The Legend of D.B. Cooper

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On November 24, 1971, a man who identified himself as Dan Cooper purchased a $20 ticket for a short 30-minute flight from Portland to Seattle. 

He had with him a briefcase filled with dynamite and wanted $200,000. 

After getting his money, the plane took off again, Dan Cooper took the money, jumped out of the plane and into history. 

Learn more about DB Cooper on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

Northwest Orient Airlines flight 305 was a short 30-minute hop between Portland, Oregon, and Seattle, Washington. The flight is so short that most people would never bother to actually take the flight as it would be easier to just drive. 

The airplane was a Boing 727-100, a detail that will become important to the story in a bit. 

A man using the name Dan Cooper purchased a ticket on the flight. He was a middle-aged white male who wore a suit, a black tie, and a white shirt. 

He sat in seat 18C with a briefcase and an open seat next to him.

To put this all in context, flying back in 1971 was radically different than it is today. You didn’t have to show identification to check-in or to buy a ticket. There were no screening or metal detectors prior to boarding the plane. 

As he sat in his seat, he didn’t exhibit any abnormal behavior. In fact, he ordered a bourbon and soda while the plane was on the tarmac. 

Shortly after the plane took off, he handed a handwritten note to the flight attendant Florence Schaffner. 

Schaffner, not thinking much of it put the note in her pocket without reading it. 

Cooper leaned over and whispered to her, “Miss, you’d better look at that note. I have a bomb.”

Cooper asked her to sit down next to him in the empty seat and proceeded to open up his briefcase to show her the eight red cylinders which appeared to be sticks of dynamite, wires, and batteries. 

He told the flight attendant that he wanted $200,000 in cash, four parachutes (two primary and two reserve), and a fuel truck waiting at the Seattle-Tacoma Airport to fuel the plan upon arrival. 

Another background item you need to know is what the climate was around hijackings at this time.

1968 to 1972 was the golden age of hijackings. In the United States alone, there were no less than 130 flights hijacked during this period. Most of the hijackings wanted passage to Cuba, which didn’t have an extradition treaty with the United States. 

The policy of all airlines in 1971 was to comply with hijacker’s demands to protect passengers. 

Cooper’s request was taken by the flight attendant to the pilot, who radioed ground control. 

For two hours, the flight circled over Puget Sound. None of the passengers had any clue what was really happening. They were told by the cockpit that they had to circle for mechanical reasons. 

While the flight was circling, the CEO of Northwest Orient approved the $200,000 ransom and arranged for the parachutes and fuel truck to be delivered. The parachutes were delivered from a local sky diving school as Cooper refused military parachutes.

The FBI documented and microfilmed all of the 10,000, $20 bills that were given to Cooper. 

Once the plane got confirmation that the demands would be met, they landed and parked at a distant corner of the tarmac. Cooper ordered all of the windows closed.

When the parachutes and money were delivered, he ordered all of the passengers and flight attendants, save for one, off of the plane. 

When they took off, there were only five people on the plane. Cooper, flight attendant Tina Mucklow, the pilot, co-pilot, and navigator. 

Cooper’s instructions for the pilot were very specific. He wanted the landing gear to remain down, the cabin unpressurized, and for the plane to fly as slow as possible as they flew to Mexico City. 

When the pilot noted that they couldn’t make it all the way to Mexico City like that, they agreed to a fuel stop in Reno, Nevada.

It wouldn’t matter. 

By now it was dark out. At approximately 8 pm, Cooper ordered the flight attendant to go into the cockpit and close the door. 

This is where the particular model of the plane becomes important. The Boeing 727 had a unique feature: an aft door. At the very back of the plane at the tail, there was a door that would open and a folding staircase would come out. This was because the 727 was designed for use in smaller airports that didn’t have a jetway. 

While the crew was in the cockpit, they experience a sudden jump in the tail section of the plane, and their sensors indicated that there was a sudden change in pressure. 

When the flight finally landed in Reno, police, and FBI surrounded the plane, but Dan Cooper was nowhere to be found. 

In addition to the hijacker, two of the parachutes and all of the money was missing.

Cooper had jumped out of the plane. 

What might have been a normal run of the mill hijacking turned into a media sensation. 

The FBI began questioning everyone and looking for clues. They found fingerprints and managed to put together a sketch of the man based on the people who saw him. 

On the off chance that Cooper has used his real name to buy the ticket, one of the first suspects was a man by the name of D.B. Cooper from Portland. This was leaked to the media, and the name D.B. Cooper stuck, and that is what the hijacker is known as today. However, at no point was that the actual name that he used to identify himself. 

There were some unidentified fingerprints that were taken from the plane, but there was shockingly little evidence to go on.

There were five planes, including military fighter jets which followed flight 305, and none of them saw anyone jump out of the plane. None of the flight crew saw him jump because they were in the cockpit. 

The spot where he could have jumped covered a very wide area. They didn’t have GPS back then. They don’t know when he jumped, and how long he might have dropped before pulling the ripcord. 

The best guess is that he might have landed somewhere in Washington State near the base of Mount Saint Helens, however, its just a guess.

Over the next few months, going into spring of 1972, the largest search and recovery operation in US history took place. They had teams of police and army reserve searching the woods. There were multiple aerial reconnaissance flights. They had boats going up and down rivers, and they contacted everyone with a cabin or rural address in the area. 

They found nothing. No body, no parachute, no money. Nothing.

Over 800 people were identified by the FBI as possible suspects, but none of them panned out. 

Cooper had simply vanished out of the back door of an airplane. 

In 1972 they released the serial numbers of the bills he was issued, and newspapers offered a reward to anyone who could produce one, but no one did. 

There have only been a few bits of evidence that have been recovered over the years, and some of them can’t actually be attributed to the hijacking. 

In 1978 a deer hunter in Washington found instructions for lowering the aft door of a Boeing 727. 

In 1980, a family camping along the Columbia River, just north of Portland, discovered three packs of the money given to Cooper as ransom. It matched the serial numbers, were still in the same rubber bands, and in the same order. They had decayed somewhat, but they were confirmed to be the originals. 

In 2017, some amateur researchers claimed to have found some foam from the backpack and possibly part of the parachute straps. There is no confirmation that these were used in the hijacking.

Years later, the FBI did manage to identify some DNA samples from the tie which Cooper left behind in the plane, but they don’t know if the DNA belonged to Cooper. 

There are many amateur enthusiasts who are still focused on the case. They have come up with several theories, including suspects and the theory that there were accomplices. 

As time passed, the legend of D.B. Cooper grew. He became the basis of novels and was used as a plot device in movies and TV shows, as well as songs. The lead character of Twin Peaks was Dale Bartholomew Cooper, aka D.B. Cooper.

He also developed the reputation of a modern-day Robin Hood. He stole $200,000, which has a modern-day value of $1.3 million, didn’t hurt anyone, and got away with it. 

The DB Cooper hijacking ushered in several changes. It ended the era of zero air security. While there had been many hijackings, the DB Cooper case really brought the problem into the spotlight.

The Boeing corporation instituted a small change to the aft doors on their 727 to prevent them from being opened in flight. The new addition is known as the “Cooper vane”.

50 years later, the case of D.B. Cooper has never been solved. In 2016, the FBI announced it was ending any active investigation into the case. 

It is the only unsolved airplane hijacking in history.