fter more than 35 years, the FBI has reopened the case of D.B. Cooper, who pulled off the nation’s only unsolved skyjacking. What do we know about the man behind the crime?
Who was the hijacker?
Nobody knows for sure, and that’s the nub of the great mystery. On Nov. 24, 1971, a quiet, 40ish man, standing about 6 feet tall and weighing about 175 pounds, boarded Northwest Orient Airlines Flight 305 at Portland International Airport, bound for Seattle. He had given his name at the ticket counter as “Dan Cooper,” an alias that later was rendered in press accounts as “D.B. Cooper.” Whoever he was, he hijacked the plane and then vanished. Cooper’s unprecedented feat went on to inspire songs, movies, books, and legions of fans who obsess about his fate the way others do about Jimmy Hoffa or Amelia Earhart.
What exactly did he do?
Wearing sunglasses, a dark suit, a black raincoat, and loafers, Cooper settled into seat 18C. At 2:58 p.m., as the Boeing 727 prepared to take off, he slipped a note to stewardess Florence Schaffner that read, in part, “You are being hijacked.” Opening his attaché case and revealing what appeared to be a bomb made of wires, a battery, and several sticks of dynamite, he issued his demands: $200,000 and four parachutes. When Flight 305 landed in Seattle at 5:40 p.m., Cooper released the 36 passengers and all but three of the crew. In return, he got 10,000 $20 bills, which the FBI had microfilmed. A skydiving school supplied the parachutes—including, mistakenly, a classroom demonstration model that was sewed shut. At 7:38 p.m., the plane took off again.
What happened next?
Cooper directed the crew to cruise at 10,000 feet. At first he ordered a course for Mexico, but, after being told this would require refueling, he decided instead to head toward Reno, Nev. Cooper then tied the money bags to his waist and strapped on two parachutes—including the dummy. The cockpit crew later reported that at 8:12 p.m., over Washington’s Cascade Mountains, a warning light indicated that Cooper had opened the rear door. First Officer Bill Rataczak asked over the intercom, “Everything okay back there? Anything we can do for you?” “No!” Cooper replied. Then he jumped, leaving behind some cigarette butts, two parachutes, and a black J.C. Penney clip-on tie with a mother-of-pearl clasp.
Did he land safely?
No one knows. Investigators spent 18 fruitless days swarming over Cooper’s drop zone in remote Washington, and they turned up not a shred of physical evidence. No trace of Cooper was found, in fact, until nine years later, in 1980, when 8-year-old Brian Ingram happened upon $5,800 in moldy $20 bills along the Columbia River near Vancouver. The serial numbers matched some of the bills from the Cooper ransom.
Could Cooper have survived?
Many Cooper aficionados are convinced he’s living on some Caribbean island. But that’s highly unlikely. Cooper, clad only in business attire, jumped into a storm, at a near-zero temperature. Most experts say he probably would have been paralyzed by the cold and struggling to breathe the thin air at 10,000 feet; if this was his first jump, he may have failed under these conditions to get his chute open. If he did open his chute and somehow survived the jump, it’s doubtful he would have lasted long in the wilderness without food, water, or proper gear. “If he’d just sprained his leg on landing,” said one FBI agent who worked the case in the early years, “it’d be a death sentence.”
Have there been any leads?
Yes, but none that has panned out. The FBI has amassed a case file of some 20,000 documents and looked at hundreds of possible suspects. One of the most intriguing was Richard Floyd McCoy, who perpetrated a remarkably similar hijacking in 1972. McCoy hijacked a United Airlines flight with a hand grenade, demanded $500,000 and four parachutes, and bailed out over Utah. After he was caught, the FBI thought he might be Cooper, but the physical descriptions didn’t match. Anothers possibility was antiques dealer Duane Weber, who told his wife on his deathbed in 1995 that he was Cooper. But DNA recovered years later from Cooper’s tie ruled Weber out.
Why was the case reopened?
Six months ago, Larry Carr, an FBI agent in Seattle who happens to be a Cooper buff, asked to be put on the case. Hoping to spark new leads, Carr last month released a number of previously secret clues, including maps of the jump area and photos of the recovered money and of Cooper’s tie. Carr says he’s simply looking for help from the public. “Maybe a hydrologist can use the latest technology to trace the $5,800 in ransom money found in 1980 to where Cooper landed upstream, or maybe someone just remembers that odd uncle,” Carr says. “Everyone laughs at me. ‘You solved the D.B. Cooper case yet? Ha ha ha.’ But what if I do?”
Why the continued fascination with Cooper?
First there’s the simple fact that we still know virtually nothing about him. Then there’s that strange composite sketch, in which the suspect wears an expression as elusive as Mona Lisa’s. Or maybe it was all a matter of timing. In the early 1970s, the U.S. was being torn apart over Vietnam, and cities were aflame in race riots. The counterculture was exploding. Amid the tumult, Cooper not only single-handedly pulled off (maybe) a death-defying stunt, he didn’t hurt anyone in the process. His reputation as some kind of folk hero has only grown over the years. It was “an awesome feat in the battle of man against the machine,” said Otto Larsen, a University of Washington sociologist. “One man overcoming technology, the corporation, the establishment.”
THE WEEK'S AUDIOPHILE PODCASTS: LISTEN SMARTER
- If a nuclear bomb exploded in downtown Washington, what should you do?
- 31 TV shows to watch in 2014
- There's a number of reasons the grammar of this headline could infuriate you
- What would a U.S.-Russia war look like?
- He said he was leaving. She ignored him.
- How to be more satisfied with your life, according to science
- 7 ways to quickly become a master at anything
- How to flirt, according to science
- The Warren Buffett formula: How you can get smarter
- Everything you need to know about the Venezuelan protests
Subscribe to the Week