On November 24, 1971, a man in his mid-forties and giving the name Dan Cooper, also known as DB Cooper, hijacked a Boeing 727 aircraft and demanded two parachutes and $200,000 in ransom ― worth $1.2 million today. His claim of having a bomb in his black briefcase was verified by an air stewardess.
Cooper was given the ransom money at the Seattle-Tacoma Airport. He allowed passengers and some members of the flight crew to leave before ordering the plane to be flown to Mexico. Soon after the plane took off, Cooper then opened the rear airstairs and parachuted into the pitch black, rain-lashed night to be never found again.
The Case Of DB Cooper
On Thanksgiving eve, November 24, 1971, a middle-aged man carrying a black attaché case approached the flight counter of Northwest Orient Airlines at Portland International Airport. He identified himself as “Dan Cooper” and used cash to purchase a one-way ticket on Flight 305, a 30-minute trip north to Seattle. Cooper boarded the aircraft, a Boeing 727-100, and took a seat in the rear of the passenger cabin.
Cooper was a quiet man who appeared to be in his mid-40s, wearing a business suit with a black tie and white shirt. He ordered a drink ― bourbon and soda ― while the flight was waiting to take off.
Flight 305, approximately one-third full, departed Portland on schedule at 2:50 PM PST. Shortly after takeoff, Cooper handed a note to Florence Schaffner, the flight attendant situated nearest to him in a jump seat 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, “Miss, you’d better look at that note. I have a bomb.”
The note was printed in neat, all-capital letters with a felt-tip pen. Its exact wording is unknown, because Cooper later reclaimed it, but Schaffner recalled that the note said that Cooper had a bomb in his briefcase.
After Schaffner read the note, Cooper told her to sit beside him. Schaffner did as requested, then quietly asked to see the bomb. Cooper opened 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 stated his demands: $200,000 in “negotiable American currency”, four parachutes and a fuel truck standing by in Seattle to refuel the aircraft upon arrival. Schaffner conveyed Cooper’s instructions to the pilots in the cockpit; when she returned, Cooper was wearing dark sunglasses.
The crew members described him as calm, polite, and well-spoken, unlike other criminals. One crew told the investigators, “Cooper wasn’t nervous. He seemed rather nice. He was never cruel or nasty. He was thoughtful and calm all the time.”
FBI agents assembled the ransom money from several Seattle-area banks ― 10,000 unmarked 20-dollar bills, most with serial numbers beginning with the letter “L” indicating issuance by the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, and most from the 1963A or 1969 series ― and made a microfilm photograph of each of them.
However, Cooper rejected the military-issue parachutes offered by McChord AFB personnel, instead of demanding civilian parachutes with manually operated ripcords. Seattle police obtained them from a local skydiving school.
At 5:24 PM PST, Cooper was informed that his demands had been met, and at 5:39 PM the aircraft landed at Seattle-Tacoma Airport. Once the negotiation money delivery was completed there, Cooper ordered all passengers, Schaffner, and senior flight attendant Alice Hancock to leave the plane. During refuelling, Cooper precisely outlined his flight plan to the cockpit crew: a southeast course toward Mexico City at the minimum airspeed possible without stalling the aircraft.
At approximately 7:40 PM, the Boeing 727 took off with only five people on board. After takeoff, Cooper politely told all the crew to remain in the cockpit with the door closed. At approximately 8:00 PM, a warning light flashed in the cockpit, indicating that the aft airstair 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 PM, 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 PM, the aircraft’s aft airstair was still deployed when the flight landed at Reno Airport. Obviously, Cooper was absent on the plane.
In all the time, two F-106 fighter aircraft were scrambled from McChord Air Force Base and followed behind the airliner, one above it and one below, out of Cooper’s view. Overall there were five planes in total trailing the hijacked plane. None of the pilots saw him jump or could pinpoint a location where he could have landed.
A five-month manhunt ― said to be the most extensive and expensive of its kind ― and deep-rooted FBI investigation were immediately launched. Many FBI agents are of the opinion that Cooper probably did not survive his high-risk jump, but his remains have never been recovered. The FBI maintained an active investigation for 45 years after the hijacking.
Despite a case file that has grown to over 60 volumes over that period, no definitive conclusions have been reached regarding Cooper’s true identity or whereabouts. Numerous theories of widely varying plausibility have been proposed over the years by investigators, reporters, and amateur enthusiasts.
In 1980, a young boy on vacation with his family in Oregon found several packets of the ransom money (identifiable by serial number), leading to an intense search of the area for Cooper or his remains. But no other trace of him was ever found. Later in 2017, a parachute strap was found at one of Cooper’s possible landing sites.
Who Was DB Cooper?
Evidence suggested that Cooper was knowledgeable about flying techniques, aircraft, and the terrain. He demanded four parachutes to force 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.
He chose a 727-100 aircraft because it was ideal for a bail-out escape, due to not only its aft airstair but also the high, aftward placement of all three engines, which allowed a reasonably safe jump despite the proximity of the engine exhaust. It had “single-point fueling” capability, a then-recent innovation that allowed all tanks to be refuelled rapidly through a single fuel port.
It also had the ability (unusual for a commercial jet airliner) to remain in slow, low-altitude flight without stalling, and Cooper knew how to control its airspeed and altitude without entering the cockpit, where he could have been overpowered by the three pilots. In addition, Cooper was familiar with important details, such as the appropriate flap setting of 15 degrees (which was unique to that aircraft), and the typical refuelling time.
He knew that the aft airstair 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. Some of this knowledge was virtually unique to CIA paramilitary units.
Between 1971 and 2016, the FBI processed over a thousand “serious suspects”, which included assorted publicity seekers and deathbed confessors, but nothing more than circumstantial evidence could be found to implicate any of them. Despite there being hundreds of leads since 1971, Cooper’s identity remains a mystery and the world’s only unsolved skyjacking case.