It was the day before Thanksgiving, November 24, 1971. A man in his mid-forties wearing a light raincoat over a dark suit and carrying a briefcase turned up at Portland International Airport in Oregon. Under the alias Dan Cooper, he purchased a one-way ticket on Flight 305, a 30-minute trip to Seattle, Washington and boarded a Boeing 727–100. Sitting in the rear of the passenger cabin, he lit a cigarette and ordered a bourbon and soda.
The plane took off at 2.50pm local time. Cooper passed the stewardess a note. Florence Schaffner was no stranger to messages from lonely male businessmen. She slipped it unopened into her purse. Cooper whispered: “Miss, you’d better look at that note. I have a bomb.” Schaffner opened the note which told her the plane was being hijacked. She asked to see the bomb. Cooper open his briefcase just enough for her to glimpse a number of red cylinders attached to wires and a large battery. Closing the briefcase, Cooper dictated his demands. He wanted $200,000 in unmarked 20-dollar bills and four parachutes – two back packs and two front chutes. Clearly, he was wary of being supplied with sabotaged equipment and wanted the authorities to assume he might force a hostage to jump with him. “When we land,” he told Schaffner, “I want a fuel truck ready to refuel. No funny stuff or I’ll do the job.” Schaffner was then dispatched to convey Cooper’s instructions to the cockpit. This was the start of a real-life mystery that continues to this day.
Having conveyed Cooper’s instructions to the captain, Schaffner returned to her seat. Cooper paid for his drink and told Schaffner to keep the change. He stared out of the window and said, “Looks like Tacoma down there”, leading Schaffner to believe he was a local man. “He wasn’t nervous,” another air hostess told investigators. “He seemed rather nice. He was never cruel or nasty. He was thoughtful and calm all the time.” Meanwhile, the pilot, William Scott, contacted Seattle-Tacoma Airport air traffic control, which in turn informed local and Federal authorities. The 36 passengers were informed that their arrival in Seattle would be delayed due to a “minor mechanical difficulty.” The airline’s president authorised payment of the ransom, and ordered all employees to cooperate fully with the hijacker. The plane circled for two hours while FBI agents got the money from local banks and made a microfilm photograph of each note.
The plane landed at 5.45pm. The airline’s Seattle operations manager brought the money and parachutes on board and the hijacker allowed the passengers, stewardess Schaffner and the senior flight attendant to leave the plane. Cooper rejected the military-issue parachutes and insisted on civilian parachutes with manually-operated ripcords. The police duly obtained them from a local skydiving school. During the refuelling, Cooper issued further instructions. The plane was to head south-east towards Mexico City at minimum possible speed and at no more than 10,000 feet. To make sure of this, he insisted that the landing gear should remain down, the wing flaps should be lowered and the cabin should remain unpressurised. He also stipulated that the rear exit door should be open and the aft staircase left down. When the authorities told him this was unsafe for take-off, he said he would let it down himself. At 7.40pm the plane took off with four crew aboard – pilot, co-pilot, flight attendant and flight engineer. The hijacker told them all to stay in the cockpit with the door closed. Two F-106 fighter aircraft, scrambled from nearby McChord Air Force Base, trailed the airliner out of Cooper’s view, one above it and one below. Twenty minutes later a warning light flashed in the cockpit indicating that the aft staircase apparatus had been activated. At approximately 8:13 pm, something triggered a sudden upward movement of the aircraft’s tail section. At approximately 10:15 pm, the plane landed at Reno Airport, with the aft staircase still deployed. An armed search quickly confirmed that Cooper was gone. He had parachuted from the plane into the wet and freezing cold air above forests of pine, hemlock and spruce.
Local police and FBI agents immediately began questioning suspects. One of the first was an Oregon man with a minor police record named D. B. Cooper. A reporter confused the eliminated suspect’s name with the pseudonym used by the hijacker. The public latched on to the name. A vast man-hunt ensued. There were door-to-door searches, a replication of the flight, during which FBI officers pushed out of the aircraft a 90kg sled to simulate Cooper’s jump, and a widespread aerial search. At first, the FBI did not believe Cooper had survived the jump. “We originally thought Cooper was an experienced jumper, perhaps even a paratrooper,” said FBI special agent Larry Carr. “We concluded after a few years this was simply not true. No experienced parachutist would have jumped in the pitch-black night, in the rain, with a 200 mile-an-hour wind in his face, wearing loafers and a trench coat. It was simply too risky.”
Weeks, months, years went by. The trail went cold. Then, in 1980, on a riverbank off Tena Bar, near Vancouver, Washington, an eight-year-old boy, Brian Ingram, raked the sand to build a campfire and found three packets of the ransom cash. “I got down to use my hand and arm to scoop the sand clear,” Ingram recalled later. “I hit this sort of lump and dug it out. I wasn’t excited at all at first, then I brushed the sand off, and it was money!” FBI technicians confirmed that the money was indeed part of the ransom – two packets of 100 bills each and a third packet of 90, all arranged exactly as given to Cooper. An army hydrologist noted that the bills had disintegrated in a “rounded” fashion, and were matted together, indicating that they had indeed been deposited by river action, as opposed to having been deliberately buried.
The case was closed by the FBI in 2016, but in 2017 the agency agreed to investigate ‘an odd piece of buried foam’ found in a mound of dirt in the deep Pacific Northwest mountains. It was believed to be part of Cooper’s parachute.
The case of DB Cooper remains the only unsolved airline hijacking in American aviation history. Theories abound, suspects come and go (some have even “confessed”), but the hijacker has never been identified. So, did he pull it off? Has Cooper been enjoying the fruits of his crime for the last four decades? Or did he perish during his parachute descent, or on landing? Has the money all been spent? Or is it rotting away somewhere in the thick woods west of Vancouver? It’s possible Cooper had actually landed in the Columbia River, although the FBI dredged the river off Tena Bar after Ingram found the money in 1980. Cooper had cut a piece of cord off one of the parachutes left behind on the plane and he may have used it to strap the money to his waist before he jumped. One theory is the parachute cord broke or came undone as Cooper descended, scattering the money over miles of forest terrain. Will we ever know?