I want to tell you the story of a daring robbery that took place in the skies above Oregon and Washington. This is the story of the only unsolved case of air piracy in US history, a case that was only suspended in July of this year. This is the story of Dan ‘D.B.’ Cooper.
It’s Thanksgiving Eve, 1971. Portland International Airport is relatively busy, filled with people trying to get home for the holiday. One of these passengers to be is a Caucasian man in his mid-fourties, around 5″11, wearing a dark suit, raincoat, loafers and a mother of pearl tie pin. He is carrying an unassuming attaché case with him. Identifying himself as Dan Cooper, he purchases a one-way ticket to Seattle on Northwest Orient flight 305, hands over $20 and heads for the departure gate.
The plane isn’t very full, maybe one-third of the seats are occupied, but Flight 305 takes off according to schedule at 2:50pm. Soon after takeoff, Dan Cooper orders a bourbon and soda, lights a cigarette and passes a folded up note to a nearby flight attendant. She largely ignores the action, thinking this to be the opening gambit of the man’s ‘game’. That is until the man leans over and says softly: “Miss, you’d better look at that note. I have a bomb.” Suddenly, this quiet midafternoon flight over the Pacific Northwest is now the backdrop to a hijacking.
After briefly showing the bomb to the flight attendant, Florence Schaffner, Cooper makes his demands known: $200,000 in “negotiable American currency”; four parachutes and finally, a refuelling truck waiting at Seattle-Tacoma airport. Schaffner conveys these demands to the cockpit. The pilot gets SeaTac on the line and soon enough, the FBI has been informed that there is a domestic hijacking in progress. The plane circled above Puget Sound for two hours as law enforcement assembled the demands. As chaos was barely contained on the ground, Cooper calmly ordered another drink, paid his tab in full and requests that meals for the flight crew be waiting on the ground in Seattle.
The plane makes landfall at 5:39pm and the local representative of the airline hands over the demands. At this point, Cooper releases all passengers as well as all but one of the cabin crew. As the plane is refueled, he gives the pilot’s very specific flight parameters and sets his destination as Mexico City. As the plane is not designed for the nearly 3,000 mile journey, Reno is chosen as a second one refuelling stop.
The plane takes off once more at 7:40pm, this time with a covert accompaniment of two F-106 fighter jets. Remaining cabin crew member Tina Mucklow is ordered into the cockpit and at 8:00pm, the flight crew begin to receive indications that the aft airstairs has been deployed. This meant that Cooper had just opened the rear entrance to the plane. Requests to assist him are refused. There is a sudden upwards movement at 8:13pm, requiring the pilots to level the plane, but then it is a smooth ride to Nevada. The plane continues onto Reno, landing with the aft airstairs still open, and is met by a bevy of law enforcement officials. However, Cooper and his $200,000 are nowhere to be found. The only things left that could be tied to Cooper were two of the parachutes and his tie plus tie clip.
And that is the story of how a man hijacked an aircraft to steal $1.2 million when his take is adjusted for inflation.
D.B. Cooper was never found. Many believe that he died soon after jumping, as the most logical jump time of 8:13pm would have had him landed in a heavy rainstorm in and around the Lewis River. However, there are those who believe that Cooper survived and lived on, maybe even to this day.
As a psychologist, I love the Cooper case. Not only is it impossible to say why he did what he did, we can’t even assemble a psychological profile of the man. The cabin crew who interacted with him described him as polite and caring; calm and compassionate. Recent work by a number of amateur sleuths have turned up a few interesting facts- pure titanium dust was found on the tie he left behind. Now in 1971, titanium was rare and almost exclusively used in the construction of aircraft, suggesting that Cooper may have been an aviation engineer. There is also a Canadian comic book about a man named Dan Cooper, who pulls off a stunt almost identical to the heist of the real-life Cooper. Apart from that, as well as the very generic composite sketch created in the wake of the incident, there is very little else we know about Cooper. He goes down as one of those great unsolved American mysteries. It is unlikely that we shall ever know what happened to Cooper but that doesn’t mean our imaginations can’t fill in the gaps.
What do you think happened to Cooper?