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America’s Original Air Pirate: What Happened to D.B. Cooper?

Have you ever heard of D.B. Cooper?  How about Dan Cooper?  Have you heard of the successful hijacking of Northwest Orient Airlines flight 305 on November 24, 1971?  An event deemed, even by the FBI, to have been the most spectacular aircraft hijacking in aviation history.

Well, if you’ve not heard of any of the above, what follows may be something of an adventure; the story of Dan Cooper, whoever he was, is quite the tale.

In the world history of missing persons, a list that grows almost daily, there are some pretty famous names; Jimmy Hoffa, Amelia Earhart, Harold Holt, just to name a tiny fraction.  And with the efforts of skilled investigators like David Paulides, the collective weirdness of some of these disappearances is reaching critical mass.

Dan Cooper isn’t really among those celebrated missing persons cases though, even though he hasn’t been seen since that fateful day in the fall of 1971.  He is missing, officially, but no one knows who he actually was, so his status as a missing person isn’t exactly legitimate.

For you see, Cooper jumped from a Boeing 727 somewhere over the Pacific Northwest with a parachute and a backpack containing $200,000; money he had very recently obtained.  And he was never seen or heard from again.

An original FBI sketch of "Dan Cooper"

An original FBI sketch of “Dan Cooper”

Here’s the story from the beginning.

Mid-afternoon on the eve of Thanksgiving, a man, using the alias Dan Cooper, purchased a one-way ticket on Northwest Orient Airlines flight 305 – a 30 minute flight from Portland, OR to Seattle, WA.  He paid cash ($20).  Upon boarding the plane, carrying a black attaché, he took his assigned seat (either 18C, 18E, or 15D), lit a cigarette and ordered a bourbon and soda.  Shortly after takeoff, approximately 2:05pm, Cooper passed a hand-written note to flight attendant Florence Schaffner.  The note read:

“I have a bomb in my briefcase.  I will use it if necessary.  I want you to sit next to me.  You are being hijacked.”

He then opened his attaché, showing Schaffner the bomb – which to her appeared to be eight red cylinders with red wires attached – and then demanded $200,000 in “negotiable American currency”, four civilian style parachutes (as opposed to military style) and a fuel truck waiting on the tarmac in Seattle.

And thus began the legend of D.B. Cooper.

Dan Cooper, or the man known by that name, was described by witnesses as in his mid-forties, five feet ten inches to six feet tall.  He wore a black, light weight rain coat, a dark suit with a nicely pressed shirt, a black tie with a mother-of-pearl tie clip, and loafers.

It should be noted that Cooper didn’t detonate his bomb, which by most accounts is believed to have been a spoof device consisting of road flares and copper wires.  In fact, he didn’t hurt anyone, except perhaps, himself.

Northwest Orient - Boeing 727-100

Northwest Orient – Boeing 727-100

As would be expected, upon receiving the note, Schaffner alerted the cockpit, who in turn alerted flight control and the inevitable wheels of justice began to turn.  After the president of Northwest Orient authorised payment of the ransom, the FBI immediately began gathering the funds and parachutes, and the Seattle airport made preparations for refueling the Boeing 727-100 aircraft.  The flight, which normally takes just over half an hour, remained in the air for more than two hours, circling Puget Sound so as to give authorities the time needed to mobilise and prepare for landing.

Once on the ground, at 5:39pm, Cooper’s demands were met with the delivery of a backpack containing the money and four parachutes.  He then promptly released all of the hostages, including Schaffner and another flight attendant.  Now only Cooper, the flight crew, and a single flight attendant – Tina Mucklow – remained on board.

During refuelling, Cooper informed the flight crew of his planned flight path, which was to take a southeast course directly to Mexico City, at the slowest possible airspeed without stalling the craft (approximately 100kph – 120 mph) and no higher than 10,000 feet.  He instructed them to leave the landing gear deployed, the cabin unpressurised, and the wing flaps lowered to 15 degrees.  He also wanted the rear door open and staircase deployed (called an airstair, this is unique to this particular aircraft model), but the captain refused on the grounds that it was too dangerous to fly with the staircase down.  Cooper disagreed but decided to allow it to remain retracted, as he apparently knew that he could manually deploy it from the passenger cabin at any time.

Once back in the air, at 7:40pm, Cooper asked that Mucklow join the flight crew in the cockpit and close the door behind her.  As she did so, she observed Cooper tying something around his waist.

Some of the found ransom money and Cooper's tie

Some of the found ransom money and Cooper’s tie

At 8:00pm a warning light in the instrument panel indicated that the rear doors had been opened and the airstair apparatus activated.  At 8:17pm the airplane’s aft section sustained a sudden upward movement, significant enough that the pilot had to trim their flight characteristics to compensate.

