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D. B. Cooper is a media epithet popularly used to refer to an unidentified man who hijacked a Boeing 727 aircraft in the airspace between Portland, Oregon, and Seattle, Washington, on November 24, 1971. He extorted $200,000[1] in ransom and parachuted to an uncertain fate. Despite an extensive manhunt and an ongoing FBI investigation, the perpetrator has never been located or positively identified. The case remains the only unsolved air piracy in American aviation history.[2][3][4]
The suspect purchased his airline ticket under the alias Dan Cooper, but due to a news media miscommunication he became known in popular lore as "D. B. Cooper". Hundreds of leads have been pursued in the ensuing years, but no conclusive evidence has ever surfaced regarding Cooper's true identity or whereabouts. The discovery of a small cache of ransom bills in 1980 triggered renewed interest but ultimately only deepened the mystery, and the great majority of the ransom remains unrecovered. Numerous theories of widely varying plausibility have been proposed by experts, reporters, and amateur enthusiasts.[2][5]
While FBI investigators have insisted from the beginning that Cooper probably did not survive his risky jump,[6] the agency maintains an active case file—which has grown to more than 60 volumes[7]—and continues to solicit creative ideas and new leads 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," suggested Special Agent Larry Carr, leader of the investigation team since 2006. "Or maybe someone just remembers that odd uncle."[6]

The event began mid-afternoon on Thanksgiving eve, November 24, 1971, at Portland International Airport in Portland, Oregon. A man carrying a black attaché case approached the flight counter of Northwest Orient Airlines. He identified himself as "Dan Cooper" and purchased a one-way ticket on Flight 305, a 30-minute trip to Seattle, Washington.[8]
Cooper boarded the aircraft, a Boeing 727–100 (FAA registration N467US), and took seat 18C[2] (18E by one account,[9] 15D by another[10]) in the rear of the passenger cabin. He lit a cigarette and ordered a bourbon and soda. Onboard eyewitnesses recalled a man in his mid-forties, between 5 feet 10 inches (1.78 m) and 6 feet 0 inches (1.83 m) tall. He wore a black lightweight raincoat, loafers, a dark suit, a neatly pressed white collared shirt, a black necktie, and a mother of pearl tie pin.[11]

