On November 24th, 1971, a man walked up to the counter of Northwest Orient Airlines at the Portland International Airport in Oregon. Paying $20 in cash, he purchased a one-way ticket for aisle seat 18C aboard flight 305 to Seattle-Tacoma Airport in Washington. The name he provided was “Dan Cooper.”
Nothing about Cooper seemed out of the ordinary. He was a white male, estimated to be in his mid-40s, who was about 6’1″ tall, and weighed around 170 pounds. He was described as having an olive complexion, brown eyes, and black hair styled in a conventional cut and parted on the left. He wore a black business suit and a tie with a white shirt. All he carried was a briefcase.
Shortly before the 4:35 pm departure time, he and 36 other passengers boarded the Boeing 727 and found their seats. Once comfortably seated, Cooper ordered a bourbon and soda and smoked a cigarette while awaiting takeoff.
While this scene might seem ordinary, this is only the beginning of what has become the only unsolved hijacking in the history of commercial aviation.
An Unusual Note
Shortly after takeoff, Cooper handed a note to 23-year-old flight attendant Florence Schaffner. Businessmen often tried to slip her flirty notes, so she just put it in her pocket and continued working.
Cooper soon flagged her over and told her she should read the note. To her horror, it was a ransom note. Cooper had a bomb in his briefcase and some demands he would like to make.
Schaffner took the note to the pilot who read it and immediately contacted air traffic control in Seattle to advise them of the situation. They were soon in contact with the police and the FBI, who passed word back to the pilot to comply with the hijacker’s demands.
After the pilot read the note, Cooper told Schaffner to give him the note back. While we do not have the note as evidence, we have the memories of those who read it, and they all remember seeing the phrase “no funny business”.
When Schaffner returned the note, Cooper slid over a seat and asked her to join him for a moment. He opened the briefcase, revealing a mess of wires and several red sticks that appeared to be dynamite.
The Hijacker’s Surprising Demands
Cooper’s demands were simple, he only wanted two things. He wanted two sets of parachutes and $200,000 (about $1.4 million in today’s money) in $20 bills with random serial numbers, delivered to him as soon as the plane landed at the Seattle-Tacoma airport.
He told Schaffner to tell the pilot to stay in the air until his demands were ready. The pilot flew the plane in circles above Seattle, waiting for the ransom to be gathered. Through the intercom, the pilot told the passengers that there was a minor mechanical issue, nothing to worry about, and that they just needed to burn a bit more fuel before landing.
By all accounts, the passengers were completely unaware of the danger they were in.
On the ground, the authorities were trying to get Cooper’s demands ready as soon as possible. They secured the money, ensuring the serial numbers were random, but made sure all began with the code letter “L” to assist with tracking later.
McChord Air Force Base in Tacoma, Washington offered the parachutes, but Cooper would not accept these. He wanted civilian parachutes with user-operated rip cords instead of the military-issued ones.
Fortunately, a local skydiving school could provide parachutes that met Cooper’s criteria.
Authorities considered providing Cooper with nonfunctional parachutes, but since he asked for two sets, they thought he may try to take a hostage in the air with him. Not wanting to risk an innocent life, they gave Cooper exactly what he asked for.
Not Done Yet: The Terror Continues
At 5:24 pm, the plane landed in Seattle. Cooper ordered that they taxi the plane to a remote and well-lit area. He demanded that no vehicles approach the plane and that the person bringing the ransom should be alone.
Flight attendant Tina Mucklow lowered the stairs and accepted the ransom to deliver to Cooper.
All 36 passengers and flight attendant Florence Schaffner were released, but Mucklow and the three men in the cockpit were told to stay.
An official from the Federal Aviation Authority asked for permission to come aboard and talk, but Cooper denied his request.
Cooper wasn’t done with his demands yet. He told the crew that he wanted to fly to Mexico City next. The plane was to remain at an altitude below 10,000 feet, at an airspeed below 150 knots. The cabin was to be depressurized before take-off.
The crew advised that the plane would need to refuel along the way for such a long flight, and Cooper agreed they could stop in Reno, Nevada to refuel.
While refueling in Seattle, Cooper asked Mucklow to read him the instruction card for the stairs at the rear of the plane. While discussing this, she told him she didn’t think they could be opened mid-flight, but he assured her they could.
Cooper knew exactly how long it would take to refuel a Boeing 727, and when it took longer than it should, he demanded an explanation. They quickly completed refueling and at 7:46 pm, they took off into a dark and stormy night heading for Reno.
