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The Mystery Hijacking of D.B. Cooper



"D. B. Cooper" became a media epithet used to refer to an unidentified man who hijacked a Boeing 727 aircraft in United States airspace between Portland, Oregon, and Seattle, Washington, on the afternoon of November 24, 1971. He extorted $200,000 in ransom (equivalent to $1,278,000 today) and parachuted to an uncertain fate over southwestern Washington. The man purchased his airline ticket using the alias Dan Cooper but, because of a news miscommunication, became known in popular lore as D. B. 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 (FAA registration N467US), and took seat 18C (18E by one account, 15D by another) and ordered a drink: bourbon and soda. Eyewitnesses described Cooper as being in his mid-40s, wearing a business suit with a black tie and white shirt.


Flight 305, approximately one-third full, departed Portland on schedule at 2:50 p.m. 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 it mentioned the bomb and directed her to sit in the seat beside Cooper. Schaffner did as requested, then quietly asked to see the bomb. Cooper opened his briefcase long enough for her to glimpse eight red cylinders ("four on top of four") 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 (two primary and two reserve); 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 captain, William A. Scott, contacted Seattle–Tacoma Airport air traffic control, which informed local and federal authorities. The 35 other passengers were told that their arrival in Seattle would be delayed because of a "minor mechanical difficulty". Northwest Orient's president, Donald Nyrop, authorized payment of the ransom, and ordered all employees to cooperate fully with the hijacker's demands. The aircraft circled Puget Sound for approximately two hours to allow Seattle police and the FBI sufficient time to assemble Cooper's parachutes and ransom money, and to mobilize emergency personnel.


Here is the original news cast reported by Walter Cronkite:



Flight attendant Tina Mucklow recalled that Cooper appeared familiar with the local terrain; at one point he remarked, "Looks like Tacoma down there", as the aircraft flew above it. He also correctly mentioned that McChord Air Force Base was only a 20-minute drive (at that time) from Seattle-Tacoma Airport. Schaffner described him as calm, polite and well-spoken; not consistent with the stereotypes (enraged, hardened criminals or "take-me-to-Cuba" political dissidents) popularly associated with air piracy at the time. He wasn't nervous", Mucklow told investigators. "He seemed rather nice. He was never cruel or nasty. He was thoughtful and calm all the time." As Schaffner grasped the enormity of what was happening, Cooper reassured her. He ordered a second bourbon and soda, paid his drink tab (and attempted to give Mucklow the change), and offered to request meals for the flight crew during the stop in Seattle. Mucklow asked Cooper if he had a grudge with Northwest Airlines; Cooper replied, "I don't have a grudge against your airline, Miss. I just have a grudge."


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. Cooper rejected the military-issue parachutes offered by McChord AFB personnel, instead demanding civilian parachutes with manually operated ripcords. Seattle police obtained them from a local skydiving school.


At 5:24 p.m. PST, Cooper was informed that his demands had been met; and at 5:39 p.m., more than an hour after sunset, the aircraft landed at Seattle-Tacoma Airport. Cooper instructed Scott to taxi the jet to an isolated, brightly lit section of the apron and close all window shades in the cabin to deter police snipers. Northwest Orient's Seattle operations manager, Al Lee, approached the aircraft in street clothes (to avoid the possibility that Cooper might mistake his airline uniform for that of a police officer) and delivered the cash-filled knapsack and parachutes to Mucklow via the aft stairs. Once the delivery was completed, Cooper allowed all passengers, Schaffner, and senior flight attendant Alice Hancock to leave the plane.




