50 Years Ago Today … November 24th, 1971 … a man known only as D.B. Cooper hijacked an airplane that he then parachuted out of, carrying a briefcase filled with $200,000. (If you’re wondering … and you likely are … $200,000 in 1971 money would today be the equivalent of about $1.4 million dollars.) In the process, he became sort of a folk hero for the ages … putting one over on “the man” … when in reality, something of this nature could have so easily gone wrong in SO many different ways, potentially crashing the plane or killing all the passengers if, in fact, he actually had a live bomb in that briefcase. Just as easily, law enforcement officials could have forced his hand once the plan landed to refuel and pick up the money, thus endangering any number of passengers still onboard at the time.
By 1971, hijackings had become part of our lives recently … but THIS one is the only unsolved hijacking in commercial flight history … but instead of some gun-wielding maniac demanding that the plane be flown to Cuba, Cooper was, by all accounts, cool, calm and collected, speaking rationally but very matter-of-factly when explaining exactly what his demands were.
Cooper (real name unknown, which only adds to the mystery), bought a one way ticket to Seattle for $20 under the name of Dan Cooper and then boarded a Boeing 727 aircraft (Northwest Orient Flight 305), taking a seat in the rear of the plane. (Somehow during the massive news coverage saturation and media frenzy that followed, his name became “D.B. Cooper” … and it has remained that way ever since.)
Cooper boarded Flight 305 (headed from Portland to Seattle) wearing a white shirt and black tie. He ordered a bourbon and soda prior to take off. The plane took off at its scheduled 2:50 pm (PST) departure time … and once the flight was air bound, he handed a note to fight attendant Florence Schaffner, who was seated in the jump seat at the door behind him.
Schaffner paid no attention to the note, thinking it was just some businessman’s way of attempting to pick-up a stewardess for some company once the plane landed in its destination. In fact, she was so disinterested that she nonchalantly dropped the note into her purse, unopened!
When Cooper saw this, he leaned toward her and whispered, "Miss, you’d better look at that note. I have a bomb.”
The note itself was printed neatly in all capital letters with a felt-tip pen. Although the exact wording is lost to the annals of time (Cooper reclaimed it after Schaffner had read it), she recalls it also stating that Cooper had a bomb in his briefcase.
He asked her to sit beside him, which she did, at which time she quietly asked him to show her the bomb. Cooper opened his briefcase, showing eight red cylinders of what appeared to be dynamite attached to wires and a large battery. After closing the briefcase, he listed his demands:
$200,000 in “negotiable American currency,” four parachutes (two primary and two reserve) and a fuel truck standing by in Seattle to refuel the aircraft upon its arrival.
Schaffner relayed Cooper’s demands to the pilots in the cockpit and when she returned to again sit beside him, Cooper was now wearing dark sunglasses.
(Investigators were puzzled by his term “negotiable American currency,” which also stated that these could be bills of any denomination. The fact that he referred to this as “American currency” led some to believe that perhaps he wasn’t from The United States … and that perhaps he was Canadian.) They also reasoned that the reason he asked for four parachutes was because he intended to take a hostage with him, thus preventing them from booby-trapping any of the parachutes not to open if and when he jumped. They also thought that perhaps the reserve chutes were to hold the money, which would have added a considerable amount of weight to his own parachute once he jumped from the plane.
Pilot William A. Scott radioed into Air Traffic Control at the Seattle-Tacoma Airport who, in turn, notified local and federal authorities. In an attempt to keep all of this information low key and under control (without inciting fear into the equation), the other 35 passengers onboard were never informed that the plane was under siege ... only that their arrival in Seattle would be delayed because of a “minor technical difficulty.”
Donald Nyrop, President of Northwest Orient, authorized the payment of the ransom and ordered all of his employees to cooperate fully with the hijacker’s demands. In order to accommodate these demands, the aircraft ended up circling Pugent Sound for nearly two hours in order to allow Seattle police and the FBI enough time to collect the parachutes and ransom money … and assemble the emergency personnel.
Flight Attendant Tina Mucklow described Cooper as “calm, polite and well-spoken” … not at all like the crazy, gun-wielding typical “Take Me To Cuba” hijackers we had all been reading about at the time. “He wasn’t nervous,” Mucklow later told investigators. “He seemed rather nice. He was never cruel or nasty. He was thoughtful and calm all the time. He ordered a second bourbon and soda, paid his drink tab and even offered to request meals for the flight crew during the stop in Seattle.”
