On November 24, 1971, Dan Cooper boarded a Northwest Orient Airlines flight from Portland to Seattle, demanded and received a $200,000 ransom, and on the return flight he parachuted into the forest and has never been seen again. The disappearance of Dan “D.B.” Cooper is one of the great unsolved mysteries of the 20th century.
PIA to Sea-Tac
It was a typically busy Thanksgiving Eve at the Portland International Airport (PIA) when the man calling himself Dan Cooper walked up to the Northwest Airlines ticket counter and purchased a one-way ticket on flight 305 to the Seattle-Tacoma (Sea-Tac) airport with a $20 bill. He would soon be swimming – perhaps even literally – in $20 bills.
Though skyjackings were very common in those days, no one would have suspected this smartly dressed middle aged man with no discernable accent. Most of the skyjackings of the previous years, and there were nearly 150 of them between 1967 and 1972, had been political in nature and many of the hijackers had demanded to be flown to the Middle East or Cuba. In an era of anti-establishment riots, hippies, war protests, and movies like Easy Rider, Cooper simply did it for the money.
Now Departing at Gate 52
At a little past four in the afternoon, Cooper passed most of the other 36 passengers and sat in the back of Capt. William Scott’s Boeing 727. He had row 18 to himself as the plane was only a quarter full.
I’ve Got a Bomb
Shortly before the 4:35 takeoff, he passed a note to stewardess Flo Schaffner asking for four parachutes, $200,000 in unmarked bills, and “no funny stuff.” The note also mentioned that Cooper had a bomb. The exact wording of the note is yet another mystery as Mr. Cooper took it with him.
P.S., I Love You
The stewardess first thought he was passing her a note asking for her phone number, giving her his number, or otherwise expressing an interest in her and she simply pocketed it. If she thought there was nothing worse than getting a picked up by a middle-aged passenger, she was soon to learn otherwise. She didn’t actually read it until they left the ground and turned off the seatbelt signs.
When a startled Ms. Schaffner finally read the note, she made the flight crew aware of the situation and they immediately contacted airline and airport officials.
Schaffner was sent back to row 18 to talk to Cooper and see if she could tell if he really had a bomb. Cooper briefly opened the briefcase and the stewardess later recalled she saw some red cylinders and wires. Everyone took the threat seriously from then on and all future communications with Cooper were conducted either through notes or orally but always passed through one of the stewardesses.
You may wonder how he got such a device through the medal detectors. If so you are forgetting that it was skyjackings like this which led to the introduction of such equipment in the years to come; his carry-on bag was never searched.
Law enforcement officials were concerned that the request for four parachutes might mean either that he had accomplices or that he intended to take hostages with him. In retrospect, he probably wanted them to be unsure whether or not an innocent person would be wearing one and thus, to ensure that none of the parachutes would intentionally fail.
The plane circled above the Seattle airport until a call from the FBI at 5:24 p.m. indicated they were able to come up with the parachutes and money. Though the bills were indeed unmarked, the FBI had used the circling time to use a high-speed copy machine to commit images of all 10,000 $20 bills to microfilm to aid in creating a list of the serial numbers later.
The plane landed at Sea-Tac at 5:40 and though the plane was now 65 minutes into its 45 minute flight due to the circling, the passengers were still unaware that they had been hijacked. Cooper allowed them to go and all but the flight crew and one of the flight attendants left. The pilot later recalled that the crew could have left as they were all out of the line of site of Cooper for a time but he was unable to get the attention of the flight attendant in the first class section without the risk of Cooper hearing him.
Flight 305 Now Boarding for… Mexico?
The money and parachutes were delivered to the plane and Cooper then demanded to be flown to Mexico. Knowing that he would be jumping out of the back of the plane, he also demanded that the pilot, which was actually co-pilot William Rataczak, fly with landing gear down, flaps set to 15-degrees, to not exceed 170 miles per hour and not to fly above 10,000 feet. The plane was refueled but even with a full load of fuel, the 727 wouldn’t be able to make it to Mexico from Seattle with the flaps down (which made the plane less aerodynamic and thus less efficient) so Cooper had little choice but to agree to a refueling stop in Reno, Nevada.
