On this date in 1971, one of the most famous disappearances in the annals of American crime took place in thin air between Portland, Oregon and Seattle, Washington when a man since identified only as “D.B. Cooper” parachuted to an unknown fate. Despite an extensive manhunt and an ongoing FBI investigation, Cooper has never been found or even identified. The case remains the only unsolved air piracy in American aviation history. Hundreds of leads have been pursued over the years but no real evidence about Cooper’s whereabouts or identity have ever surfaced. In addition, the bulk of the ransom money that he received has never been found. Its whereabouts – like the true identity of D.B. Cooper – remains unknown.
Flight 305, approximately one-third full, took off on schedule at 2:50 pm, local time. Cooper passed a note to Florence Schaffner, the flight attendant situated nearest to him in a jumpseat attached to the aft stair door. Schaffner, assuming the note contained a lonely businessman's phone number, dropped it unopened into her purse. Cooper leaned toward her and whispered very politely, "Miss, you'd better look at that note. I have a bomb."
She looked at the note, printed in near, all-capital letters. It noted again that Cooper had a bomb and asked her to sit next to him. She asked to see the bomb. Cooper cracked open his briefcase long enough for her to glimpse eight red cylinders attached to wires, coated with red insulation, and a large cylindrical battery. After closing the briefcase, he dictated 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 arrival. Schaffner gave Cooper's instructions to the cockpit; when she returned he was wearing dark sunglasses.
Flight 305's pilot, William Scott, contacted Seattle-Tacoma Airport air traffic control, which informed local and Federal authorities. The 36 other passengers were informed that their arrival in Seattle would be delayed because of a "minor mechanical difficulty." Northwest Orient's president, Donald Nyrop, authorized payment of the ransom, and ordered all employees to cooperate fully with the hijacker. The aircraft circled Puget Sound for approximately two hours to allow Seattle police and the FBI time to collect Cooper’s parachutes and ransom money.
Schaffner recalled that Cooper appeared to be familiar with the local terrain; at one point, he remarked, "Looks like Tacoma down there," as the aircraft flew above it. He also mentioned, correctly, that McChord Air Force Base was only a 20-minute drive from Seattle-Tacoma Airport. Schaffner described him as calm, polite, and well-spoken, not at all consistent with the stereotypes (enraged, hardened criminals or "take-me-to-Cuba" political dissidents) popularly associated with air piracy at the time. Tina Mucklow, another flight attendant, agreed. "He wasn't nervous," she told investigators later. "He seemed rather nice. He was never cruel or nasty. He was thoughtful and calm all the time." He ordered a second bourbon and water, paid his drink tab (and insisted Schaffner keep the change), and offered to request meals for the flight crew during the stop in Seattle.
He was the most polite criminal since John Dillinger.
FBI agents assembled the ransom money from several Seattle-area banks—10,000 unmarked 20-dollar bills, many with serial numbers beginning with the letter "L" indicating issuance by the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, most carrying a "Series 1969-C" designation —and made a microfilm photograph of each of them. Cooper rejected the military-issue parachutes initially offered by authorities, demanding instead civilian parachutes with manually operated ripcords. Seattle police obtained them from a local skydiving school.
At 5:24 pm, Cooper was informed that his demands had been met, and at 5:39 pm the aircraft landed at Seattle-Tacoma Airport. Cooper instructed Scott to taxi the jet to an isolated, brightly lit section of the tarmac and extinguish lights in the cabin to deter police snipers. Northwest Orient's Seattle operations manager, Al Lee, approached the aircraft in street clothes (to avoid the possibility that Cooper might mistake his airline uniform for that of a police officer) and delivered the cash-filled knapsack and parachutes via the aft stairs. Once the delivery was completed, Cooper permitted all passengers, Schaffner, and senior flight attendant Alice Hancock to leave the plane.
While the plane was being refueled, Cooper made plans with the cockpit crew about his escape. They would fly toward Mexico City at minimum airspeed with the landing gear down and at a low altitude so that the cabin remained unpressurized. The aircraft’s range was limited so they would have to take on more fuel before Mexico. Cooper and the crew decided that Reno, Nevada would be the perfect spot.
At approximately 7:40 p.m. the plane took off again with only Cooper, pilot Scott, flight attendant Mucklow, copilot Rataczak, and flight engineer H. E. Anderson on board. After takeoff, Cooper told Mucklow to join the rest of the crew in the cockpit and remain there with the door closed. As she complied, Mucklow observed Cooper tying something around his waist. At approximately 8:00 p.m., a warning light flashed in the cockpit, indicating that the aft air stairs apparatus had been activated. The crew's offer of assistance via the aircraft's intercom system was curtly refused.The crew soon noticed a subjective change of air pressure, indicating that the aft door was open.