The money collected for the ransom was microfilmed for FBI records as a means of tracing it should it be used anywhere after Cooper made his getaway. (Cooper seemed to know the terrain rather well, pointing out spots like McChord Air Force Base and the Seattle-Tacoma Airport as they flew over them. He even rejected the military-issue parachutes offered by McChord Air Force Base in favor of civilian parachutes with manually operated ripcords, which were then obtained from a local skydiving school and swapped out prior to the plane landing.)
Once he was informed that all of his demands had been met, Cooper instructed the aircraft to land at Seattle-Tacoma Airport at 5:24 pm. (PST) Cooper directed the plane to pull into a brightly lit section of the apron of the tarmac and ordered that all of the window shades be drawn in an effort to stave off any police snipers who might have other ideas about how all of this should go.
Northwest Orient’s Seattle operations manager, Al Lee, was then brought onboard to deliver the cash-filled knapsack and the parachutes. Once the delivery was complete, Cooper ordered all 35 of the passengers (as well as Schaffner and senior flight attendant Alice Hancock) to leave the plane.
While the plane was being refueled, Cooper instructed the cockpit crew as to how they would proceed from here. In very knowledgeable terms, he outlined that the plane was to take a southeast course toward Mexico City at a minimal airspeed of 115 mph and an maximum altitude of 10,000 feet. He instructed that the landing gear was to remain deployed in the takeoff/landing position, the wing flaps lowered 15 degrees, and the cabin to remain unpressurized. When Cooper was informed that the plane would likely be limited to a 1000 mile route under these conditions before it would need to be refueled again, Cooper and the crew agreed to making Reno, Nevada, the new refueling stop. On his command, the plane took off at approximately 7:40 pm. (PST)
The plane was now down to five people onboard … Cooper, Pilot William Scott, Flight Attendant Tina Mucklow, Copilot William Rataczak and Flight Engineer Harold E. Anderson. (Unbeknownst to Cooper, FIVE military aircrafts followed in pursuit of the Boeing 727 … two F-106 fighter aircrafts from McChord Air Force Base, one above and one below the hijacked plane, both out of Cooper’s view, a Lockheed T-33 trainer, diverted from an Air National Guard mission and two others. Despite all of this additional coverage, NONE of the pilots from any of these other planes ever saw Cooper jump from the hijacked plane, nor could they pinpoint a location where he might have landed!
At one point, Cooper ordered the other four people onboard move into the cockpit, lock the door and remain there while he assembled his jumping apparatus. At 8:00 pm (PST), a warning light flashed in the cockpit, indicating that the airstair apparatus had been activated … and at 8:13 pm (PST), the aircraft’s tail section sustained a sudden upward movement, large enough to require a flight adjustment to bring the plane back to a level flight. (At the time of the jump, the aircraft was flying through a heavy rainstorm, thus making the jump that much more treacherous … and leading to speculation that Cooper couldn’t have landed safely.) At 10:15 pm (PST), the plane landed at Reno Airport with its airstair still deployed. After a thorough search, FBI agents, state troopers, sheriff’s deputies and Reno police quickly confirmed at D.B. Cooper was no longer onboard the aircraft.
Between the altitude of the plane, the torrential downpour, the freezing temperatures and the rough terrain in this heavily forested area, many if not most FBI agents are of the belief that Cooper couldn’t have made the jump successfully … and most likely died after his jump from the plane … but no remains … no parachute … and no money … was ever found at the scene. Despite an exhaustive search over hundreds of miles in every direction, he literally vanished into thin air. As such, the FBI maintained this as an “active investigation” for more than 45 years before finally closing the books on it … unresolved … a couple of years ago.
As part of the investigation, 66 unidentified latent fingerprints were lifted aboard the airliner. They also found Cooper’s black clip-on tie, his tie clip and two of the four parachutes he had requested but left behind. (Because DNA testing didn’t exist yet in 1971, they were not able to test the seven cigarette butts he left behind … yes, in 1971, you could still smoke on a plane!!!) And when DNA testing DID become available, they were able to test the tie clip … but at this point, all of the cigarettes were gone, likely thrown out over the years.
Over 800 possible suspects and eye-witnesses were interviewed in Portland, Seattle and Reno, many of whom had direct contact with Cooper at some point during this chain of events. Almost immediately after the jump, an Oregon man named D.B. Cooper (who had a minor police record) became one of the first persons of interest in this case. Although he was quickly ruled out as a suspect, the news media picked up on the name and soon “Dan Cooper” became “D.B. Cooper” … and would remain so forever more.
Despite the serial numbers of the ransom money bills being widely circulated .. and numerous high-cash rewards being offered, nobody ever turned in any of the money obtained in the hijacking. As such, it is believed that Cooper never spent a single dollar of his heist, lending more credence to the theory that he most probably did not survive the jump.
