Why does the mystery of D.B. Cooper, who on November 24, 1971 committed the only unsolved airline hijacking in history, continue to fascinate us?
On the evening of November 24, 1971—the day before Thanksgiving—a dark-haired man dressed in a black raincoat, dark suit and thin, black tie, white shirt, and brown loafers approached the Northwest Orient Airlines desk at Portland International Airport and purchased a $20, one-way ticket on Flight 305 to Seattle. In an era in which proof of identity for travel was not required, the man signed the ticket “Dan Cooper.” He boarded the sparsely-filled plane, sitting alone in the back row, and ordered a bourbon and soda, a highbrow drink for its day.
As the plane taxied on the runway, he motioned to a young stewardess, Florence Schaffner, handing her a closed note. Thinking it simply yet another attempt by a male passenger to pick her up, the attractive, brunette, twenty-three-year-old Schaffner tucked the envelope away. “Miss, I think you better read that note,” the passenger directed. There was a tone of seriousness in his voice that caused Schaffner to obey him. Her eyes widened as she read the words, which were hand-written with a black, felt-tip pen:
“MISS, I am hijacking this plane. I have a bomb. Sit next to me.”
Schaffner sat down next to the man: “Are you kidding?
“No, Miss, this is for real.” He carefully opened his briefcase to reveal a bundle of red sticks with wires attached to them. Rattled, Schaffner called over flight attendant Tina Mucklow, blonde and twenty-two years old, who also saw the supposed bomb. The man then demanded $200,000, four parachutes (“two back and two front”) and a refueling truck in Seattle. Schaffner relayed the hijacker’s demands—which were written on pieces of paper that the man would later demand returned to him—to the pilot, William Scott. In an era when aircraft hijackings were not uncommon, Scott’s report to the control tower about what was happening on the plane was not a complete shock. But up to this point, hijackings had been committed almost exclusively for political reasons—diverting a plane to Cuba was so common that it was a dark joke among pilots. Here, however, was a man who seemed to be doing it only for the money. The FBI was immediately notified and consulted with the president of Northwest Orient, who agreed to pay the ransom. FBI officials instructed the flight crew to cooperate with the hijacker.
News of the hijacking soon leaked to the press. An error by a journalist resulted in the hijacker’s name being given as “D.B. Cooper” instead of “Dan Cooper.” This moniker—perhaps because the initials give the name more of an air of mystery—would stick. “Cooper” was described on the FBI’s wanted bulletin as being in his mid-forties (though witness accounts put his age at anywhere from 35 to 50 years old), between five-feet, ten-inches and six-feet tall, with olive skin or a “Latin appearance,” but possessing “no particular accent.” He “spoke intelligently.” Stewardess Tina Mucklow remembered him as having a “low voice.”
When Schaffner returned from the cockpit, Cooper was wearing dark sunglasses and smoking a Raleigh filter-tipped cigarette. At this point, Miss Mucklow, who was calmer than Schaffner, was sitting next to the hijacker, and she tried to make conversation with Cooper, asking him why he had chosen to hijack a Northwest Orient plane.
“It’s not because I have a grudge against your airlines,” Cooper replied vaguely. “It’s just because I have a grudge.”
Though businesslike, Cooper was never gruff with the flight attendants, paying for his drinks and attempting to tip them, allowing the crew to pick up meals during the stop at the Seattle airport, offering Miss Mucklow a cigarette and later a wad of bills of the ransom money (an offer she politely rejected). “He seemed rather nice,” Miss Mucklow remembered. “He was never cruel or nasty. He was thoughtful and calm all the time.” Stewardess Alice Hancock described Cooper as “good-natured” throughout the ordeal.
At the hijacker’s direction, the plane, a Boeing 727, taxied to a remote area of the runway when it landed in Seattle. Authorities brought a bag containing $200,000 in $20 bills (Cooper had not specified what denomination he wanted) and the four parachutes, and the plane was refueled. Cooper released the passengers—who were still unaware of what was happening—and two flight attendants, including Schaffner. Pilot Scott, First Officer Bill Rataczak, Flight Engineer Harold Anderson, and Miss Mucklow remained on the plane.
Cooper then instructed Scott to fly the plane to Mexico City, at an altitude no higher than 10,000 feet, and at the minimum speed possible to keep the plane aloft (about 200 mph). When Scott protested that the plane did not have enough fuel to make it to Mexico, Cooper agreed to have the plane head to Reno. Cooper also insisted that the aft staircase be extended prior to takeoff; the Boeing 727 was one of only two types of jetliners at the time that was outfitted with a rear staircase, which allowed passengers to exit the plane from the rear end, directly onto the runway. Scott objected that this would endanger the integrity of the plane upon takeoff, and though Cooper disagreed, he relented. He seemed to know that the staircase could also be opened during flight.
