Friday, June 29, 2012

The Man Who Disappeared From a Plane

Thanksgiving Eve, 1971. It was late afternoon at the Portland International Airport, and the rain outside was pouring. A thin, olive-skinned man wearing a suit and a raincoat calmly walked up to the Northwest Orient Airlines desk and purchased tickets for a one-way flight to Seattle for $20. This was the start of what would end up as the only successful plane hijacking in United States history.

Sketch of Dan Cooper. No trace of him
has ever been found after he jumped from
the hijacked plane. 
After purchasing his ticket, the man, Dan Cooper, sat in the airport for nearly an hour, until his 4:35pm flight boarded. He got onboard with his only carryon, a black briefcase, and took a seat in the back of the plane. Once the nearly empty plane was in the air,  he put on a pair of sunglasses and ordered himself a glass of whiskey. Just before the drink came he lit up a cigarette. When the flight attendant arrived with his drink, he handed her a note.

The flight attendant, a young woman named Florence Schaffner, took the note and dropped it in her purse without reading it and turned to walk away. Cooper grabbed her hand and whispered that she needed to read the note, because he had a bomb.

Hands shaking, she took the note out and read it. Written in all capital letters, it said:
The flight attendant did as Cooper requested. She asked to see the bomb. He opened his briefcase and showed her the jumble of wires and red cylinders. Then, he told her his demands. He wanted $200,000, four parachutes, and a refueling truck standing by in Seattle to refuel the plane. If they did as they were told, no one would get hurt, and he'd let all the passengers go when they touched ground in Washington.

The pilot notified the Seattle-Tacoma Airport which then contacted the FBI. While the plane circled the airport for two hours so the authorities could gather the money, Cooper, sat calmly with Florence Schaffner, pointing out different landmarks around the Seattle area. He was never angry, violent, or rude. In all ways, he seemed like he was on any normal, run-of-the-mill flight. He even ordered another drink and paid the tab.

On the ground, the passengers were released and the money and parachutes loaded up. The plane was refueled and took off with Cooper, the pilot, co-pilot and engineer still onboard. He had also dimmed the lights inside the plane, so he couldn't be shot. Two f-106 fight jets were scrambled to follow the plane. They flew above and below the aircraft, so Cooper couldn't see them.

He told the remaining flight crew to fly toward Mexico City, at the lowest possible altitude. He instructed them to lower the landing gear, so they could get even lower. The speed of the plane dropped. Just after 8pm, the airstairs in the rear of the pane were lowered. Then, at 8:13pm, as the plane was flying over the Lewis River and the lower Cascade mountains, Dan Cooper, with his briefcase, a parachute strapped on, and the other three chutes with him, jumped off the plane...and disappeared.

The wanted poster for DB Cooper
Neither of the planes saw Cooper jump. Over the next few weeks, 300 soldiers, the largest manhunt in U.S. history, searched the area and turned up no evidence. Nothing was ever found and all potential leads turned up false. (It was at this time that Dan Cooper was misidentified in the press as DB Cooper.) The man and the money had simply vanished.

In 1972, U.S. Attorney John Mitchell released the serial numbers to the bills given to Cooper. Only counterfeited bills surfaced. In 1980, an 8-year-old boy found three stacks of cash, bound by a rubber band, on the shores of the Columbia River. They were severally disintegrated. The FBI confirmed the serial numbers matched those given to Cooper in 1971. No other money was found.

To this day, the rest of the money has never turned up anywhere in the world and the serial numbers are available online. The identity and whereabouts of Dan Cooper are also still unknown.

Monday, June 18, 2012

The Man Who Was President for a Day

In the United States, the process of succession for the presidency is taken seriously. So seriously in fact, that there are 18 people in line to take over...should anything happen to the person in front. Every precaution is taken to ensure that there is no chaos in the event that the president should die. (An event that has happened four times, with Presidents Lincoln, Garfield, McKinley, and Kennedy.)

