Was D.B. Cooper actually a scientist named Milton B. Vordahl?

How did we come across Milton B. Vordahl?

SCIENCE! Cooper pulled off one of the most ingenious heists in history. He was the first person in history to escape a crime scene by jumping from it. He made one mistake though: he left his tie on his seat.

Not too big of a deal at the time, but 50 years later the tie may have revealed evidence of precisely who Cooper was. Several years before the FBI closed the case, they allowed a scientist named Tom Kaye to take several sticky-stub samples off the tie. These samples were then sent to McCrone Associates in Chicago to be scanned with their Electron Microscope. They zapped those samples and found over 100,000 microscope particles. Among these particles were several thousand pure titanium particles as well as rare-earth elements.

For someone to have clothing containing so many unique metals, alloys, chemicals, and elements, there are not too many professions that would allow for such exposure. One of these professions would certainly have been that of metallurgist. In the 1950’s and 60’s metallurgists in research laboratories wore black clip-on ties. This was the era of Mad Men, so of course if you were a professional sort you absolutely had to wear your tie, even while pulling a sparking chunk of metal out of a forge. The ties were clip-on so that if the tie were to be snagged in a piece of machinery it would instantly come off instead of causing injury or death to the man wearing it.

This list of particles were then transferred to a spreadsheet and released publicly. So, any researcher with enough knowledge (and time) to go through 100,000 spectrums was free to do so. Three of these 100,000 particles stood out like a sore thumb and Cooper-researcher Eric Ulis spotted them. They appear to be metal alloys that have a unique combination of titanium and antimony. These two elements, titanium and antimony (hereinafter called “TiSb) were occasionally mixed together in the 50’s by a few research labs working for steel companies, but these alloys were rarely used commercially as the creation process was difficult and inefficient, especially when the antimony percentage of the alloy went higher than 10%.

The three particles that were spotted containing pure titanium mixed with a high percentage of antimony.

One of the only places that attempted to make TiSb alloys with a high percentage of Sb during the 1950’s was a company in Pittsburgh called Rem-Cru. This company was a leading supplier of titanium products to the Air Force as well as to the commercial airline industry and the Aerospace sector. Their products were crucial in the development of the C-130, the 727, and even the SR-71. They had several research-metallurgists at Rem-Cru but the primary metallurgist who was known to be experimenting with TiSb was Milton Vordahl. Of all the TiSb patents produced by Rem-Cru, Vordahl was the only employee named on them. Because TiSb alloys were so difficult and inefficient to produce, by the late 50’s the metals industry had virtually stopped any experimentation of TiSb alloys and had moved on to alloying titanium with tin instead of antimony.

The tie found on the plane, a black clip-on, was first sold at Penney’s in 1964 and this specific run of ties would have likely been depleted in stores by 1966. So the owner of the tie must have purchased it between those dates. So we know that when these three specific TiSb particles made their way onto the tie, it had to be after 1964. Following an extremely thorough investigation of patents in the US Patent Office, it appears that a TiSb alloy where the Sb is over 10% only appears TWICE in the entire decade of 1960’s. One is from a patent made by a Massachusetts electronics company who was trying to put it in a transistor for a radio. Like all the other TiSb folks before them, they saw it was inefficient and this patent was never used commercially and thus the alloys never left their lab.

The only other patent in the 1960’s? It’s Milton Vordahl in 1965 having one last fling with TiSb. To no one’s surprise, this alloy was also determined to be inefficient and was never commercially viable, but Vordahl used it in his patent anyways.

A timeline of Milton B. Vordahl

– His parents were Norwegian immigrants and he was born shortly after they arrived in the States.

– In high school he was an expert marksman and in doing our research we learned that many of his Washington State high school records were only recently broken. Of note: He was the only kid in his high school on both the Rifle Team and the Chemistry Club.

Vordahl as a champion high school marksman

– He attended Washington State University, receiving a Bachelor of Science, and then attended Lehigh University where he received a Masters in Metallurgical Engineering.

– He was working at DuPont Chemicals in Connecticut when WWII started. He first went to work for Remington Arms where he had multiple patents involving explosives and also had a patent for 30.06 rifle cartridges which made it to where they could be more reliably cycled through the M-1 Rifle for our infantry.

– In 1943 he was recruited to work on the Manhattan Project where he would work until 1946.