The plane departed for Reno at 7:44 p.m. and Cooper soon asked the only remaining stewardess (Tina Mucklow Larson) how to lower the rear stairs in the back of the 727. He then ordered the stewardess to close the curtain in first class behind her and to remain with the rest of the crew in the cockpit for the remainder of the flight. A final peek before shutting the curtain revealed a skyjacker attempting to tie something around his waist. It was the last anyone ever saw of the man called Dan Cooper. In all likelihood, he was tying the 21-pound bag of money to a tether in hopes it would land first and give him some indication that the pitch-dark landing was about to occur.
Your Door is Ajar
At around 8:00 p.m. the pilot noticed a red warning light which indicated a door was open. If this had happened at 35,000 feet, no one would have been left alive to notice the blinking red light but Cooper had wisely requested an altitude of only 10,000 feet. Though the warning light did not indicate which door had became ajar, the crew correctly deduced that the aft passenger staircase in the tail section of the plane had been forced open by the skyjacker.
|Facts and Figures|
|D.B. Cooper’s FBI Profile|
Height: 5’10” to 6′
Weight: 170 to 180
Build: Average to well built
Complexion: Olive, Latin appearance, medium smooth
Hair: Dark brown or black, normal style, parted on left, combed back, sideburns, low ear level
Eyes: Possibly brown. During latter part of flight put on dark wrap-around sunglasses with dark rims
Voice: Low, spoke intelligently; no particular accent, possibly from Midwest section of U.S.
Characteristics: Heavy smoker of Raleigh filter tip cigarettes
Wearing apparel: Black suit; white shirt; narrow black tie; black dress suit; black rain-type overcoat or dark top coat; dark briefcase or attache case; carried paper bag; brown shoes
The alarmed pilot asked over the intercom “Is everything OK back there? Is there anything we can do for you?” “No!” shouted Cooper and he was never heard from again. Cooper had chosen his aircraft carefully. The 727 was the only commercial aircraft with such a staircase in the back.
Cooper must have been looking for a pre-determined place to jump because it wasn’t until 8:11 p.m. that the plane felt pressure bumps which investigators have always assumed were the result of Cooper jumping (his jumping presumably caused the stairwell to snap shut then open again). It is possible that either he caused the staircase to move violently to throw off investigators or that it happened inadvertently. If he did not jump at that time then investigators have been looking in the wrong place all along.
Send in the Air Force!
The Air Force sent a pair of F-106s from McChord Air Base in pursuit and they were able to stay within five miles of the aircraft but they did not see anyone leave the plane. FBI agent Ralph Himmelsbach, who was to lead the subsequent investigation for nearly a decade, attempted to follow in a helicopter but was unable to catch up to the plane.
Thank You for Skyjacking Northwest Orient
Still, the FBI did not know that he had jumped for sure until they searched the plane after it landed in Reno. There was no trace of Cooper except for two parachutes (one was missing some of the nylon cords – possibly used by Cooper to secure the money bag to his waist), the remains of several Raleigh cigarettes (remembered today mostly a nasty smell and for the coupons included with each pack that could be redeemed for items much like green stamps), and the tie and tie clip he was wearing when he boarded.
Did He Make It?
He parachuted from 10,000 feet at 196 miles per hour into the blackness of the Thanksgiving Eve storm with temperatures outside the plane at at 7 below and the wind chill at a toasty 70 below zero wearing nothing more than a suit, an overcoat, loafers, and a parachute. At that speed, the loafers would have been gone almost immediately. However, there is no reason to suspect that he would be unable to survive 15 seconds of such temperatures until he landed. If he did die, it most likely would have been from the parachute failing during the skydive or from not being able to get out of the snow-filled forest without food or a way of staying warm.
