John Dillinger, whose fantastic escapes I profiled last week, has earned himself a place in the pantheon of American folk icons. Likewise, the subject of this week’s case has attained near-mythical status. I’m talking about the legendary hijacker, D.B. Cooper.
D.B. Cooper in the Age of Skyjacking
The 1960s and 1970s were, as writer Brendan Koerner put it in The Skies Belong to Us, the “golden age of hijacking.” In the four years between 1968 and 1972, hijackers commandeered more than 130 flights. Motives ranged from political (“Take me to Havana”) to demands for money. Airlines in this period either complied outright or tried negotiating with the hijackers.
D.B. Cooper emerged from this air piracy melee. On November 24, 1971, the day before Thanksgiving, a man approached the Northwest Orient Airlines counter at the airport in Portland, Oregon. Witnesses recall him having dark hair and brown eyes, wearing a black or brown business suit, and carrying a black attaché case. He paid cash for a one-way ticket on Flight 305, a thirty-minute trip to Seattle’s Seattle-Tacoma airport. He gave his name as Dan Cooper (a reporter’s error changed “Dan Cooper” to “D.B. Cooper”).
On board the Boeing 727, Cooper sat in seat 18-E in the last row and ordered a bourbon and 7-Up.
D.B. Cooper Hijacks Flight 305
Flight 305 took off on time at 2:50 p.m. PST. Once it was in the air, Cooper handed a note to flight attendant Florence Schaffner. Thinking he was making a pass, Schaffner dropped the note in her purse without opening it. The man leaned toward her and whispered, “Miss, you’d better look at that note. I have a bomb.”
Ms. Schaffner did as the hijacker requested. She asked him to show her the bomb, and he opened the attaché case. The contents of the case looked like a bomb. Of course, there was no way she could tell if it was real.
Cooper told her he wanted: $200,000 in negotiable American currency, two front parachutes, and two back parachutes.
Captain William A. Scott told passengers that a “minor mechanical difficulty” would delay their arrival in Seattle. The plane circled Puget Sound for almost two hours while police and the FBI mobilized and prepared to meet Cooper’s demands.
D.B. Cooper Parachutes into American Legend
Flight 305 landed at SEATAC at 5:24 p.m. and parked in an area away from the terminal. Flight attendant Tina Mucklow retrieved the ransom money, after which Cooper allowed the passengers to deplane.
Cooper gave explicit instructions to the cockpit crew. He wanted a southeast course toward Mexico City at the minimum airspeed possible without stalling the aircraft—approximately 100 knots (115 mph). The plane, he said, should fly no higher than 10,000 feet. Cooper also specified that the landing gear must remain deployed, the wing flaps lowered 15 degrees and the cabin unpressurized. Captain Scott told the hijacker that under those conditions, he would have to refuel before reaching Mexico City. They agreed on Reno, Nevada, as the fueling stop.
Problems with the refueling process delayed matters, and Cooper became impatient. But at 7:40 p.m., the plane took off again. Cooper wanted flight attendant Mucklow to lower the rear stairway. When she resisted, fearful of being sucked out of the plane, Cooper said he’d lower it himself.
Around 8:00 p.m., a warning light lit up in the cockpit, indicating someone had deployed the after staircase. At 8:13, the aircraft’s tail pitched up suddenly, forcing the pilots to trim the plane.
No Hijacker Aboard
At 11:02 p.m., the aircraft landed at Reno-Tahoe International Airport. A cadre of law enforcement surrounded the plane but didn’t approach. Captain Scott searched the cabin and found no sign of Cooper. A thirty-minute search by an FBI bomb squad determined that neither the hijacker nor his purported bomb was aboard.
The FBI launched a massive investigation. The physical evidence gathered included fingerprints, Cooper’s clip-on necktie, hair samples, and cigarette butts. But the FBI was unable to match the fingerprints to any suspect. And it was decades before DNA testing could have yielded results from the hairs or cigarette butts that would help the investigation. D.B. Cooper had vanished into the November night.
Did. D.B. Cooper Survive?
From the beginning, the FBI doubted Cooper survived the jump. Several factors led to this conclusion. First, although he had some knowledge of parachutes, Cooper did not appear to have much experience with them. Second, he didn’t have the equipment to survive in a remote area under inclement weather. Finally and perhaps most persuasive, no one ever spent the ransom money.
Not everyone agreed with this assessment, however. Three copycat hijackers, Martin McNally, Frederick Hahneman, and Richard LaPoint, did survive jumps in conditions similar to what Cooper faced. So, maybe D.B. Cooper did make it after all.
The FBI developed more than a dozen suspects but could not positively connect any of them to the hijacking of Flight 305.
In 1980, eight-year-old Brian Ingram found three packets of the Cooper ransom money totaling approximately $5,800 along the banks of the Columbia River. It was the only portion of the money ever recovered.
On July 8, 2016, the FBI announced it had suspended the active investigation of the Cooper case. Sources cited the need to focus investigative resources and manpower on higher and more urgent priority issues.
Don’t Miss Out! Subscribe to the Newsletter
Subscribe to True Crime in the News, a monthly email newsletter that looks at recent news stories that will interest any true crime fan. There is also a summary of the previous month’s blog posts. You won’t want to miss this, sign up for the newsletter today.