– He worked on the Hanford Site in Washington developing the Fat Man bomb that would eventually be dropped on Nagasaki. While there, he received an official commendation for solving a fuel cell equation that threatened the entire project.

– With the Manhattan Project, he worked transforming uranium slugs into plutonium slugs. It’s worth noting that the uranium slugs for the Hanford Site were produced by an aluminum smelter outside Portland just a few miles away from, and on the same road as, the infamous Tena Bar. (Disclaimer: I do not think this had anything to do with the money being found on Tena Bar, just that this is some cool trivia)

Vordahl in the late 1940’s

– Following the war he moved back to the East Coast and joined Crucible Steel outside Pittsburgh, PA.

– Over the next 20 years, his name appeared on more titanium patents than any other employee for Crucible/Rem-Cru.

Vordahl with an exhaust silencer made from titanium, 1962

– 93% of the Titanium coating of the SR-71 was created with the assistance of Milton Vordahl. In fact, many of the alloys contained within the 727, C-130, and various other military aircraft are traced to Vordahl patents.

– Despite the success of his patents, he did not get rich from royalties because they were assigned to the company he was working for.

– He moved in 1965 from Pittsburgh to Henderson, NV, just outside Las Vegas and began working as a consultant at the TIMET Titanium plant there in Henderson.

– In 1967, he designed and had built for him a house in Pateros, WA. Over the next few years he divided his time between his home near Vegas (where his lab was) and his place in Washington. Two of his children lived in Seattle in 1971.

– In the late 1960’s, he was a consultant for Boeing’s SST Project, representing Rem-Cru. The SST (Super Sonic Transport) was to be the American answer to the Concorde. The Soviets had one as well. Because the Cold War was often times just a contest of who had the cooler toys, the US Government subsidized the development and construction of an entire fleet of these SST’s. Boeing won the Government contract with their design and work began at the Seattle Boeing plant. The outside skin of this plane was almost entirely to be built out of titanium. As such, Vordahl was a consultant for Boeing on these matters. No doubt many of his alloys were to be included in the aircraft. By summer 1971, Congress had pulled the plug on the SST project. Boeing laid off literally over 30,000 engineers and titanium plants across the country shut down.

– When the SST project was cancelled, Vordahl still owned a home in Henderson and was working as a consultant for TIMET. In August, 1971, he would have lost his consulting job when 450 factory and lab workers at his plant were fired and the plant was shutdown. The plant manager in charge of Vordahl’s laboratory was named Don Cooper.

– The titanium bust of 1971 appeared to have forced Vordahl into an early retirement because his last titanium patent was published in 1971.

– Vordahl had around 80 patents. His first patent was published in 1943 and his final one was in 1971.

– He lived the rest of his life in relative obscurity living in his small town of Pateros in north-central Washington.

– He died in 2002 in Washington.

About Milton B. Vordahl:

– He was highly opinionated about everything. His politics are hard to pin down, but he would likely be a modern day Libertarian. We have found about 50 op-eds of his so far. In these op-eds he attacks every single administration from LBJ to Clinton. His writing style is often very satirical and humorous but could also be biting and vicious. Here is a sampling of two of his op-eds.

– He was an athlete. Many of the newspaper clippings you’ll find when you do deep dives on him on newspaper archives are references to him winning amateur golf and tennis tournaments. He was also a runner/jogger well before his time. We have op-eds from the 1960’s where he references going running and working out. Who ran back then?

– Vordahl was such a skilled scientist that instead of purchasing contacts for his children in the 1960’s, he made them their own contacts.

– Among his odd specialties, he had an interest and expertise on the engineering of hydroelectrical dams. We have come across newspaper clippings where he was a guest speaker at the Grand Coulee Dam during the 1950’s.

– He had many published academic papers on aviation.

– He and his wife Betty had 4 children together and were married nearly 60 years.

Vordahl in old age

Coopery odds and ends:

– Vordahl matches the FBI’s psychological very well. It states that Cooper was someone with significant “inventiveness”; that Cooper was not a career criminal and that this was probably his first crime; that Cooper must have worked out and was in good shape for a man his age; that Cooper wasn’t a poor man and this wasn’t some desperate act or get rich quick scheme i.e. it may not have been about the money; that Cooper was extremely skilled at problem solving quickly; that Cooper likely possessed a high education; that Cooper had intellectual knowledge of aviation issues but lacked practical knowledge i.e. he wasn’t a pilot or an airplane mechanic yet he understood the technical jargon associated with aviation.