FBI Finds Not One But Two Bodies!
Did he had survival gear with him? Did he have an accomplice on the ground to help him escape? The FBI used airplanes, helicopters, and as many as 300 men to search the area for nearly a month and others are still searching the area. They actually found bodies, but they were of people who had been missing for years. Not a trace of Dan Cooper or the money was found. Until…
On February 10, 1980, a boy named Brian Ingram was digging a fire pit on the shore of the river northwest of Vancouver, Washington, when he found $5,800 in thrashed $20 bills. The FBI was soon able to trace the bills to the skyjacking by serial numbers. Did Cooper lose some of the money during the jump? Did he plant the money to throw investigators a bone? If he died during the jump, where is the other $194,200? We may never know. The boy was given a reward of $2760 including 15 of the original $20 bills. He reportedly bought a motorcycle and a VCR with the money.
D.B. Cooper or Dan Cooper?
An unknown law enforcement person leaked to the media that a man named Daniel B. Cooper of Portland was being sought in connection with the crime. He was soon cleared but the name D.B. Cooper has stuck even though the skyjacker only referred to himself as Dan Cooper.
“Kill the front page!” Newsweek almost went to press in late 1971 with a cover story on D.B. Cooper which contained what they believed to be an authentic interview with the skyjacker himself. An editor for the magazine had paid a pair of con artists, one of them posing as Cooper, $30,000 for what the editor thought was an exclusive interview. Not to question the intelligence of the editor, but why would Cooper, who had nearly $650,000 (adjusted for inflation) in ransom money risk coming forward to collect his share of $30,000? A federal jury quickly found the two guilty of several counts of fraud. The editor was not formally charged with stupidity.
Ashes to Ashes
On the morning of May 18, 1980, Mount St. Helens erupted and covered much of the area with ash and perhaps permanently covered evidence that would close this case to everyone’s satisfaction.
You might think Cooper’s cunning plan was original, but you’d be wrong. Dan Cooper was a copycat. Just two weeks earlier in Montana Paul Cini, who declared himself a member of the IRA, tried to become a para-jacker on an Air Canada flight with a gun but was subdued by the crew as he tried to put on his parachute. Cooper instead relied on the plot of the 1970 movie Airport. He used the threat of a bomb in a briefcase instead.
He was not the last to “pull a D.B. Cooper.” In 1972 alone three hijackers proved that it was possible to survive the jump from a 727 by parachuting out the back. But they were all either captured or shot dead or both (fellow para-jacker Richard Floyd McCoy was captured but escaped and was shot by an FBI agent in 1974). No longer amused, the FAA required 727s to be retrofitted with a mechanical wedge that aerodynamically locks the door from the outside while in flight. The device is nicknamed the “Cooper Vane.” Regulations requiring the scanning of all luggage took effect in 1972 making carrying a bomb on board that much more difficult (though sadly not impossible).
Would You Like Fries With That?
A young man with a flare for the dramatically stupid tried to copy DB Cooper’s act in 1980 on a flight from Sea-Tac airport to – where else? – Portland. He wore aviator sunglasses, said he had a bomb in his briefcase, and demanded $100,000 and two parachutes. The similarities stopped there, however, as the plane never left the taxiway. After the stewardess slipped the would-be copycat a couple of Valiums, he let all the passengers go and reduced his demands to a rental car and three cheeseburgers before giving himself up.
Where is Dan Cooper Now?
Even the FBI, which has spent far more money on the case than Cooper got away with, is unsure. They get at least five serious leads on the case per year, have had 1,100 serious suspects, and have collected over 100 volumes of material on the unsolved case. People call in regularly claiming their ex-boyfriend or husband is D.B. Cooper. Such false leads are much more common when Cooper is featured on a TV show like Unsolved Mysteries.
