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Many saw flight attendant Tina Mucklow as the key to the mysterious skyjacking. But does her story hold the answers?

It was November 24th, 1971, the day before Thanksgiving, and Tina Mucklow and her Twin Cities-based flight crew — three flight attendants and three pilots — were beginning what should have been four or five days of flying, working through the holiday. Mucklow was the newest hire and lowest-ranked flight attendant. At a stop in Portland, Oregon, she busied herself icing glasses in her role as “galley girl,” as passengers boarded and storm clouds gathered overhead. Northwest Orient had a policy to pamper their customers by serving beverages before takeoff. Her colleague Florence Schaffner started serving from the back of the main cabin; she worked from the front.

As Mucklow joined Schaffner at the rear of the plane to buckle into their jump seats, Schaffner stood up and went to sit beside the passenger in the last row. “This was not the normal procedure, because at that point we’re almost lifting off the runway,” Mucklow tells Rolling Stone. Schaffner motioned to her to pick up a piece of paper she’d dropped. It was a note: “Miss I have a bomb here and I would like you to sit by me.” Mucklow instinctively reached for the phone beside her and told the pilots what was happening. They were being hijacked; this was not a joke. Then she approached Schaffner and the passenger. He was wearing a dark suit and tie and horn-rimmed sunglasses. He had a briefcase on the seat beside him. Schaffner had just finished transcribing his demands: $200,000 by 5:00 p.m., two front parachutes, two back parachutes, and a fuel truck waiting on the ground in Seattle. As the plane gained altitude, Schaffner stood to take the note to the cockpit, and Mucklow took her place. “Either I said, ‘You want me to stay here?’ or the hijacker said, ‘I need you to stay here,’” says Mucklow, who has largely stayed silent since the incident. From that moment on, she was the man’s point person, relaying messages over the interphone back and forth between him and the cockpit. “I was there for the hijacker to kind of keep him feeling safe, reassured, comfortable and not detonating that bomb.

The way Mucklow describes it, she was just doing her job. When the man opened his briefcase to show her a row of what looked like sticks of dynamite hooked to a battery, at first she thought she’d be sick. “I can remember looking at the seat pocket in front of me and seeing that barf bag,” she says. Instead of reaching for it, though, Mucklow, who’d been raised Lutheran, started to pray. She prayed for the passengers, looking at the backs of their heads, knowing their families were expecting them to arrive soon for Thanksgiving. She prayed for herself and for her own family, knowing she might never see them again. She thanked God for the blessings in her life and asked forgiveness for her faults and failures, coming to terms, at age 22, with her own imminent death. She even prayed for the hijacker. “I prayed for him and for his family, and for forgiveness for him, too,” she says. “And then I kind of let go of it and I felt at peace, and I just focused on what had to be done.”

The flight to Seattle only took 30 minutes, but air traffic control kept them circling the airport in a pattern over Puget Sound for nearly two hours while government agents on the ground scrambled supplies to meet the man’s demands. Lightning flashed outside the windows. Mucklow says she later learned they were in a holding pattern over the water to keep the plane and the people inside it from “raining down on the people below,” if the bomb went off. Copilot Bill Rataczak told passengers they needed to burn fuel because of a minor mechanical problem. When the plane finally landed and passengers got off, they were still unaware of what was really happening. Mucklow, at the hijacker’s instruction, made several trips off and on the plane to carry the government-provided money and the parachutes onboard. Meanwhile the other two flight attendants escaped and the plane was refueled.

The hijacker had insisted on Mexico City as the destination, and when the 727 took off again, bound for a refueling stop in Reno, Nevada, Mucklow was the only person in the cabin with the man in the suit and dark glasses. “I think the one feeling that was forefront in my mind was I just felt so alone,” she says.

FBI sketch of hijacker D.B. Cooper who commandeered a Northwest Airlines jet, parachuted out over the forests of Washington State w. $200, 000 (obtained from a bomb threat) & simply disappeared. (Photo by Time Life Pictures/Fbi/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images)

FBI sketch of hijacker D.B. Cooper. (Photo: Time Life Pictures/Fbi/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)

To Mucklow, time seemed to slow down as they climbed to the demanded low altitude of 10,000 feet. It was almost 8:00 p.m. She helped the hijacker open the door that led to the stairs at the back of the aircraft, causing a rush of noise to fill the cabin. She showed him how to lower the stairs, hoping she wouldn’t get sucked out into the rainy night sky when he opened it. Four or five minutes after the plane had taken off, the skyjacker told Mucklow she could go join the pilots in the cockpit. “Probably one of the last things I did was to say, ‘Will you please, please take the bomb with you?’” she says. She doesn’t think he answered her; he was busy preparing the parachutes. For Mucklow and the pilots, the ordeal was nearly over. “Being able to reunite with the rest of my crew and coming through the cockpit was an amazing experience,” she says. “We were still in harm’s way, but I wasn’t alone. All of us looked at each other, and there was just a sense of amazement.”