Flight 305, approximately one-third full, took off on schedule at 2:50 pm, local time (PST). Cooper passed a note to Florence Schaffner, the flight attendant situated nearest to him in a jumpseat attached to the aft stair door.[2] Schaffner, assuming the note contained a lonely businessman's phone number, dropped it unopened into her purse.[12] Cooper leaned toward her and whispered, "Miss, you'd better look at that note. I have a bomb."[13]
The note was printed in neat, all-capital letters with a felt pen. It read, approximately,[note 1] "I have a bomb in my briefcase. I will use it if necessary. I want you to sit next to me. You are being hijacked."[14] Schaffner did as requested, then quietly asked to see the bomb. Cooper cracked open his briefcase long enough for her to glimpse eight red cylinders[15] ("four on top of four") attached to wires coated with red insulation, and a large cylindrical battery.[16] After closing the briefcase, he dictated his demands: $200,000 in "negotiable American currency";[17] four parachutes (two primary and two reserve); and a fuel truck standing by in Seattle to refuel the aircraft upon arrival.[18] Schaffner conveyed Cooper's instructions to the cockpit; when she returned, he was wearing dark sunglasses.[19]
The pilot, William Scott, contacted Seattle-Tacoma Airport air traffic control, which in turn informed local and federal authorities. The 36 other passengers were informed that their arrival in Seattle would be delayed because of a "minor mechanical difficulty".[20] Northwest Orient's president, Donald Nyrop, authorized payment of the ransom and ordered all employees to cooperate fully with the hijacker.[21] The aircraft circledPuget Sound for approximately two hours to allow Seattle police and the FBI time to assemble Cooper's parachutes and ransom money, and to mobilize emergency personnel.[2]
Schaffner 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 mentioned, correctly, that McChord Air Force Base was only a 20-minute drive from Seattle-Tacoma Airport.[22][note 2]Schaffner described him as calm, polite, and well-spoken, not at all consistent with the stereotypes (enraged, hardened criminals or "take-me-to-Cuba" political dissidents) popularly associated with air piracy at the time. Tina Mucklow, another flight attendant, agreed. "He wasn't nervous," she told investigators. "He seemed rather nice. He was never cruel or nasty. He was thoughtful and calm all the time."[22] He ordered a second bourbon and water, paid his drink tab (and insisted Schaffner keep the change),[2] and offered to request meals for the flight crew during the stop in Seattle.[23]
FBI agents assembled the ransom money from several Seattle-area banks—10,000 unmarked 20-dollar bills, many with serial numbers beginning with the letter "L" indicating issuance by the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, most carrying a "Series 1969-C" designation[22]—and made a microfilm photograph of each of them.[24] Cooper rejected the military-issue parachutes initially offered by authorities, demanding instead civilian parachutes with manually operated ripcords. Seattle police obtained them from a localskydiving school.[22]
Passengers released
At 5:24 pm Cooper was informed that his demands had been met, and at 5:39 pm the aircraft landed at Seattle-Tacoma Airport.[25] Cooper instructed Scott to taxi the jet to an isolated, brightly lit section of the tarmac and extinguish lights 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.[26] Once the delivery was completed Cooper permitted all passengers, Schaffner, and senior flight attendant Alice Hancock to leave the plane.[25]
During refueling 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 (190 km/h; 120 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.[27] Copilot William 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.[25] Finally, Cooper directed that the plane 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 himself once they were airborne.[28]
An FAA official requested a face-to-face meeting with Cooper aboard the aircraft, which was denied.[29] The refueling process was delayed due to a vapor lock in the fuel tanker truck's pumping mechanism,[30] and Cooper became suspicious;[2] but he allowed a replacement tanker truck to continue the refueling—and a third after the second ran dry.[25]
Back in the air
At approximately 7:40 pm the 727 took off with only Cooper, pilot Scott, flight attendant Mucklow, copilot Rataczak, and flight engineer H. E. Anderson aboard. Two F-106 fighter aircraft scrambled from nearby McChord Air Force Base followed behind the airliner, one above it and one below, out of Cooper's view A Lockheed T-33 trainer, diverted from an unrelated Air National Guard mission, also shadowed the 727 until it ran low on fuel and turned back near the Oregon-California border.[32]
After takeoff Cooper told Mucklow 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 around his waist. At approximately 8:00 pm a warning light flashed in the cockpit, indicating that the aft airstair apparatus had been activated. The crew's offer of assistance via the aircraft's intercom system was curtly refused.[33] The crew soon noticed a subjective change of air pressure, indicating that the aft door was open.
At approximately 8:13 pm the aircraft's tail section sustained a sudden upward movement, significant enough to require trimming to bring the plane back to level flight.[34] At approximately 10:15 pm Scott and Rataczak landed the 727, 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 that he was gone.[33][35]
Aboard the airliner FBI agents recovered 66 unidentified latent fingerprints,[4] Cooper's black clip-on tie and mother of pearl tie clip, and two of the four parachutes,[36] one of which had been opened and two shroud lines cut from its canopy.[37] Eyewitnesses in Portland, Seattle, and Reno, and all individuals who personally interacted with Cooper were interviewed. A series of composite sketches was developed.[38]
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. His involvement was quickly ruled out; but an inexperienced wire service reporter (Clyde Jabin of UPI by most accounts,[39] Joe Frazier of AP by others[40]), rushing to meet an imminent deadline, confused the eliminated suspect's name with the pseudonym used by the hijacker. The mistake was picked up and repeated by numerous other media sources, and the moniker "D. B. Cooper" became lodged in the public's collective memory.[34]

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 significantly by location and altitude), changed Cooper's projected landing point considerably.[41] An important variable was the length of time he remained in free fall before pulling his rip cord—if indeed he succeeded in opening a parachute at all.[42] 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 human figure clad entirely in black clothing could easily have gone undetected.[43] The T-33 pilots never made visual contact with the 727 at all.[44]
An experimental re-creation was conducted using the same aircraft hijacked by Cooper in the same flight configuration, piloted by Scott. 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 pm. Based on this experiment, it was concluded that 8:13 pm was the most likely jump time.[45] At that moment the aircraft was flying through a heavy rainstorm over the Lewis River in southwestern Washington.[41]
Initial extrapolations placed Cooper's landing 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.[46] Search efforts focused on Clark and Cowlitz Counties, encompassing the terrain immediately south and north, respectively, of the Lewis River in southwest Washington.[47][48] FBI agents and Sheriff's deputies from those counties searched large areas of the mountainous wilderness on foot and by helicopter. Door-to-door questioning and 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.[49] 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 aviation terminology[50] but "Vector 23" in most Cooper literature[2][4][51]) from Seattle to Reno. While numerous broken treetops and several pieces of plastic and other objects that, from the air, resembled parachute canopies were sighted and investigated, nothing relevant to the hijacking was found.[52]
In early 1972, shortly after the spring thaw, teams of FBI agents aided by some 200 Army soldiers from Fort Lewis, along with Air Force personnel, National Guard troops, 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.[53] Electronic Explorations Company, a marine salvage firm, used a submarine to search the 200-foot (61 m) depths of Lake Merwin.[54] Two local women stumbled upon a skeleton in an abandoned structure in Clark County; it was later identified as the remains of a female teenager who had been abducted and murdered several weeks before.[55] Ultimately, the search operation—arguably the most extensive, and intensive, in U.S. history—uncovered no significant material evidence related to the hijacking.

