred latitude. Maybe. However, Cooper had no control of his longitude (east-west line). In this case the particular route was Victor 23 (which is eight miles wide), but there were other routes that could have been taken. Cooper provided zero instruction to the crew and would have had no idea where the plane was east-west, and no any control over where it was, when he jumped.

-The weather would have been a big factor, there was cloud cover at two different elevations (Weather from Hominid via Cooper Forum):

PORTLAND AIRPORT

The maximum cloud coverage (“overcast”) was at a base of 5000′ for all three observations, from 8pm through 9:17pm. Over that time frame, the “broken” layer base rose from 2700′ to 3100′ to 3500′ (all AGL). In other words, the layer that (with any lower layer) provided over .5 coverage was rising over the period. The sky was clearing below 3500′ and a helo at 2500′ AGL would have been below most of the cloud coverage the entire time.

Over that same time sequence, an 8pm “scattered” layer at 1500′ AGL was gone at 9pm, but was then back at 9:17. In place of that scattered layer, a few “CUFRA” at 1500′ were reported at the intermediate time (when the scattered layer had disappeared). I believe from this that the CUFRA was the remains of the scattered layer of clouds rather than clouds that were ripped away from larger clouds by winds, or formed by the higher clouds. That is, the scattered clouds had shrunk to almost nothing and were identified as CUFRA because of their appearance. A 2500′ helo would be above this base in clear air or scattered clouds.

Also, the horizontal visibility (air “clear-ness”) peaked at the intermediate observation time. It was 7 statute miles (SM) at 8pm, went up to 10SM at 9pm (when the low clouds were disappearing), then went back to 6SM at 9:17. Light showers were reported at each time.

The existence of the data for 8pm and 9pm in the data Carr posted gives us an opportunity to fill in between the 7pm and 10pm data from WeatherUnderground. Combining data from the sources shows that the wind speed went from 4.6mph at 7pm, to 11.5mph at 8pm, to 12.67mph at 9pm, to 11.5mph at 10pm. The wind speed went abruptly up from nearly dead calm between 7pm and 8pm, then stayed approximately constant for the next two hours.

Similarly, the wind direction changed from 130° (SE) at 7pm (when there was barely any wind) to 270° (W) at 8pm to 190° (S) at 9pm and to 200° (SSW) at 10pm. The abrupt change of the wind to west at 8pm, then back to SSW at 9pm is intriguing. (BTW: wind directions are plus or minus 5°.)”

TROUTDALE AIRPORT

From 8pm to 9pm to 9:17pm the base of the sky obscuring (overcast) cloud layer rose from 4000′ to 6000′ AGL. At 8pm no lower layer was reported. At 9pm a layer of “broken” clouds (over .5 coverage) developed at a little under 2200′ AGL. It rose to 4000′ AGL at 9:17, at which time a “scattered” layer had developed at 1500′, the horizontal visibility had dropped to 7SM (from 10), and the wind direction had changed from 220° (SSW) to 270° (W). (wind directions ±5°) Over the period, wind speed had gone from 7kt to 21kt/24mph (9pm) to 12kt. Light showers at 8pm, very light at 9pm, and back to light at 9:17pm.

In general, showers and vertical visibility diminished and wind increased for the intermediate observation. Then the wind direction changed and the horizontal visibility dropped a bit. The cloud cover heights increased, but a lower coverage layer appeared. A 2500′ helo could have been above a cloud base at any time after 8pm.

Generally mild weather at the mouth of the gorge, but the wind did pick up a bit after 8pm.

THE DALLES

Much of the info for 8pm (just below the line for Yakima “YKM”) is illegible in the 8pm report. It appears that the wind was 9kt from 200°.

At 9pm there was a “scattered” cloud layer at 1500′ and a “broken” layer at an estimated 6000′ (AGL). Visibility was 15SM. 6kt wind from 310°. No precipitation was reported for 9pm, rain having begun at 8:04 and ended at 8:06 (2 minutes of rain).

At 9:17pm the scattered layer had risen to 2500′ and the broken layer had fallen to 4000′. Light showers, wind 15kt (17mph) from 270° (W). The 9:17 report included “chance of light XC” (whatever that meant).