At approximately 8:13 p.m., the aircraft's tail section sustained a sudden upward movement, significant enough to require trimming to bring the plane back to level flight. At approximately 10:15, Scott and Rataczak landed the plane, with the aft air stairs still deployed, at Reno Airport. FBI agents, state troopers, sheriff's deputies, and Reno police surrounded the jet, as it had not yet been determined with certainty that Cooper was no longer aboard; but an armed search quickly confirmed that he was gone. Somewhere in flight, Cooper had vanished into history.
Aboard the airliner, FBI agents recovered 66 unidentified latent fingerprints, Cooper's black clip-on tie and mother of pearl tie clip, and two of the four parachutes. Witnesses were interviewed, composite drawings were made and investigators began questioning possible suspects. One of the first was an Oregon man with a minor police record named D. B. Cooper, contacted by Portland police on the off-chance that the hijacker had used his real name, or the same alias in a previous crime. His involvement was quickly ruled out; but an inexperienced wire service reporter (Clyde Jabin of UPI by most accounts, rushing to meet an imminent deadline, confused the eliminated suspect's name with the pseudonym used by the hijacker. The mistake was picked up and repeated by numerous other media sources, and the moniker "D. B. Cooper" became lodged in the public's memory.
A precise search area where Cooper jumped from the plane was difficult – even impossible – to determine. When he jumped from the plane, the aircraft was flying through a heavy rainstorm over the Lewis River in southwestern Washington. The best guess put investigators on the southernmost outreach of Mount St. Helens, a few miles southeast of Ariel, Washington, near Lake Merwin, an artificial lake formed by a dam on the Lewis River. Search efforts focused on Clark and Cowlitz Counties, encompassing the terrain immediately south and north, respectively, of the Lewis River in southwest Washington. FBI agents and Sheriff's deputies from those counties searched large areas of the mountainous wilderness on foot and by helicopter. Door-to-door questioning and searches of local farmhouses were also carried out. Other search parties ran patrol boats along Lake Merwin and Yale Lake, the reservoir immediately to its east. No trace of Cooper, nor any of the equipment presumed to have left the aircraft with him, was found. Later, this area would be called into question and numerous others were later suggested. In the end, no one really knew where to look.
In late 1971 the FBI distributed lists of the ransom serial numbers to financial institutions, casinos, race tracks, and other businesses routinely conducting significant cash transactions, and to law enforcement agencies around the world. Northwest Orient offered a reward of 15 percent of the recovered money, to a maximum of $25,000. In early 1972 U.S. Attorney General John Mitchell released the serial numbers to the general public. A number of other rewards were offered by newspapers and remained in effect until Thanksgiving 1974, and while there were several near-matches, no genuine bills were found.
In 1976 discussion arose over impending expiration of the statute of limitations on the hijacking. Most published legal analysis agreed that it would make little difference, as interpretation of the statute varies considerably from case to case and court to court, and a prosecutor could argue that Cooper had forfeited immunity on any of several valid technical grounds. The question was rendered moot in November when a Portland grand jury returned an indictment against "John Doe, aka Dan Cooper" for air piracy and violation of the Hobbs Act. In effect, the indictment formally initiated prosecution of the hijacker that can be continued, should he be apprehended, at any time in the future.
In February 1980, an eight-year-old boy named Brian Ingram, vacationing with his family on the Columbia River about 9 miles downstream from Vancouver, Washington and 20 miles southwest of Ariel, uncovered three packets of the ransom cash, significantly disintegrated but still bundled in rubber bands, as he raked the sandy riverbank to build a campfire. FBI technicians confirmed that the money was indeed a portion of the ransom, two packets of 100 bills each and a third packet of 90, all arranged in the same order as when given to Cooper.
The discovery launched multiple new rounds of conjecture, and ultimately raised many more questions than it answered. Initial statements by investigators and scientific consultants were founded on the assumption that the bundled bills washed freely into the Columbia River from one of its many connecting tributaries – which confirmed the idea that, despite many theories, no one still had any idea where Cooper landed.