Forty years ago this week, a man known only as D.B. Cooper boarded a flight in Portland, ordered a bourbon and soda, lit a cigarette, handed a note to astewardess announcing a hijacking, and — after a refuelling stop in Seattle where he exchanged 36 hostages for $200,000 and 4 parachutes — leapt out the back of the plane’s open rear stairs somewhere over southwest Washington state, never to be heard from again. It remains the only unsolved hijacking is US History.
Cooper, if his bones aren’t rotting somewhere deep in the forest, may have joined the ranks of those few who have committed perfect crimes. Membership requirements include being really smart, with bonus points for not being an asshole, which D.B. seems to have covered: he asked for 4 parachutes, in order to create the impression that he was jumping along with his 3 remaining hostages, making it impossible for the authorities to sabotage any of them; a flight attendant onboard described him as “rather nice,” and he insisted on tipping when paying for his post-hijacking bourbon. This last point, in particular, gives the story much of its nostalgic glow — in an era where plane hijackings conjure horror, and the allure of air travel is racing towards its well-publicized nadir, there’s something comforting about this story: Wow, you think, even the hijackings were better back then.
The case still is officially open and over 1000 suspects have been considered, but the only physical evidence ever recovered was just under $6000 in cash disintegrating on the banks of a river in 1980, instructions from the plane on how to lower its back stairs 2 years earlier, and a clip-on tie left aboard the aircraft (ruining, unfortunately, the image of a man in a suit and tie freefalling into the black night.) The latest hat to be thrown in the ring, suspect-wise, is Lynn Doyle Cooper (known in his family as L.D.), courtesy of his niece Marla, who went to the FBI earlier this year. Her story, repeated in media outlets everywhere in early August, is that as an 8 year old girl she saw her two uncles – L.D. and brother Dewey — leave to go “turkey hunting” before the hijacking, return bloodied and lacking in explanations, and heard a lot of hushed talk about lost money in the woods. Her uncles, she was told, had done something terrible — L.D. disappeared soon afterwards. Years later her father told her on his deathbed that she has to write a book about L.D.: “Don’t you remember Marla? He hijacked that airplane.”
It’s not an incredibly believable story, and when I spoke with Marla Cooper recently I didn’t hear much that made it any more so, but for the questions I was thinking about it didn’t really matter. Why, I wanted to know, would you turn in a family member who committed a highly illegal act that is punishable as hell, and will probably land your entire extended family on a no fly list forever? “I figured he was probably dead,” she said , “or if he is alive, I doubt they’re going to sentence him.” Regardless, she expressed no concern for sullying the family name. “He could be a legacy to his kids,” she said. “Obviously we’re in a capitalist society, and this is a story that people have obsessed about for 40 years.” She’s right: who wouldn’t want a James Bond type in their extended family, especially if it can be turned into money on the book and talk show circuit? New York writer Geoffrey Gray, who just published Skyjack: The Hunt for D.B. Cooper, dismisses claims like Marla Cooper’s, telling NPR “the story of Cooper really is the story of people coming forward, claiming that they heard a long lost uncle say something” — though I don’t know how much we should blame these people when an FBI agent named Larry Carr suggested in 2007 that the case might be solved by “someone remember[ing] that odd uncle.”
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If you ask me, it’s more like the story of D.B. Cooper is the story of people wanting to believe in something awesome. Part of your brain is telling you no – saying “he leapt out of a plane at 10,000 feet into a storm, and none of the money was ever spent: he’s gotta be dead” – while a more fun part is thinking just how fucking slick it is that he had that second bourbon, and wondering how expensive the suits were that he spent his loot on. You’ll be hard pressed to find negative opinions of D.B. Cooper, which is pretty amazing considering he did, remember, hijack an airplane in order to personally enrich himself. Ms. Cooper sighed when I asked what her uncle L.D. was like: “he was sweet, sweet man,” she said, “harmless.” She disagreed adamantly at my suggestion that he was perhaps a bad, criminal type.
And so can you blame Marla Cooper for believing that her uncle is the famed hijacker? Because after chatting with her for almost an hour I became convinced that she does believe L.D. is D.B., and that, despite the potential money to be made from the story, she is no scam artist. Imagine the scenario: your father is on his deathbed and tells you your uncle is the famous D.B. Cooper hijacker. You’re from the area where it happened, you remember people being weird when it happened, and your uncle L.D. disappears soon afterwards. And you think: your father isn’t an asshole, isn’t making things up to send you on wild goose chases, so even if you don’t believe it you start to wonder why he did. Next thing you know you’re on the phone with the FBI.
I believe D.B. Cooper made it. I believe he was too dashing to be poor, and too interesting to work for his money. I believe he dipped and kissed one of the stewardesses, like that famous LIFE magazine photo at the end of the war, before leaping out the back of that plane. And I believe he spent his remaining years travelling the world over, smiling to himself whenever he told people he was the famous hijacker and they assumed he was joking. Or at least: I want to believe that. But really, I think that 40 years ago a guy was desperate and had what he thought was a good idea, and died somewhere over the Pacific Northwest while no doubt reconsidering it. In any case, drink a toast this Thursday to D.B. Cooper – the savviest hijacker there ever was. Or at least think of him the next time your bags are searched at the airport.

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