The refueling process was delayed because of a vapor lock in the fuel tanker truck's pumping mechanism; a second truck was brought in to complete refueling. An FAA official requested a face-to-face meeting with Cooper aboard the aircraft, which was denied. Cooper grew impatient, saying, "This shouldn't take so long", and sent a note to the crew saying, "Let's get this show on the road." Cooper outlined his flight plan to the cockpit crew: a southeast course toward Mexico City at the minimum airspeed possible without stalling the aircraft—approximately 100 knots (185 km/h; 115 mph)—at a maximum 10,000-foot (3,000 m) 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. First officer William J. Rataczak informed Cooper that the aircraft's range was limited to approximately 1,000 miles (1,600 km) under the specified flight configuration, which meant that a second refueling would be necessary before entering Mexico. Cooper and the crew discussed options and agreed on Reno, Nevada, as the refueling stop. Cooper further directed that the aircraft take off with the rear exit door open and its staircase extended. Northwest's home office objected, on grounds that it was unsafe to take off with the aft staircase deployed. Cooper countered that it was indeed safe, but he would not argue the point; he would lower it once they were airborne.


At approximately 7:40 p.m., the Boeing 727 took off with only Cooper, captain Scott, flight attendant Mucklow, first officer Rataczak, and flight engineer Harold E. Anderson on board. Two F-106 fighter aircraft from McChord Air Force Base followed behind the airliner, one above it and one below, out of Cooper's view.[39] A Lockheed T-33 trainer, diverted from an unrelated Air National Guard mission, also shadowed the 727 before running low on fuel and turning back near the Oregon–California state line.


After takeoff, Cooper picked up his briefcase and told Mucklow to show him how to open the door to the aft staircase. He then told her to join the rest of the crew in the cockpit and remain there with the door closed. As she complied, Mucklow observed Cooper tying something, possibly the money bag, around his waist. At approximately 8:00 p.m., a warning light flashed in the cockpit, indicating that the aft airstair apparatus had been activated. The pilots asked on the cabin intercom if Cooper needed assistance. Cooper picked up the cabin phone and replied, "No." This was the last message heard from Cooper. The crew soon noticed a subjective change of air pressure, indicating that the aft door was open. At approximately 8:13 p.m., the aircraft's tail section sustained a sudden upward movement, large enough to require trimming to bring the plane back to level flight. At approximately 10:15 p.m., the 727 landed, with the aft airstair still deployed, at Reno Airport. FBI agents, state troopers, sheriff's deputies, and Reno police surrounded the jet, as it had not yet been determined with certainty that Cooper was no longer aboard; but an armed search quickly confirmed his absence.


FBI agents recovered 66 unidentified latent fingerprints aboard the airliner. The agents also found Cooper's black clip-on tie, his tie clip and two of the four parachutes, one of which had been opened and two shroud lines cut from the canopy. Authorities interviewed eyewitnesses in Portland, Seattle and Reno. A series of composite sketches was developed.


Local police and FBI agents immediately began questioning possible suspects. One of the first was an Oregon man with a minor police record named D. B. Cooper, contacted by Portland police on the off-chance that the hijacker had used his real name or the same alias in a previous crime. He was quickly ruled out as a suspect; but a local reporter named James Long, rushing to meet an imminent deadline, confused the eliminated suspect's name with the pseudonym used by the hijacker. A wire service reporter (Clyde Jabin of UPI by most accounts, Joe Frazier of the AP by others republished the error, followed by numerous other media sources. As a result, "D. B. Cooper" became the most widely remembered pseudonym.


An animation of the 727's rear airstair deploying in flight, with Cooper jumping off. The gravity-operated apparatus remained open until the aircraft landed.

A precise search area was difficult to define, as even small differences in estimates of the aircraft's speed, or the environmental conditions along the flight path (which varied by location and altitude), changed Cooper's projected landing point considerably. An important variable was the length of time he remained in free fall before pulling his ripcord; if he succeeded in opening a parachute at all. Neither of the Air Force fighter pilots saw anything exit the airliner, either visually or on radar, nor did they see a parachute open; but at night, with extremely limited visibility and cloud cover obscuring any ground lighting below, an airborne black-clad human figure could easily have gone undetected. The T-33 pilots never made visual contact with the 727.