– Cooper had two matchbooks that he was witnessed using: one was from SkyChef (an airport bar) and the other was from the International Correspondence School, which was basically a University of Phoenix type of institution. During my research I was looking through Vordahl’s small town paper and it turns out that around the time of the hijacking there was an ICS graduation dinner and banquet for Hydroelectric Engineer graduates at the Chief George Dam, which was just a few miles from where he was living at the time. Would an egghead like Vordahl, who possessed a specialized interest in hydroelectric happenings, have missed a similar collection of eggheads so close to his home? I do believe matches would be exactly the sort of thing that would be available at a graduation banquet for ICS. Of course Cooper could have picked these matches up from anywhere, but we would be remiss not to make note of this.

– One of the only pre-hijacking fictional uses of the name “Dan Cooper” comes from a 1937 AirTrails magazine short story titled “Canned Death”. I found this on an archive site and surprisingly no one had yet discovered who was researching D.B. Cooper. It is an 8 page short story that tells the story of a young airline pilot who is forced to defend himself from the attacks of bushwhacking pilots who force his airliner to crash. Cooper gets out of his crashed airliner and beats all these thugs up. The name Dan Cooper is used around 50 times in the short story. The author uses it as a literary device i.e. “Dan Cooper laughed” or “Dan Cooper took a swig of whiskey”.

The page immediately before the short story and a few pages after the story are articles about a guy named Clyde Pangborn, a pilot who had gained some fame at the time for various heroics. Vordahl and Pangborn were from the same area. They likely knew each other. Their mothers played on the same competitive bridge team for years. It seems a reasonable assumption to make that a copy of this 1937 AirTrails magazine, where friend of the family Clyde Pangborn was featured, would have been owned in the Vordahl household.

– His time as a consultant with Boeing may have exposed him to the unique knowledge that the 727 could be flown with the aft stairs lowered.

– The title of this Vordahl op-ed and it’s location next to the headline of the capture of long time Cooper suspect John List is seemingly coincidental, but it’s so remarkably on the nose that perhaps it isn’t coincidence.

– When asked by the sketch artist to describe Cooper, the stewardesses could only describe one thing that was unique about his face. They said he had a protruding lower lip. Two of the stewardesses called it “pouty”. The sketches all show this very unique feature that many have never noticed with D.B. Cooper. The farthest right “mouth” you see is from a 1989 Unsolved Mysteries episode where former stewardess Florence Schaffner was asked to assist in the creation of a new Cooper sketch. 18 years after the incident she still remembered Cooper’s unique pouty lip.

How does he stack up against the various sketches?

Composite Sketch A, released 11-30-71

Composite Sketch B, released 8-23-1972

Composite Sketch B (Revised), released 11-10-1972

Composite Sketch B (Final), released 1-2-1973

Stewardess Florence Schaffner’s 1989 Unsolved Mysteries sketch

Unanswered Questions

– Did he have any parachuting or skydiving experience? Our team has not been able to find any. However, Vordahl did live near several jump centers throughout the 1960’s. Assistance from the Vordahl family may help us find evidence of this. With that said, the FBI did not believe that Cooper was a skydiver. They believed Cooper may have either had some military experience with static-line jumping or that he had no experience at all. It should be noted that three of the five Cooper copycats who successfully completed parachute escapes from a 727 had never jumped from an aircraft before.

– What was his financial situation at the time? We aren’t sure. Despite the success of his metal patents, he received no royalties. Could the titanium crash of 1971 have caused unforeseen financial complications? Did he have a large sum of money invested in titanium stocks? Again, we will only ever know with family assistance.

– Was he too old at the time to be Cooper at age 58? Cooper’s age wildly varies based upon the various eyewitness reports. In his book NORJAK, retired FBI agent Ralph Himmelsbach, who spent the later part of his career chasing Cooper, described Cooper as being anywhere between 30 to 55 with an athletic build, short dark hair, about 5 feet 10 inches, and with a swarthy complexion. Vordahl was measured for the military as being 5’10 1/2 in his bare feet. He was in good shape for his age due to his fitness regime. Color images of Vordahl reveal an olive colored complexion.

Was this man D.B. Cooper? The investigation continues….