Multiple alternate theories were advanced. Some surmised that the money had been found at a distant location by someone (or possibly even a wild animal), carried to the river bank, and reburied there. There was also the possibility that the money had been found on the riverbank earlier, perhaps before the dredging, and buried in a superficial sand layer at a later time. The sheriff of Cowlitz County proposed that Cooper accidentally dropped a few of the bundles on the air stairs, which then blew off the aircraft after he jumped, and fell into the Columbia River. One local newspaper editor opined that Cooper, knowing he could never spend the money, dumped it in the river or buried it there (and possibly elsewhere) himself. No hypothesis offered to date satisfactorily explains all of the existing evidence; the means by which the money arrived on the river bank remains unknown.
The D.B. Cooper case has never been forgotten and technically, is still being worked on by the FBI. Over the years, the FBI has periodically made public some of its working hypotheses and tentative conclusions about the case, drawn from witness testimony and the scarce physical evidence.
The official physical description remains unchanged and is considered reliable. Agents believe that Cooper was familiar with the Seattle area and may have been an Air Force veteran, based on testimony that he recognized the city of Tacoma from the air as the jet circled Puget Sound, and his accurate comment to Mucklow that McChord Air Force Base was approximately 20 minutes' driving time from the Seattle-Tacoma Airport —a detail most civilians would not know, or comment upon. His financial situation was very likely desperate: Extortionists and other criminals who steal large amounts of money nearly always do so, according to experts, because they need it urgently; otherwise, the crime is not worth the considerable risk. A minority opinion is that Cooper was "a thrill seeker" who made the jump "just to prove it could be done."
Agents theorize that he took his alias from a popular Belgian comic book series of the 1970s featuring the fictional hero Dan Cooper, a Royal Canadian Air Force test pilot who took part in numerous heroic adventures, including parachuting. Because the Dan Cooper comics were never translated into English nor imported to the US, they speculate that he may have encountered them during a tour of duty in Europe
The FBI task force believes that Cooper was a careful and shrewd planner: He asked for four parachutes to encourage the assumption that he might compel one or more hostages to jump with him, thus ensuring he would not be deliberately supplied with sabotaged equipment. The amount and form of the ransom appear also to have been carefully calculated in advance: 50- or 100-dollar bills would have drawn attention and been too difficult to pass, and a larger quantity of 20-dollar bills would have been too heavy and bulky for his jump.
Cooper was apparently quite familiar with the 727-100 aircraft: It was the ideal choice at the time, not only for its aft air stairs, but also the high, aftward placement of all three engines, allowing a reasonably safe jump without risk of immediate incineration by jet exhaust. In addition, Cooper knew that the aft air stairs could be lowered during flight—a fact never disclosed to civilian flight crews since there was no situation on a passenger flight that would make it necessary—and that its operation, by a single switch in the rear of the cabin, could not be overridden from the cockpit. He may even have known, particularly if he served in Vietnam or had friends who did, that the Central Intelligence Agency had been using 727s to drop agents and supplies behind enemy lines in Vietnam.
The Bureau feels strongly that he lacked crucial skydiving skills and experience and has argued that from the beginning that Cooper did not survive his jump. Even if he did land safely, agents contend, survival in the mountainous terrain would have been all but impossible without an accomplice at a predetermined landing point, which would have required a precisely timed jump, necessitating, in turn, cooperation from the flight crew. There is no evidence that Cooper had any such help from the crew, nor any clear idea where he was when he jumped into the overcast darkness.
Who was “Dan Cooper?” No one knows. Since 1971, the FBI has processed over a thousand "serious suspects" along with assorted publicity seekers and deathbed confessors, most of whom have been definitively ruled out. To this day, no serious contenders for the identity of D.B. Cooper have ever surfaced and it’s unlikely that he – and the rest of the ransom money – will ever be found.
But like September 11, 2001… the D.B. Cooper skyjacking changed air travel forever. It marked the beginning of the end of unfettered and uninspected airline travel. Despite initiation of the federal Sky Marshal program the previous year, 31 hijackings were committed in U.S. airspace in 1972, 19 of them for the specific purpose of extorting money. (Most of the rest were attempts to reach Cuba) In 15 of the extortion cases the hijackers also demanded parachutes. In early 1973, the FAA began requiring airlines to search all passengers and their bags. Amid multiple lawsuits charging that such searches violated Fourth Amendment protections against search and seizure, federal courts ruled that they were acceptable when applied universally, and when limited to searches for weapons and explosives. Our bags have been searched ever since and the Cooper skyjacking remained in the back of many minds until much more tragic events in 2001 changed things once again.