About fifteen minutes into the trip to Reno, Cooper ordered Miss Mucklow help him lower the aft staircase. When she resisted this command as too dangerous, he ordered her to join the flight crew in the cockpit: “I’ll do it myself.” Observing Cooper through the cockpit’s peephole, Miss Mucklow saw him putting on one of the main and one of the reserve parachutes, and strapping another parachute, into which he had apparently wrapped the ransom money—all twenty pounds of it—around his waist. Cooper then disappeared into the darkness at the back of the plane.
She did not see Cooper jump. No one did—not even the pilots of the two fighter jets that had been scrambled out of McChord Air Force Base and that were tailing the plane. (The jets couldn’t go as slow as the 727 was flying and were compelled continually to circle the plane.) Around 8:00pm, a warning light appeared on the cockpit’s dashboard, indicating that the rear stairs had been lowered, and at 8:13pm, the plane’s tail section lurched upward. If Cooper had indeed jumped at the moment, he had decided to do so into some of the most inhospitable terrain possible—heavily wooded, with two major rivers and a lake, sparsely populated—and in the dark of night, in a rainstorm, and in freezing-cold temperatures.
No one ever saw D.B. Cooper again.
At least, he was never positively identified. Theories as to his true identity abound. One problem in matching Cooper to a suspect is that the FBI sketches present an everyman, a face with no unusual features, and thus many plain-looking, dark-haired men have been said to look like Cooper. Candidates put forward as D.B. Cooper include a purser who worked for Northwest Orient, a petty con man, a (still-living) veteran pilot of the Vietnam War, and a simple grocer who left his family and disappeared shortly before Thanksgiving 1971. Unsurprisingly, there have been several confessions, deathbed and otherwise, by people claiming to have been Cooper, as well as five letters to newspapers, purportedly written by the hijacker.
A few weeks after Cooper’s hijacking, a man named Richard Floyd McCoy successfully commandeered a Boeing 727 and parachuted out of the plane with $500,000 in ransom money. He was soon captured, later broke out of prison, and was gunned down in a shootout with the FBI. Was McCoy a copycat criminal? Or was this Cooper again? McCoy, like so many suspects, bore a resemblance to the FBI sketch of Cooper, but why would Cooper attempt another hijacking so soon after his first?
The answer might have come in 1980, when a young boy and his family found $5,800 of Cooper’s ransom money Money on Tina Bar, a beach on the banks of the Columbia River. Did Cooper lose the money—some or all of it—during his descent? Is the discovery of the money an indication that Cooper did not survive the jump at all? Some experts and law enforcement officials doubt whether a man could survive such a jump, considering the conditions of weather, the clothing he wore, the burden of the large bundle of cash, and the rugged terrain below.
We do not know whether Cooper acted alone. Did he have accomplices on the ground, who were able to whisk him out of the wilderness and away from the gaze of police searchers and the noses of police bloodhounds? The only evidence he left behind on the plane were half-a-pack’s worth of cigarette butts (in an era before DNA testing, and now lost) and his black, clip-on tie, with a mother-of-pearl clip (the tie has been tested and found to have rare metal particles on it, a finding that may or may not indicate that Cooper worked in a specialized electronics or airline industry).
As with all unsolved mysteries, there have been outlandish conspiracy theories about the hijacking. Was the entire episode a test by the FBI or CIA or some other government agency of airline security—an attempt to convince a reluctant airline industry and Congress that stricter security measures were necessary at America’s airports? Was stewardess Tina Mucklow, who became a nun several years after the hijacking, sent to the convent as part of a witness-protection program? Was she perhaps involved with Cooper in the conspiracy?
Such wild speculation isn’t needed to enhance the story of D.B. Cooper, whose legend has grown with time. Though the lead FBI agent at the time of the initial investigation deemed him a “sleazy, rotten criminal,” the popular view of him today is much different. Indeed, his spectacular act is today celebrated in song and story, on websites, and at drinking establishments in the great Northwest every Thanksgiving eve.
D.B. Cooper has become a perfect folk anti-hero: the courageous gentleman-thief who, we would like to believe, by himself committed the perfect crime, outwitting the FBI and the airline industry, at a time before advanced technology and ready identification by the government made such a deed impossible. His story brings with it a pleasant nostalgia for a time when Big Brother didn’t always win. As Terry Lee Goffee sings in the ballad below: “Now I ain’t trying to make a hero of a man who spurned the law, but I bet you one time or another, that thought has hit us all.”
In the end, we really want D.B. Cooper’s identity to remain a mystery. We want him to continue to “get away with it”—such a brave, courteous, refined outlaw from a simpler era deserves better than to be caught by us postmoderns.
This essay first appeared here in November 2017.
For readers interested in learning more about the D.B. Cooper case, the author recommends Geoffrey Gray’s Skyjack! The Hunt for D.B. Cooper.
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The featured image is one of several FBI composite sketches of D. B. Cooper. This image is a work of a Federal Bureau of Investigation employee and thus is in the public domain. It appears here courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. The image of the FBI wanted poster at top is also in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. The animation of airstair deployment from a 727 and used by DB Cooper was created by user Anynobody and is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 Generic and the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported licenses and appears here courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
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