“All of a sudden the cockpit door opened, and in walked this lovely lady who had been our passive resistance to the hijacker,” says copilot Rataczak. “It was a big relief.”

It wasn’t until they’d landed in Reno and searched the plane, however, that she and the three pilots know they were really safe. Bomb, money, and hijacker had all disappeared.

On the runway, Mucklow waited until she and Rataczak were in the back seat of an FBI car before she broke down. “I sobbed like I’d never sobbed before, and Bill said, ‘It’s OK, it’s OK. It’s over,’” she says.

The heist was almost too bizarre to believe: sky diving into the dense woods and hilly terrain near Portland would have been a difficult jump for anyone to survive, especially on a stormy night, let alone in a suit and dress shoes. Yet despite a massive search, no trace of the man or his parachutes was ever found. As for the money, in 1980, a child dug up a few stacks of rotting twenties on the bank of the Columbia River north of Portland, over the Washington state line, that were traced to the hijacking. The lead fizzled, though. The FBI published the bills’ serial numbers, but the vast majority of the cash was never found. The D.B. Cooper hijacking, as it became known (the man bought his plane ticket under the alias Dan Cooper), has baffled law enforcement and amateur detectives for nearly five decades. In 2016, the FBI officially closed its case. Today, it is the only unsolved plane hijacking in history.

To some on the 727 that day, Mucklow was the hero of the ordeal. By easing the stress of the hijacker and shielding the passengers from what was transpiring, she had rescued the plane and its crew from disaster. “She was so calm and cool and collected, I could not think of anyone that would have been better to have sitting next to someone who would do a criminal act like [this],” recalls Rataczak. The two have stayed in touch, and he says he thinks of Mucklow as a younger sister. “She just has a mild air about her that would leave anybody who speaks with her confident in what she says and does. I just have all the respect for Tina and how she handled [the hijacking].”

To others, Mucklow is a potential key to a nagging mystery. Since the Seventies, D.B. Cooper enthusiasts have reached out to her for answers about what happened. Some seem to think of her as a savior, who will be able put to rest all their burning questions about the case. After all, she did spend more time than anyone else with the hijacker. Her hesitancy to speak publicly about the events has fueled conspiracy theories that she must know more than she lets on. “They think there’s something wrong with you, or you’re connected to that person, or there’s something you’re hiding,” she says.

Despite rumors swirling on online forums, Mucklow says her decision not to talk wasn’t a cover-up for some deeper mystery: She isn’t in witness protection, and she’s not suffering from PTSD over something mysterious the hijacker did during their time together in the cabin of the plane. After the incident, she cooperated with the FBI investigation and has since sought, mostly successfully, to move on. “I went on with my life, pursued what I needed to do, had my own personal interests, likes, and wants,” she says. “I wasn’t defined by that hijacking.” The only thing making that difficult has been the dozens of people each year who keep asking her about it.

Recently, Mucklow has reconsidered her silence, agreeing to occasional interviews. This year, marking the 50th anniversary of the famous crime, she’s consulting on the production of a scripted film — an action thriller by Joey McFarland and Dawn Bierschwal — about the crew’s experience of the hijacking. She also gave a brief interviews for a two-part History special in 2016, and the documentary The Mystery of D.B. Cooper, which came out on HBO last year. Now, she’s telling her own story more completely and publicly than ever before, to Rolling Stone. “I felt that I didn’t own this hijacking and that maybe it was time to give it back to history,” she says.

In the 1960s, flight attendants were considered more ornamental than heroic. Although Mucklow had trained in emergency procedures like how to put out fires or help a passenger who was having a heart attack, when she was hired as a stewardess with Northwest Orient in the spring of 1969, she had to agree to maintain her slim figure and to never wear glasses. She also signed a contract promising to “retire” by the time she turned 30. “They just had allowed the married flight attendants to wear wedding rings, and it was only the contract before that one that had actually allowed flight attendants to even be married,” Mucklow recalls. “Those were just the parameters in which we worked; it was part of the industry.”