In an experimental re-creation, with Scott piloting the aircraft used in the hijacking in the same flight configuration, FBI agents pushing a 200-pound (91 kg) sled out of the open airstair were able to reproduce the upward motion of the tail section described by the flight crew at 8:13 p.m. It was concluded that 8:13 p.m. was the most likely jump time. At that moment the aircraft was flying through a heavy rainstorm over the Lewis River in southwestern Washington.


Initial extrapolations placed Cooper's landing zone within an area on the southernmost outreach of Mount St. Helens, a few miles southeast of Ariel, Washington, near Lake Merwin, an artificial lake formed by a dam on the Lewis River. Search efforts focused on Clark and Cowlitz counties, encompassing the terrain immediately south and north, respectively, of the Lewis River in southwest Washington. FBI agents and sheriff's deputies from those counties searched large areas of the mountainous wilderness on foot and by helicopter. Door-to-door searches of local farmhouses were also carried out. Other search parties ran patrol boats along Lake Merwin and Yale Lake, the reservoir immediately to its east. No trace of Cooper, nor any of the equipment presumed to have left the aircraft with him, was found.


The FBI also coordinated an aerial search, using fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters from the Oregon Army National Guard, along the entire flight path (known as Victor 23 in standard US aviation terminology but "Vector 23" in most Cooper literature from Seattle to Reno. Although numerous broken treetops and several pieces of plastic and other objects resembling parachute canopies were sighted and investigated, nothing relevant to the hijacking was found.

Shortly after the spring thaw in early 1972, teams of FBI agents aided by some 200 Army soldiers from Fort Lewis, along with Air Force personnel, National Guardsmen, and civilian volunteers, conducted another thorough ground search of Clark and Cowlitz counties for eighteen days in March, and then an additional eighteen days in April. Electronic Explorations Company, a marine salvage firm, used a submarine to search the 200-foot (61 m) depths of Lake Merwin. Two local women stumbled upon a skeleton in an abandoned structure in Clark County; it was later identified as the remains of Barbara Ann Derry, a teenaged girl who had been abducted and murdered several weeks before. Ultimately, the search and recovery operation—arguably the most extensive, and intensive, in U.S. history—uncovered no significant material evidence related to the hijacking.


A month after the hijacking, the FBI distributed lists of the ransom serial numbers to financial institutions, casinos, racetracks, and other businesses that routinely conducted large cash transactions, and to law enforcement agencies around the world. Northwest Orient offered a reward of 15% of the recovered money, to a maximum of $25,000. In early 1972 U.S. Attorney General John N. Mitchell released the serial numbers to the general public. In 1972, two men used counterfeit 20-dollar bills printed with Cooper serial numbers to swindle $30,000 from a Newsweek reporter named Karl Fleming in exchange for an interview with a man they falsely claimed was the hijacker.


In early 1973, with the ransom money still missing, The Oregon Journal republished the serial numbers and offered $1,000 to the first person to turn in a ransom bill to the newspaper or any FBI field office. In Seattle, the Post-Intelligencer made a similar offer with a $5,000 reward. The offers remained in effect until Thanksgiving 1974, and though there were several near-matches, no genuine bills were found. In 1975 Northwest Orient's insurer, Global Indemnity Co., complied with an order from the Minnesota Supreme Court and paid the airline's $180,000 claim on the ransom money.



Three major pieces of evidence were found on the plane: a black clip-on tie, a mother-of-pearl tie clip, and eight filter-tipped Raleigh cigarette butts. At some time after the hijacking, the cigarette butts were lost.


In November 1978, a placard printed with instructions for lowering the aft stairs of a 727 was found by a deer hunter near a logging road about 13 miles (21 km) east of Castle Rock, Washington, well north of Lake Merwin, but within Flight 305's basic flight path.