Finally … nearly 45 years after the incident (with over 60 volumes of investigative literature on file), the FBI suspended the active investigation into the case of D.B. Cooper on July 8th, 2016. It is still accepting any legitimate new physical evidence related specifically to the parachutes or the ransom money that might warrant reopening the investigation … but for all intents and purposes, the case is now closed … unresolved.
However, the legend has been kept alive over the years thanks to new findings in the vicinity of the jump.
In 1978, a deer hunter found a placard with instructions for lowering the aircraft stairs of a 727 about 13 miles east of Castle Rock, WA, north of Lake Merwin but within Flight 305’s basic flight path.
And, on February 10th, 1980, an eight year old boy named Brian Ingram was vacationing with his family on the Columbia River, when he uncovered a small cache of banknotes from the ransom that included three packets of cash, still rubber-banded together, with correctly corresponding serial numbers from the heist as he raked the sandy riverbank to build a campfire. The fact that this money would have been left there after all these years only leads to more speculation … was it abandoned … or buried for future retrieval … and how did only three bands of money get separated from the rest of the take? Did they fall out of the briefcase? Did they wash-up on shore some nine years later? Could there be more money out there? Again, far more questions than answers. (Still, it’d be a real shame to think that after all he went through to get it, D.B. Cooper never lived to spend a single dollar of the $200,000 he confiscated!!!)
The bills that Ingram found were disintegrated but still bundled in their original rubber bands. FBI technicians confirmed that this money was, in fact, a portion of the ransom … two packets of 100 $20 bills each and a third packet of 90 … all still arranged in the exact same order as when given to Cooper nine years earlier. After the FBI retained fourteen bills as evidence (and a large portion were given to Northwest Orient’s insurer, who had paid out $180,000 of the $200,000 ransom to Northwest Orient as insurance money), Ingram was able to retain a small portion of the bills as well … and sold fifteen of them at an auction in 2008 for about $37,000. To date, NONE of the remaining 9710 bills have turned up anywhere in the world. Their serial numbers are readily available online for anyone with the inclination to seek them out. Odds are they’re lost to the annals of time and may never see the light of day … and even if they did somehow materialize, they’d be disintegrated and worthless as well. The only thing we know for sure is that there is absolutely NO evidence that Cooper … or anybody else for that matter … ever spent any of this money.
The instruction placard and the three bands of cash are the ONLY evidence ever collected over the past fifty years … although in 2017, a group of volunteer investigators uncovered what they believe to be “potential evidence” by way of a decades old parachute strap and a piece of foam that could have been part of Cooper’s backpack.
Even updated DNA technology hasn’t helped pinpoint any more details to Cooper’s identity. Over the past fifty years, literally HUNDREDS of potential “D.B. Coopers” have been interviewed and investigated … (some reports say “over a thousand) … and although the FBI acknowledges that at least four of these may very well have been legitimate, viable leads, no charges have ever been brought forward. The FBI also made public Cooper’s 1971 plane ticket (which he purchased with cash for $20.) Several books and publications have been written, containing thousands of pages on the topic … tv documentaries and movies have also speculated as to who Cooper was and what really happened … but even fifty years later, that’s all these all add up to … speculation and nothing more.
Even if Cooper had survived the jump, he would be well into his 90’s now, should he still be alive. Some say due to his complete anonymity, he may simply have returned to his life as it existed before the heist … but then why go through all the trouble and not even reap the benefits of the stolen cash? Others say he had a grudge (although we don't know for certain against who) and simply wanted to prove a point ... that he could do it ... and get away with it. Logically, he could have died at any time during the past fifty years … and the odds are we will likely never know any more about his identity than we have for the past five decades.
That being said, theories abound as to who he was, what his background was and what motivated the heist. It’s a good chance Cooper had a military or Air Force background. He certainly had an extensive knowledge of the terrain over which he chose to jump. Some say the whole event was staged just to prove that he could get away with it … almost as a “thrill-seeker” more than as a heist. Some say it’s most likely that he did not survive the jump … and if he did, why would he leave any of the money behind?
The fact that the FBI and local authorities would allow the plane to land … and then take off again with the ransom money and parachutes he requested … seem unheard of today. Watch any movie depicting this type of scenario and the perpetrator is always taken out, even at the risk of losing other passengers.
There have been other “copycat” hijackings in the wake of D.B. Cooper … but all of those culprits have been caught and imprisoned. A couple even claimed to BE D.B. Cooper … but their stories (and their fingerprints) simply didn’t bear out.
Still, it’s quite a tail. (A very in-depth, four hour History Channel expose aired a couple of years ago … if you have the chance to see it, it’s well worth your time.)
And it all happened Fifty Years Ago Today. (kk)