D.B Cooper: The Only Unsolved Hijacking In Aviation History
On the eve of Thanksgiving, 1971, a Boeing 727 took off from Portland International Airport with 36 passengers on board. One of these passengers was a middle-aged man carrying a briefcase. The man, who had identified himself at the ticket counter as “Dan Cooper” purchased a one way ticket for the 30 minute flight to Seattle. Although none of the 35 other passengers would be injured during the next few hours, flight 305 would not make it to its destination. “Dan Cooper” would go on to be misnamed by the press and go down in history as D.B Cooper.
Shortly after take off, Cooper passed a note to flight attendant Florence Schaffer. Assuming that the note contained Cooper’s phone number, Schaffer placed it unopened in her purse. However, seeing this, Cooper leaned towards her and whispered, “Miss, you’d better look at that note, I have a bomb.”
After reading the note, Schaffer was asked to take a seat next to Cooper. As she did, she asked to see the bomb. Cooper obliged and opened his briefcase long enough for Schaffer to see eight red cylinders with wires attached. After closing the briefcase, he stated his demands: $200,000 in “negotiable American currency.” Additionally, he requested four parachutes (two primary and two reserve) and a fuel truck in Seattle to refuel the aircraft upon arrival.
Schaffer left Cooper and went to the cockpit to inform the pilots. When she returned, Cooper was wearing dark sunglasses. The pilot informed the other passengers that their arrival in Seattle would be delayed due to “minor technical difficulties” before contacting air traffic control.
Cooper’s demands were accepted and for two hours flight 305 circled the Puget Sound while the requests were being met.
D.B Cooper remained calm and thoughtful the entire ordeal. He purchased two drinks and paid his tab, even going so far as to telling the flight attendant to keep the change. His demeanor was unlike anything associated with hardened criminals. Cooper even offered to request meals for the flight crew upon landing in Seattle.
Additionally, during this time, D.B Cooper also made remarks regarding the geography below the plane. He was able to correctly identify several landmarks and the city of Tacoma as they flew over it. Cooper also knew that McChord Air Force Base was, at the time, only a twenty minute drive from the Seattle airport.
Seattle police gathered 10,000 twenty dollar bills from local banks and made microfilm photos of each one. Cooper rejected the military issued parachutes gathered from McChord AFB and instead insisted on civilian parachutes with manually operated ripcords. With Cooper’s demands met, at 5:35pm flight 305 landed at Seattle airport.
After the delivery of the cash and parachutes, Cooper released all the passengers from the plane.
Only the pilots and one flight attended remained onboard. As the plane was refueling, Cooper reviewed his flight plan with the crew. He had planned for a southeast course toward Mexico City at the minimum airspeed possible without stalling the aircraft. They were to fly at a maximum 10,000-foot altitude. He further specified that the landing gear remain deployed in the takeoff/landing position, the wing flaps be lowered 15 degrees, and the cabin remain unpressurized.
At around 7pm the plane, now with only three occupants took off once more. Two F-106 fighter jets were scrambled from McChord AFB. They flew in position, above and below, the Boeing 727. After takeoff, Cooper requested the flight attended to join the pilots in the cockpit. At around 8pm a warning light the pilots that the air stairs had been activated. Cooper was offered assistance over the intercom but declined. This would be the last communication anyone had with DB Cooper.
The pilots followed Cooper’s flight plan to an airstrip in Reno where they would refuel for the trip into Mexico. Upon checking the aft of the plane, the crew found the stairs open and D.B Cooper gone.
Immediately following the incident, the investigation began.
FBI agents were able to recover 66 unidentified prints aboard the airliner. Agents were also able to find Cooper’s clip on tie, his tie clip and two of the four parachutes. Additionally, those who interacted directly with Cooper were interviewed and composite sketches were developed.
Inclement weather on the night of the hijacking forced authorities to postpone a search until the next day. The next day, the search for D.B Cooper began and would continue for several weeks. However, no trace of the hijacker, money or parachute were ever located. Criminal databases did not return any matches on the fingerprints, nor on the name ‘Dan Cooper’. With no other leads to go on, the case began to grow cold. Official charges for air piracy were filed in 1976 and still stand today.
Although countless suspects have been questioned, no conclusive discovery has been made. The only hard evidence to ever turn up came in 1980. A bundle of $20 bills with serial numbers matching the ransom money was found in the Columbia River.
One theory that has been put forth is that the crime was completely opportunistic.
Because the hijacking took place over a long weekend, most people were off work. There were no missing persons reports that fit the description of D.B Cooper at the time the crime took place. It is completely possible that Cooper committed the crime and returned to work that following Monday.
Of course, there are many who do not believe that D.B Cooper even survived the decent from the plane. Experts point to the inclement weather on the night of the hijacking. It would have been highly unlikely for an inexperienced jumper to survive the decent. Although, at the same time, questions were raised about whether or not D.B Cooper was even inexperienced. Based on his conversation with the flight attendant, he showed intimate knowledge about the area they were traveling over. Additionally, he also had the entire flight plan laid out with very specific details in place.
As of 2016, the FBI is no longer taking new information pertaining to the D.B Cooper hijacking. To this day it remains the only unsolved case of air piracy in aviation history. Whether he died during his jump or survived and went on his with his life $200k richer, we will likely never know. The events leading up to the Cooper’s jump and the overall strangeness of the entire situation makes this story incredibly fascinating.