On February 10, 1980, eight-year-old Brian Ingram was vacationing with his family on the Columbia River at a beachfront known as Tina (or Tena) Bar, about 9 miles (14 km) downstream from Vancouver, Washington, and 20 miles (32 km) southwest of Ariel. He uncovered three packets of the ransom cash as he raked the sandy riverbank to build a campfire. The bills were disintegrated, but still bundled in rubber bands. FBI technicians confirmed that the money was indeed a portion of the ransom: two packets of 100 twenty-dollar bills each, and a third packet of 90, all arranged in the same order as when given to Cooper.


The discovery launched several new rounds of conjecture and ultimately raised more questions than it answered. Initial statements by investigators and scientific consultants were founded on the assumption that the bundled bills washed freely into the Columbia River from one of its many connecting tributaries. An Army Corps of Engineers hydrologist noted that the bills had disintegrated in a "rounded" fashion and were matted together, indicating that they had been deposited by river action, as opposed to having been deliberately buried. That conclusion, if correct, supported the opinion that Cooper had not landed near Lake Merwin nor any tributary of the Lewis River, which feeds into the Columbia well downstream from Tina Bar. It also lent credence to supplemental speculation (see Later developments above) that placed the drop zone near the Washougal River, which merges with the Columbia upstream from the discovery site.


In late 2020, analysis of diatoms found on the bills suggests that the bundles found at Tina Bar were not submerged in the river or buried dry at the time of the hijacking in November 1971. Only diatoms that bloom during springtime were found, placing the date range that the money entered the water at least several months after the hijacking.


In 1986, after protracted negotiations, the recovered bills were divided equally between Ingram and Northwest Orient's insurer; the FBI retained fourteen examples as evidence. Ingram sold fifteen of his bills at auction in 2008 for about $37,000.


To date, none of the 9,710 remaining bills have turned up anywhere. Their serial numbers remain available online for public search. The Columbia River ransom money and the airstair instruction placard remain the only confirmed physical evidence from the hijacking ever found outside the aircraft.


In late 2007, the FBI announced that a partial DNA profile had been obtained from three organic samples found on Cooper's clip-on tie in 2001, though they later acknowledged that there is no evidence that the hijacker was the source of the sample material. "The tie had two small DNA samples, and one large sample", said Special Agent Fred Gutt. "It's difficult to draw firm conclusions from these samples." The Bureau also made public a file of previously unreleased evidence, including Cooper's 1971 plane ticket (price: $20.00, paid in cash), and posted previously unreleased composite sketches and fact sheets, along with a request to the general public for information which might lead to Cooper's positive identification.


In November 2011, Kaye announced that particles of pure (unalloyed) titanium had also been found on the tie. He explained that titanium, which was much rarer in the 1970s than in the 2010s, was at that time found only in metal fabrication or production facilities, or at chemical companies using it (combined with aluminum) to store extremely corrosive substances.[109] The findings suggested that Cooper might have been a chemist or a metallurgist, or possibly an engineer or manager (the only employees who wore ties in such facilities at that time) in a metal or chemical manufacturing plant, or at a company that recovered scrap metal from those types of factories.


The FBI speculated from the beginning that Cooper did not survive his jump. "Diving into the wilderness without a plan, without the right equipment, in such terrible conditions, he probably never even got his chute open", said Carr. Even if he did land safely, agents contended that survival in the mountainous terrain at the onset of winter would have been all but impossible without an accomplice at a predetermined landing point. This would have required a precisely timed jump—necessitating, in turn, cooperation from the flight crew. There is no evidence that Cooper requested or received any such help from the crew, nor that he had any clear idea where he was when he jumped into the stormy, overcast darkness.


The FBI maintained an active investigation for 45 years after the hijacking. Despite a case file that grew to over 60 volumes over that period, no definitive conclusions were reached regarding Cooper's true identity or fate. The crime remains the only unsolved air piracy in commercial aviation history.


The FBI officially suspended active investigation of the case in July 2016, but the agency continues to request that any physical evidence that might emerge related to the parachutes or the ransom money be submitted for analysis.


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