Zachary Taylor, 12th president
Up until the 1930s, all presidential and congressional terms would commence at noon on March 4 of the year following an election year. Zachary Taylor, former major general from the Mexican-American War, was elected president in 1848. The following year, March 4 fell on a Sunday. Taylor refused to be sworn in on a Sunday, choosing instead to wait until the following day, Monday, for his inauguration.

This left the United States in a positon it had never been before. If things stayed as President-elect Taylor wanted, there would have been a single day when there was no president.

In today's line of succession, the vice-president is next in line, followed by the speaker of the house and then the president pro tempore of the Senate. The Constitution of the United States says that the vice-president is also the president of the Senate and presides over the Senate sessions. The president pro tempore is elected to preside over the Senate when the vice-president is absent. 

David Rice Atchison, 12th president?
In 1849, the president pro tempore was third in line of succession, and in that role was Senator David Atchison, a Democrat from Kansas City, Missouri. Senator Atchison was elected to the Senate in 1843 and was elected president pro tempore 13 different times, including on March 2, 1849.

With no president or vice-president from noon on March 4, 1849 until noon on March 5, 1849, Atchison technically became acting president. Opponents of the president for a day theory say that, technically, Atchison's Senate term also expired on March 4 at noon, and he never took the oath of office.

On an interesting side note, when Franklin Pierce, 13th President of the United States, suffered through his vice-president, William King, passing away after six weeks in office, Atchison, technically, became acting vice-president. Pierce wouldn't officially appoint another vice-president until his second inauguration, on March 4, 1857, when he selected John C. Breckinridge.

Atchison never stopped talking about and embellishing the story of his "one-day presidency." A statue in Kansas City, erected in his honor at the Clinton County Courthouse, has an inscription on it that reads: 

David Rice Atchison, 1807-1886, President of United States One Day.

Monday, June 11, 2012

The Bridge That Twisted in the Wind

The original Tacoma Narrows Bridge was one that will live in infamy for creating one of the most amazing spectacles ever captured on film: a bridge that literally twisted in the wind and ultimately collapsed on live TV.

Built in 1940, the original Tacoma Narrows Bridge (not to be confused with the twin suspension bridges now standing) was constructed to span the Tacoma Narrows Straight, which lies between the city of Tacoma, Washington and the Kitsap Pennisula. The idea for a bridge here had been tossed around since the late 1800s before the state legislature of Washington created the Washington State Toll Bridge Authority. The Toll Bridge Authority studied the requests to build a bridge in this area; they finally agreed to build in the late 1930s.

Construction began on the bridge in 1938. Almost at once, the construction crew noticed how as the bridge grew, it began to move more and more with the wind that blew through the Narrows. Once the deck was completed, it began to move up and down, vertically, with the sometimes 40-mph winds. The local papers nicknamed the bridge as Galloping Gertie.

The Tacoma Narrows Bridge was the third largest suspension bridge in the world when it opened on July 1, 1940, beaten only by the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco and the George Washington Bridge in Manhattan. Even after opening, work was done to try and fix the vertical movement of the bridge.

What the builders didn't know at the time was that aeroelastic flutter was what was doing the most damage. Aeroelastic flutter is the vibrations created from one object contacting another, such as wind on stone, with the effect being the forces within the struck object couple up with its own natural vibration or movement, creating even more rapid movement.

For the next few months, the bridge began to bounce up and down, more and more often, sometimes even twisting on itself like a pretzel. The cables held, but crossing the bridge became more and more difficult and dangerous. The bridge began to move in a way that was transverse, that is, when one side of the bridge went up, the other side went down.

Then came the fateful day: November 7, 1940. At 11 am, the bridge finally collapsed. Leonard Coatsworth, the editor of the Tacoma News Tribune, was the last man crossing the bridge. He had to abandon his car and his dog.

Here is his account of what happened, from the Washington State Department of Transportation:

"I drove on the bridge and started across. In the car with me was my daughter's cocker spaniel, Tubby. The car was loaded with equipment from my beach home at Arletta. 

Just as I drove past the towers, the bridge began to sway violently from side to side. Before I realized it, the tilt became so violent that I lost control of the car. . . . I jammed on the brakes and got out, only to be thrown onto my face against the curb.