Never To Be Seen Again
Once in the air, Mucklow was told to join the men in the cockpit and not to come out. The sealed cockpit had no windows to see what was happening in the rest of the cabin.
At 8 pm, a red light on the instrument panel warned the crew that a door was open. The pilot asked over the intercom if there was anything they could do, but Cooper angrily replied “No”.
At 8:24 pm, 25 miles north of Portland, Oregon, the crew felt the plane dip forward slightly and then dip slightly back before balancing itself. They assumed that the rear stair had been lowered, and that Cooper had jumped, but didn’t want to go against his demands and confirm that.
At 10:15 pm, they landed in Reno, Nevada, and the crew called over the intercom to advise him they had arrived safely. After receiving no response, they opened the cockpit door to find an empty cabin.
Cooper was gone, leaving behind only the second parachute, his clip-on tie, and some cigarette butts.
Investigations and Media Involvement
The only evidence that could be gathered was some of his hair found on the headrest of seat 18C and DNA on the cigarette butts. Although Cooper likely touched different items on the flight, no fingerprints were recovered.
Authorities were certain of the hijacker’s physical appearance, as the flight attendants that interacted with Cooper the most gave near identical descriptions of him. Still, this left little for investigators to work with.
From the ensuing media circus, the infamous moniker “D. B. Cooper” was born. A record was found for a man named D. B. Cooper in Portland, Oregon. Although quickly cleared as a suspect, a member of the press got hold of this name. The confused press member reported that “D. B. Cooper” was the name provided by the hijacker.
Other members of the press quickly repeated this mistake until it stuck. Despite the hijacker referring to himself as Dan Cooper and never “D. B. Cooper,” the name now lives in infamy.
New Evidence Found
The NORJAK case, a moniker coined by the FBI as short for “Northwest Hijacking,” quickly became a cold case. Cooper was meticulous about his crime and left little evidence behind. It truly seemed that the hijacker had vanished into thin air.
The only evidence ever found surfaced on February 10, 1980. A young boy digging on the shore of the Columbia River in Washington uncovered a rotting package of $20 bills ($5,800 in total). Investigated by the authorities, they found that the money matched the serial numbers of the ransom money given to Cooper in 1971.
No other money or items related to the case have been found, and it’s been speculated that the May 18, 1980 eruption of the nearby Mt. St. Helen’s volcano could have destroyed any other evidence left behind.
Suspects of the Daring Hijacking
By 1976, five years after the hijacking, the FBI had investigated over 800 suspects and ruled out all but about two dozen of them. Despite these investigations, to date we have not been able to identify who the hijacker was, making this the only unsolved hijacking in the history of commercial aviation.
Early FBI profiles of the hijacker speculated he was an experienced parachutist or had experience working in the airline industry. His request for a specific parachute and knowledge of the Boeing 727–100 led the FBI to believe he may have been a pilot or otherwise involved in the aviation industry.
While many have been ruled out by the FBI, a handful of suspects have become favorite theories among armchair detectives.
Christiansen was a former paratrooper who worked at Northwest Orient Airlines, the same airline that was hijacked. Working as a mechanic and flight attendant, Christiansen would have had intimate knowledge of both the Boeing 727 and the way the airline operated.
While the evidence was only circumstantial, his brother said that before Christiansen died, he confessed he had “something you should know” but couldn’t tell. His brother also recalled how Christiansen bought a house in cash the year after the hijacking, despite not making enough money to have been able to do so.
In 2011, a woman named Marla Cooper claimed that her uncle L.D. Cooper was the hijacker. She remembered overhearing him saying that his money problems were over because he had hijacked a plane. However, he also said that he lost the money while parachuting from the plane.
When shown a picture of L.D. Cooper, one of the flight attendants from flight 305 said that he looked similar to the hijacker.
Richard Floyd McCoy
McCoy was a helicopter pilot and skydiver who was arrested for a very similar hijacking less than five months later, in which he used a parachute to escape from the plane mid-flight.
More likely a copycat than the original, the FBI ruled McCoy out, as he didn’t match the physical descriptions of the original hijacker.
Peterson was a Boeing employee who helped write the flight manual for the Boeing 727 and was an experienced skydiver. Ultimately, Peterson was ruled out as a suspect for several reasons.
