originally published June 13, 2014
Depending on what actually happened – and the sad truth is that we will probably never know – the D.B. Cooper story is either one of the greatest robberies of all time or a brilliant example of how a poor exit strategy can trip up any criminal. You’ve probably heard about the story (or perhaps you’ve seen it come to life on Newsradio or Prison Break), how a quiet and polite hijacker stepped off an airborne plane and into the night with a bag full of stolen loot. But the resonance of this 43-year-old mystery is truly worthy of our collective awe.
It was November 24, 1971, the day before Thanksgiving, yet somehow the 2:50pm Northwest Orient flight from Portland, Oregon to Seattle – Flight 305 – was only about a third full. A man who had purchased a ticket under the name ‘Dan Cooper’, took his seat near the rear of the Boeing 727, lit up a smoke and ordered a bourbon.
When the man slipped a note to Florence Schaffner, the flight attendant, she tossed it in her purse unopened, believing it to be the phone number of yet another smarmy businessman believing all stewardesses to be little more than travelling whores. “Miss,” the man whispered to her, “you’d better look at that note. I have a bomb.”
The man showed Florence the contents of his briefcase, which looked enough like a bomb for her to believe him. She relayed his instructions to the cockpit: he wanted $200,000, four parachutes (two primary, two reserves), and a fuel truck to gas up the plane upon arrival in Seattle. The man wasn’t nervous, he wasn’t agitated, and all reports state that he was rather polite. He even tipped Florence when she brought him another bourbon.
After circling for a while to allow the FBI and Seattle police time to gather the man’s ransom, Flight 305 touched down at 5:39pm. They had put together 10,000 unmarked $20 bills, recording a microfilm photo of each one for the record. The plane taxied to a remote area of the airport and the passengers and two of the stewardesses – including Florence – were allowed to leave. That left the two pilots and the flight engineer, along with one flight attendant and the man who was only known by what was almost certainly a pseudonym: Dan Cooper. His next destination? Mexico City.
Cooper demanded the plane fly at a maximum height of 10,000 feet at the slowest possible airspeed. He wanted the wing flaps lowered 15 degrees and the landing gear was to remain down for the entire flight. Also, he wanted the aft staircase to be left open as they took off. Officials refused that last point, stating it was dangerous to fly like that. Cooper relented.
The crew was ordered to remain in the cockpit after takeoff. By 7:40pm they were back in the air. The plan was to stop over in Reno to refuel – it was the only way the 727 could hope to make it to Mexico. Then at 8:00, something happened.
The pilots recorded a change in air pressure, just as a warning light let them know that the aft staircase had been opened. Thirteen minutes later there was a slight upward shift in the aft section of the plane – not a big deal, but later recreations would show the shift probably reflected the sudden disappearance of about 200 pounds of cargo and/or personnel out those stairs. When the plane landed in Reno, Cooper was gone.
Search after search was performed along the flight path between Seattle and Reno. The likelihood that Cooper leapt at 8:13 narrowed the search area, but figuring out where he landed would depend on precisely where the plane would have been, the force of the wind that night, and when he pulled open his parachute. If, in fact, he opened it at all. Two Air Force F-106 fighter jets had been following Cooper’s plane from Seattle, but the sun had gone down and it was a rainy evening – the fighter jets had seen nothing and this was not a simple calculation.
One of the first suspects investigated was a man named D.B. Cooper. He lived in Oregon and had had a minor scrape-up with police in the past, but officials wanted to rule out the remote possibility that the hijacker used his actual name when he bought his ticket. Someone in the press grabbed hold of this, and the name ‘D.B. Cooper’ was accidentally printed as the name the hijacker had given. The name stuck (I guess ‘D.B.’ is a sexier bad-guy name than ‘Dan’), and that’s how the legend came to be titled.
As for the culprit, the authorities were just waiting on a snippet of evidence to surface.
Fingerprints were recovered from the plane, but they didn’t match anyone in the system. A skeleton was found in Clark County, Washington – near where Cooper might have landed – but it belonged to a teenage female who had been murdered, not to Cooper. It was probably the largest manhunt in the history of the nation, but it turned up nothing. Years later, checking with banks, casinos and race tracks around the globe didn’t turn up a single appearance of any of the bills, whose serial numbers had been diligently recorded. It was as though Cooper stepped off that plane and simply disappeared.
An 8-year-old on a camping trip with his family beside the Columbia River found two complete packets of Cooper’s money, plus another that was missing ten bills. This was 1980 – nine years later – and most of the bills had deteriorated from age. The money likely didn’t travel down the river, as the elastics would have disintegrated. But an animal could have carried it, or it might even have fallen off the plane as Cooper was preparing to make his leap. Evidence indicated that the bills arrived in that location after the 1974 dredging of the river, but they provided no clues – just another mystery.
Some believe Cooper took his pseudonym from the Belgian comic book Dan Cooper, the story of a heroic Canadian Air Force pilot. The book had never been translated into English or imported into the US, suggesting Cooper was either European or – more likely, given the lack of accent – Canadian. He knew enough about planes to select the 727, which had the aft door as well as three highly-placed engines that would eliminate the threat of being incinerated by the exhaust as he leapt. Also, he knew the appropriate ground refuelling time as well as the correct angle for the flaps to be lowered. But he was enough of an amateur skydiver that he had picked the weaker of the two main chutes and a non-functional dummy reserve chute (which had been supplied by accident).
But the guy was smart enough to ask for two sets of parachutes. This suggested to the authorities that he’d be taking a hostage with him on the leap, thus ensuring the FBI wouldn’t give him a defective chute.
The investigation into the D.B. Cooper case has never been closed, and new leads and suspects have popped up regularly over the past 4 decades, none of which have been accepted as truth by the FBI – a strong contingent of which believes that Cooper never survived his jump.
But maybe he did. This remains the only unsolved hijacking in US aviation history. And while the treasure is only $200,000 (minus the $5,800 that was found), it might make for an intriguing hunt if you have the time. Just don’t get your hopes up too high – you won’t be the first to venture to the hills in hopes of solving this magnificent mystery.