Around me I could hear concrete cracking. I started back to the car to get the dog, but was thrown before I could reach it. The car itself began to slide from side to side on the roadway. I decided the bridge was breaking up and my only hope was to get back to shore.

On hands and knees most of the time, I crawled 500 yards or more to the towers . . . . My breath was coming in gasps; my knees were raw and bleeding, my hands bruised and swollen from gripping the concrete curb . . . . Toward the last, I risked rising to my feet and running a few yards at a time . . . . Safely back at the toll plaza, I saw the bridge in its final collapse and saw my car plunge into the Narrows."

The collapse of the bridge took mere moments, but the images it created have lasted nearly a century. Here is footage of the bridge and its collapse. Coatsworth's car can even be seen in the clip. (Click here if you can't view the video on your device.)

Sunday, June 3, 2012

The King of Bombs

In the years following World War II, The United States and the Soviet Union went head to head for global domination. The Americans ended the war with the detonation of two Atomic Bombs, one over Nagasaki and one over Hiroshima. Not to be out done, the Russians began to develop their own superweapon. The result? A massive beast of a bomb, known simply as Tsar Bomba, the King of Bombs. It was the largest nuclear weapon ever constructed or detonated.

Tsar Bomba, the King of Bombs
Built by the Russians in 1961, Tsar Bomba was designed to have the firepower of 100 million tons of TNT. But, in order to reduce the nuclear fallout in their own territory, the firepower was reduced to 57 million tons of TNT. To put that in perspective, the power of this bomb was five times greater than all the TNT used in World War II (including both atomic bombs dropped over Japan). Because of its design, the bomb got 97% of its energy from from fusion reactions. Had it not, the world's fission fallout would have increased by roughly 25 percent.

The plane climbed high and dropped Tsar Bomba over the Mityushikha Bay test site, which was on the western coast of Novaya Zemlya Island. Scientists had calculated that the bomb would burst at 13,000 feet, well above the ground, hopefully reducing damage. But they were wrong. 

Fireball from the Tsar Bomba explosion
The detonation of the bomb was incredible. The cloud mushroomed up and continued to grow and grow. The fireball from the blast, though detonated in the sky and reaching a height of nearly 13,000 feet, touched the ground and swelled even higher, nearly touching the plane that released it.

The blast from the explosion was both bright and hot. The blast was seen from over 621 miles away and the pressure below the inferno was six times greater than the peak pressure of the atomic bomb felt at Hiroshima. One tester, who was 168 miles away, felt the thermal burst from the explosion.

From the Nuclear Weapons Archive, a cameraman on the plane described the explosion:

The clouds beneath the aircraft and in the distance were lit up by the powerful flash. The sea of light spread under the hatch and even clouds began to glow and became transparent. At that moment, our aircraft emerged from between two cloud layers and down below in the gap a huge bright orange ball was emerging. The ball was powerful and arrogant like Jupiter. Slowly and silently it crept upwards.... Having broken through the thick layer of clouds it kept growing. It seemed to suck the whole earth into it. The spectacle was fantastic, unreal, supernatural.

Reports from around the test site were astounding. One observer reported seeing a bright, white flash on the horizon, followed by a low and heavy rumble. They described it as if the earth "had been killed."

At a settlement 435 miles away, a shock wave from the blast was felt. At another one 559 miles aways, glass in the windows were either cracked or broken. In the town Severny, a mere 34 miles away, every building was destroyed. People 120 miles from the blast site reported third degree burns. The temperature at the epicenter of the blast reached 1 million degrees Celsius. In dozens of other towns and villages spread out from ground zero, houses and buildings were destroyed and radio signals were lost for well over an hour. 

All bombs create a disturbance when detonated, where they release radioactive atoms and electrons in a blast into the high atmosphere. The explosion of Tsar Bomba created a disturbance to the atmosphere that circled the globe three times. 

The mushroom cloud rose into the sky an astounding 210,000 feet and created an earthquake that registered a 5.0.

The Russians had succeeded in creating a sun on the earth.

The explosion was captured on camera. Here is the amazing footage. (If you can't view the video on your device, then click here.)