The plane then landed in Reno, NV at 10:15pm, where FBI and other authorities stormed and searched the plane, finding only the flight crew and flight attendant.  Cooper had apparently jumped mid-flight, somewhere over southwestern Washington, perhaps in the region of Mt. St. Helens.

Even though the flight had been shadowed by at least three military aircraft since it left Seattle, the F-102 fighter pilots didn’t report seeing anyone or anything leave the plane, nor did they see a parachute deployment.

Everyone involved, remarked that Cooper had remained surprisingly calm and well-mannered throughout the entire hijacking.  He was polite and well spoken, and seemed to be familiar with his surroundings and the terrain below him.

The official story, which is now one of the FBI’s most hotly debated cold cases, is that Cooper, whoever he was, died as a result of his jump from the plane.  Investigators doubt that he had enough experience in skydiving to have survived the jump, and some say even if he did have such experience, the conditions at the time – high wind, sub-zero temperatures, heavy rain – would have made such a jump impossible.  The problem is, his body has never been recovered.

That may not be all that surprising, considering the difficulty investigators had in determining a search area.  The variables involved, such as the exact time of his jump, wind speeds, the length of time before he deployed the parachute (if he actually did), all contributed to a massive area of focus, which changed more than once.

The usual avenues of investigation yielded no positive results, and in fact the first suspect questioned, one D.B. Cooper, who had a minor criminal record, but whom had an alibi for the time in question, resulted in a media blunder that ultimately caused everyone to think that the hijacker had called himself D.B. Cooper instead of Dan Cooper, as is the truth.

In the spring of 1980, a young boy camping with his family, uncovered three packets of cash, wrapped in elastic bands, buried in the riverbank of the Columbia River.  FBI confirmed that the money was indeed part of Cooper’s ransom payment (tracked through serial numbers), but none of the rest of the $200 grand was ever recirculated into the marketplace anywhere in the US.  There is a good deal of conjecture about the found money, suggesting that the conditions under which it was buried are suspicious, as well as the location in which it was found.  This is highlighted in the so-called “Palmer Report”, which suggested that the money could not have been buried at that location for the intervening nine years.

Boeing 727-100 Airstair

Boeing 727-100 Airstair

Several people over the years have both been considered as suspects, and have deliberately come forward claiming to be Dan Cooper.  None, however, turned out to be Cooper himself.  DNA and fingerprint evidence gathered from the airplane, and from his tie and tie clip (which were left on the plane) offered no insights into his possible identity, though investigators have admitted that there’s really no way to know whether the samples they have came from the suspect or not.

There’s a lot about this case that defies explanation.  Who was Dan Cooper?  What was his background?  Was he ex-military?  Was he an experienced skydiver?  It seems obvious that he had working knowledge of the aircraft, flight procedures and skydiving.  It also seems obvious that he was trained to maintain composure in stressful situations.  Both of those observations seem to support the idea that he was, at some point, in the military.  Though that wasn’t uncommon in that era.

Some features of the case make little sense though, such as the fact that Cooper chose a dummy parachute (it was sewn shut) as his back-up (it had been included accidentally amidst confusion during the initial mobilisation).  Some skydiving experts claim that if he really did have experience as a paratrooper (a common assertion), then he likely would have chosen military style parachutes over the civilian ones he demanded, even though military style parachutes of the time can’t be steered like civilian.

Maybe he fell to his death, maybe he landed safely and got eaten by a sasquatch, or maybe he did it all just to prove it could be done, and after landing, he buried the money and lived happily ever after.

Cooper was never identified or found, which suggests he got away with it, but none of the ransom money was ever spent in the United States (or so the FBI says), so maybe he didn’t.  One thing’s for sure, the impact of his successful hijacking for ransom has been long reaching.  It’s because of Dan Cooper that you can’t step on board an airplane in North America without first undergoing a full body-cavity search.  The Cooper hijacking was the trigger event causing airlines across the country to begin searching everyone before boarding, and ultimately lead to the TSA.

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  • J.Griffin

    Numerous countries such as Panama use $ for their currency and have no
    currency of their own.

    Panamanian banking privacy laws are stricter than Switzerland-
    if he went there,
    the money would no longer show up in America.

    A deal could be also made for the money to be taken out of circulation
    and held in bank reserve…
    for a price.

  • BruceWM

    Perhaps Dan Cooper never existed. If it were an inside job involving one or more of the crew, a lot of the curious questions would have answers.