For the entire day, the WeatherUnderground site indicates that The Dalles got only .08″ of rain.

In general, wind dropped and changed direction a bit at 9pm then went back some at 9:17. Cloud layer heights changed.

Mild weather at this point in the gorge, except that the wind did go up a bit at 9:17.

TOLEDO

Toledo was not on the 9:17 report in image 1b, as far as I could tell. At 8pm its report said 3000′ AGL overcast (complete cover), 12SM visibility, very light showers, 5kt from 190°, and rain had begun at 7:35. At 9pm the report was 3000′ scattered, 3400′ measured ceiling/overcast, the same visibility, no rain, 6kt (virtually the same) from the same 190°, and rain had ended at 8:05.

Very mild conditions at both 8pm and 9pm a few miles north of Vancouver. A 2500′ helo would have been under the cloud base.

It *might* have been possible for Cooper to see a circling plane from the rear stairs, but by no means was this guaranteed. The weather was not good for a plan built on so much visual communication.

-Some more problems: To hit within 1300 feet of a chosen dropzone, Cooper would need a wrist altimeter. There’s no evidence Cooper had such a device. There’s no evidence Cooper had any specialized skydiving equipment. Cooper would also need radio equipment. Again, no evidence Cooper had such equipment. Cooper would have needed to be in constant contact with the cockpit to keep the plane on the right line, this didn’t happen.

-Meeting up with a getaway plane at an airport seems like a really bad idea. Once Cooper was picked up, he could have driven anywhere he needed to go, the police response to the hijacking was laughably thin, and law enforcement wasn’t even sure Cooper jumped until hours later in Reno.

-Why the VFR flight path over the Lewis River? On a moonless night over a rural area? It wouldn’t have been impossible, it would just be laughably difficult. Another “super spy” element of the story that serves no real purpose. There were lots of planes in the air, it was a busy travel day, another private aircraft coming and going would be less suspicious than a low-flying aircraft trying to follow a river in the dark.

-Three planes were used in this getaway? Again, why? You’re in an airplane, go where you need to go. Everytime you touch down at an airport you increase the chance of being discovered or caught.

-Throwing money into Lake Vancouver–What? This is perhaps the most unbelievable part of the story. The whole point of the heist was to secure the money, so throwing nearly $50k away on a ruse (about $250k in today’s money) is illogical; we’re looking at a four-way split, so surrendering any money, let alone $50k, is ridiculous.

-TJC suggests dredge spoils from Lake Vancouver ended up on Tena Bar, based on the documentation I’ve seen this would have been impossible as the lake wasn’t dredged until after the money was found.

-Lots of accomplices–a pilot, two ground crew, possibly an aircraft owner or two? All of whom never came forward, even after the statute of limitations expired?

-Rackstraw would never surrender the money. First of all, we’re looking at a four-way split, so surrendering any money, let alone $50k, is ridiculous.

That said, physical evidence is king. TJC is claiming pieces of a parachute harness and potentially money. The money is likely to be completely rotted away, and it’s unlikely the pieces could be linked to Cooper. So the key would be the totality of the find: parachute harness, clothing, the parachute itself, rotted currency, other evidence, location of the site.

Fearless predictions: No money, at least with serial numbers we can check, will be found. The parachute harness won’t be connected to the hijacking, and I’m guessing it will prove impossible to show it is actually a piece of an NB6/8 rig. However, I can’t be sure and look forward to finding out more.

In summary, here’s what we have: a third hand story from a deceased pilot. Some fabric and a possible dig site. Old reports from the FBI about a plane doing touch and goes the day before the hijacking. Another eyewitness report of a man wearing a suit walking along a road somewhere in the Lake Merwin area. The FBI did investigate these matters and it led to a dead end. I’m pessimistic; the escape plan is too convoluted to be true. The conditions during the jump would have made the plan completely untenable. I’m certain the FBI is going to pass on an excavation, so TJC and a TV crew are going to go in and do it themselves, hopefully they find more than garbage.

 

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