Peterson had blue eyes instead of brown and wasn’t known to be a smoker, conflicting with reports of Cooper chain smoking during most of the flight. He claimed to be living in Nepal at the time of the hijacking, but this was never verified.
Rackstraw was a pilot, a former paratrooper, and had been involved in several crimes including grand theft and writing $75,000 in bad checks. Accused of murder, he was eventually acquitted but spent two years in prison for his various crimes.
Suspect Profile Revisited
In 2007, Special Agent Carr of the FBI took over the case and revised their profile of the suspect, now backtracking on the hijacker’s perceived skill level.
No experienced parachutist would have jumped in the pitch-black night, in the rain, with a 200-mile-an-hour wind in his face, wearing loafers and a trench coat. It was simply too risky. He also missed that his reserve chute was only for training and had been sewn shut — something a skilled skydiver would have checked.
The FBI believes Cooper acted alone and did not have help on the ground. The directions he gave were not specific enough for him to have jumped at a certain place at a certain time to rendezvous with anyone. On that stormy night, cloud cover was at 5,000 feet, so there was no visibility of the ground and Cooper wouldn’t have known precisely where he was jumping.
Carr believes that “Dan Cooper” was just an alias given by the hijacker. Oddly enough, around the time of the hijacking, there was a popular French Canadian comic book about an air force test pilot. The pilot’s name? Dan Cooper. Perhaps this comic book hero inspired the moniker for the hijacker that parachuted out of a plane.
Based on these revised assumptions, Carr’s profile of the hijacker differs from the man that the FBI originally searched for.
Carr believes that the suspect:
- Served in the Air Force and was stationed in Europe, and that is how he may have become acquainted with the Dan Cooper comics.
- Worked as a cargo loader on planes, which frequently worked with emergency parachutes. This would have given him a working knowledge of parachutes, but not made him an expert.
- May originally be from the East Coast of the United States, but began working in aviation in Seattle.
- During the economic struggles of the aviation industry in the early 1970s, he may have lost his job and been desperate for money.
- Matches the physical description provided by witnesses. The flight attendants that interacted with him the most were interviewed in separate cities on the night of the hijacking. Both gave nearly identical descriptions of the suspect. These descriptions were further corroborated by witnesses on the ground that saw him.
What Really Happened to D. B. Cooper?
Despite extensive efforts to track down the perpetrator, it’s not likely that Dan Cooper is out there living it large with his wealth. The FBI believes the most likely scenario is that he didn’t survive the jump.
It sounds unlikely that Cooper was a master parachutist, but even if he were, the odds were stacked against him.
He parachuted into a thunderstorm at night, with low visibility of the ground with no way to see what he would be falling into. The parachute itself wasn’t steerable, so he would have had virtually no control during the fall.
His clothes and shoes were standard business attire, certainly not suitable for a rough landing into the wilderness, or to survive a cold and stormy November night in the northwest.
The $200,000 in $20 bills would have weighed about 21 pounds extra. Even if he factored in this added weight, it likely would have made his fall more difficult.
The Unexpected Legacy of the Hijacking
In July 2016, the FBI announced that after 45 years of investigating, they would no longer be allocating resources to the NORJAK case.
As we get further from the event, it’s unlikely that we will ever find out the true identity of the infamous “D. B. Cooper.”
Still, his legacy lives on as people continue to speculate about this case, one of the greatest heists of all time.
Even in the aviation industry, Cooper’s name lives on, ironically, in a piece of airplane equipment. “Cooper Vanes” are small latches found on the outside of planes to prevent the rear stairs from opening mid-flight. If you couldn’t guess, Cooper Vanes are found on all Boeing 727s.
D.B. Cooper. Crime Museum. (2021, June 7). Retrieved January 17, 2023, from https://www.crimemuseum.org/crime-library/cold-cases/d-b-cooper/
FBI. (2016, May 18). D.B. Cooper Hijacking. FBI. Retrieved January 17, 2023, from https://www.fbi.gov/history/famous-cases/db-cooper-hijacking
FBI. (2007, December 31). D.B. Cooper Redux. FBI. Retrieved January 17, 2023, from https://archives.fbi.gov/archives/news/stories/2007/december/dbcooper_123107?
Morton, E. (2015, May 13). Who was D.B. Cooper? History.com. Retrieved January 17, 2023, from https://www.history.com/news/who-was-d-b-cooper
Originally published on Medium’s Lessons from History publication on January 20, 2023.