For Mucklow, being part of the airline industry was worth it. Growing up in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, the daughter of an electrician father and a nurse mother, Mucklow first became hooked on aviation at 14, when she took her first flight by herself. “I fell in love with the feeling of flying, of sitting at the end of the runway and the engines revving, ready to take off,” she says. “And the fun of watching the cabin attendants — back in the day called stewardesses — working. They were all so sweet and pretty.”

She considered following in her mother’s footsteps and becoming a nurse, but the allure of the skies won out. Mucklow’s appearance may have helped her land the gig — she was voted Charter Day queen her senior year of high school — but she thrived on the challenge and adventure of the job.

tina mucklow db cooper passport

Mucklow’s passport from the time of the hijacking. (Photo courtesy of Tina Mucklow)

“It was fun, hard work,” she says. She’d often fly for 12 or 13 days at a time, away from the apartment she shared with a roommate in Minneapolis. “It was a lot of long days, short nights, getting up, changing, and going to different time zones. The first five years I flew mostly domestic. Then, as I had more seniority, I flew mostly international.”

In 1971, airplane hijacking had vastly different connotations than it does today. Between 1968 and 1972, more than 130 American planes were hijacked, commandeered to Havana by Cuban nationals wanting to return home or American revolutionaries hoping to join Fidel Castro’s communist mission despite a travel and trade embargo with the nation. To avoid violence — while also declining to install metal detectors in airports — airlines adopted a policy of total compliance with hijackers. Cockpits were provided charts of the Caribbean Sea, regardless of where they were headed. A divergence to Cuba was relatively routine, seen almost as a lark. Rataczak recalled in The Mystery of D.B. Cooper, “Everybody on the airplane would get a bottle of rum and a couple of cigars, and got back on the airplane and flew home and thought it was really a fun thing.” In retrospect, Mucklow sees the D.B. Cooper hijacking as a dangerous turning point, the start of an escalation in the violent potential of hijackings that culminated in the 9/11 attacks. At the time, however, business as usual soon resumed. In less than a month, Mucklow was back to working regular hours.

She wasn’t scared to go back to work and doesn’t recall feeling traumatized by the event. “I just moved on. Maybe that’s part of being young and resilient, but it was [also] part of what we train for. That was part of what our job was.”

Mucklow had no idea how the hijacking would continue to impact her life. She worked as a flight attendant for another 10 years before retiring in 1981 and entering a monastery as a nun. Years later, that transition would fuel speculation on the several prolific D.B. Cooper message boards and blogs that launched in the 2000s: Was she driven into the sisterhood by something the hijacker did to her? Was the move a cover for entering witness protection? Pure gossip, Mucklow says. “I actually had chosen to come into the Catholic faith in ’78, and I wanted to explore my own spirituality and a deeper prayer life,” she says. “It had nothing to do with the FBI and nothing to do with the hijacking.” 

As time passed and no arrest was made, interest in the unsolved D.B. Cooper case persisted. Just five years after the crime, the FBI had already considered more than 800 suspects. Books and TV specials argued the merits of several intriguing and enduring (and, frustratingly, deceased) possible perpetrators: Richard McCoy, a favorite suspect of the FBI, committed a copycat hijacking five months after Cooper’s, leaping from the aft stairs of another 727 with $500,000. McCoy was killed in a shootout with law enforcement after escaping prison and without confessing to the Cooper hijacking. In 1995, Army veteran Duane Weber told his wife on his deathbed, “I’m Dan Cooper,” and she learned later he had had a criminal past. A couple who befriended loner recreational pilot and merchant mariner Barbara Dayton in the late Seventies thought she may have been Cooper — she’d confessed to it over dinner one night. A woman named Marla Cooper has said she suspects her uncle was the hijacker, recalling memories of secretive conversations and of the uncle, L.D. Cooper, coming back bloodied from “turkey hunting” the day of the hijacking. The circumstantial evidence for each suspect is tantalizing, but the FBI wanted proof, and no one had it.