Might he one day come forward and admit his crime? There is no statute of limitations on air piracy and while he would be a celebrity if he made himself known now, he would also still face federal charges.
In June of 2000, the family of a woman named Elsie Rodgers, who had told her family that she discovered the skull of Dan Cooper near the Columbia River while on vacation in the early 80s, came forward with the skull when they found it wrapped it a box with another bone after her death in May. The FBI used DNA evidence originally gathered from the plane (they refused to say what it was but a guess would be material on the discarded cigarettes) to compare with the bones but their scientists were unable to prove it was the skull of the skyjacker.
In August of 2000, a woman in Florida came forward and said that her late husband had told her he was Dan Cooper on his deathbed. His name was Duane Weber and he was 70 years old when he died of kidney disease in 1995.
According to a contemporary Associated Press story, the retired FBI agent who was in charge of the case during the Super70s finds the latter claim credible. Of course, the FBI would love to close a case that has embarrassed them for nearly 30 years; the case remains the only unsolved domestic skyjacking in U.S. history. Mr. Weber did somewhat somewhat resemble the FBI sketches of the suspect and he spent time in the McNeil Island prison in Steilacoom (near Seattle) in the late 60s. The FBI was unable to discount or prove the account in an investigation it conducted in 1998.
What Happened to the 727?
The actual Boeing 727-051 used by Northwest that day was delivered on April 22, 1965 and registered as N467US with the FAA (it is shown in the photo above). Some time before 1982 it was sold to Piedmont Air and re-registered as N383N. It was acquired by Key Airlines in May of 1985 as N29KA. It was then acquired by WorldCorp after Key went under in 1993. According to a former member of the Key Air Operations team: “The Cooper story was well known to us as was the fact that we owned the “Cooper” B727. Sadly, the aircraft was flown for one last time (empty) to the “scrap yard” in 1993 where it was as we say ‘turned into beer cans.’ My boss (VP/GM of Key at the time) still has the aircraft identification plate from its last flight.”
William “Scotty” Scott, one of the two pilots aboard flight 305 died of prostate cancer on March 11, 2001.
Got Change for a Twenty, Kid?
If a man in his seventies resembling Ross Perot ever gives you a $20 bill from the Super70s, you can check the serial number yourself. A 1984 book by Richard Tosaw called “D.B. Cooper: Dead or Alive” (available from Amazon.com) devoted about a fifth of the pages to a full listing of all 10,000 of the serial numbers of the money given to Cooper. The author even offered a $10,000 reward to anyone who finds any of the ransom money. No takers so far.
The Cult of D.B. Cooper
D.B. Cooper still has quite a following, if judged only by the continued interest in the case. Several books and a song about the skyjacking were written and in 1981, an otherwise forgettable movie about the heist starring Robert Duvall was made. Posters, t-shirts and other items were made after the heist. Seattle playwright John Orlock even wrote a play about it. A restaurant in Salt Lake City is called “D.B. Cooper’s.” To top it all off, the town of Ariel, Washington, which is near the spot where Cooper is believed to have jumped, has a yearly D.B. Cooper festival during Thanksgiving week (a tradition which dates all the way back to 1976). As many of 300-500 people show up each year from as far away as Japan. This temporarily multiplies the population of this town by a factor of 6 to 10!
Perhaps it’s because he seems to have gotten away with it. Perhaps it’s because he didn’t injure any of his hostages. Perhaps it’s because he disappeared off the the face of the Earth with the FBI in hot pursuit. Perhaps it’s because the only visible loser was an insurance company. Whatever the reason, D.B. Cooper’s cult status lives on.
Gunther, Max. D.B. Cooper. NTC/Contemporary Publishing, 1986.
Reed, J.D. The Legend of D. B. Cooper. Dell, 1983.
Rhodes, Bernie. D.B. Cooper: The Real McCoy. University of Utah Press, 1991.
Tosaw, Richard T. D.B. Cooper: Dead or Alive? Tosaw Pub Co, 1984.