For many armchair detectives Mucklow came to be regarded as the holy grail in the Cooper case. In 2011, journalist Geoffrey Gray wrote a deeply reported book, Skyjack: The Hunt for D.B. Cooper, where he investigates a former Northwest Orient employee and paratrooper as a possible suspect. He wanted Mucklow’s opinion, and described in the book the desperation he felt trying to reach her: “I imagine the aging stewardess sitting on her sofa in her living room listening to her answering machine, wondering if she should pick up after holding back whatever secrets she’s been keeping all these years. I pray for her to pick up. Please, Tina, please. I sent her telepathic messages, mental beams aimed to direct her hands to her telephone receiver. Pick up, Tina.” She declined the interview.

The vast majority of people making these requests — around 90 or 95 percent, Mucklow estimates — have been men. And at times, the harassment has been intense. For every professionally persistent journalist who has reached out to her over the years, she’s endured aggressive Cooper obsessives who won’t take no for an answer. “There have been many times when I’ve felt that people didn’t respect ‘no’ or ‘not interested,’ or just the fact that I didn’t contact them,” she says. “Although that isn’t a formal way of saying no, it’s a nonverbal way of saying ‘not interested.’” Some people have knocked on her door, then sat in their car outside her house after she refused an interview. Someone once surreptitiously took pictures of her in the parking lot of her workplace. One caller shamed her, saying “a Christian woman” would return their call. After several attempts to get Mucklow to talk to him, one prominent follower of the case called Mucklow a “social isolate,” “quick to anger,” “bitter,” a “recluse,” “fragile,” a “wounded woman,” and “traumatized,” in a single blog post.

First Officer Bob Rataczak and Stewardess Tina Mucklow of a hijacked Northwestern airliner walk to a conference with FBI after the plane landed, Wednesday, Nov. 25, 1971, Reno, Nevada. (AP Photo)

First Officer Bill Rataczak and Tina Mucklow walk to a conference with the FBI after the plane landed in Reno, Nevada. (Photo: AP)

On the rare occasions that Mucklow has weighed in on a suspect, she says she’s sometimes been met with disappointment or contempt for not affirming what the person believes is true. “If I didn’t say, ‘Oh, yes, that looks like Cooper,’ it’s kind of like, ‘Oh, poor thing. She’s old and doesn’t remember,’ or ‘She doesn’t know because she has glasses now, so she can’t see as well.’”

Mucklow gets it. She sees how the clawing feeling of the unknown bothers people. “Any time you have a mystery, there’s this need to solve that mystery,” she says. “I understand that. Each person has to do what they have to do, but I think it’s important to respect that other people may not have that same agenda.”

In 2016, when the FBI closed the D.B. Cooper case, Mucklow says she felt sad. She wished they had found the hijacker and charged him. “He was a criminal,” she says, “Who was not only threatening my life, but the lives of all those innocent people on that flight.” At the same time, she understood the decision. “I recognize that it was probably the right thing to do given the amount of time [that has passed] and knowing all the needs of our world today.”

For nearly 30 years, Mucklow has been living in Eugene, Oregon, working on meeting some of those worldly needs. She left the monastery in 1993 and went back to school to work in social services. “I wanted to find a way of connecting in my own community and serving in a more personal, more direct way,” she says. She has since staffed a county crisis call line that sent mental-health responders instead of police to emergencies; worked in a residential facility with people who were transitioning out of psychiatric hospitals back into the community; and helped launch an outpatient learning and recovery center, oftentimes working with homeless populations and people who struggle with disorders like schizophrenia.

Mary Alice Johnston worked with Mucklow at the psychiatric recovery organization, where the two bonded over their shared spirituality and a love of travel. Johnston knows Mucklow as a hard worker who cares deeply about helping others — and someone who screens her calls. “She’s a private person,” Johnston says. “She is not out for any glory.”

Today, Mucklow is 71 and recently retired, waiting for the Covid-19 pandemic to subside so she can resume volunteering at a soup kitchen, spend time with friends, and go out to eat. She and Rataczak, who still lives in Minnesota, catch up by phone every couple of months. “If we could just get her to move back here so we can get together more often, it would be greatly appreciated,” he jokes.

Her whole life, Mucklow has worked to make other people’s lives better. Getting passengers their martinis before takeoff and placating a dangerous hijacker to save 42 people’s lives was just the start of it. All she’s asked since then is to be left alone. She’s too polite to say it, but she doesn’t owe anyone explanations, suspect vetting, or anything else at this point. “I was a crew member who was just trying to do my job to the best of my ability, along with my fellow crew members, and if we had an agenda, it was to get that airplane safely on the ground and the passengers off the airplane,” she says. “I think that’s probably what all of us would want to be remembered for.”

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