The Disappearance Into Thin Air

Robberies aren’t exactly rare occurrences. From commonplace muggings on the street to the elaborate heists depicted in movies, there’s always someone plotting to make money by taking it. But if you truly want to pull off a heist that nets you enough to disappear to a private island, you’ve got to be a little creative.

D.B. Cooper was perhaps the most creative of them all.

In 1971, a man bought a plane ticket from Portland, Oregon, to Seattle, Washington, but soon after the plane took off, he told one of the flight attendants that he had a bomb in his briefcase, and quickly took control of the entire plane.

After hours of holding the passengers and crew hostage and receiving substantial payment from the airline, D.B. Cooper disappeared without a trace – this wouldn’t have been too extraordinary, except that it happened while the plane was still in the air.


Hijacking A Plane

DB CooperIt was the day before Thanksgiving, November 24, 1971.  The man identified himself as Dan Cooper – the “D.B. Cooper” moniker came from a media miscommunication, but unfortunately, that was the name that stuck.

Witnesses described him as a man who looked to be in his mid-forties, wearing a dark business suit and loafers under a lightweight black raincoat. He bought a one-way ticket from Portland to Seattle on Northwest Orient Airlines Flight 305, using cash.

He boarded shortly after, sitting in the rear of the passenger cabin – the exact seat is uncertain and changes between accounts. He lit a cigarette and ordered a bourbon and soda, seeming like just another businessman.

Flight 305 departed on schedule at 2:50pm, Pacific Standard Time. Shortly after the plane was in the air, the man handed a note to the flight attendant who was nearest to him, a woman named Florence Schaffner. She assumed that its contents were merely an unsolicited phone number and dropped it into her purse without opening it. The man leaned toward her and whispered, “Miss, you’d better look at that note. I have a bomb.”

The precise wording of the note has been lost to time, considering that Cooper took it with him during the events that would ensue.  Florence Schaffner recalled that it was printed neatly in all capitals with a felt-tip pen and said that the man had a bomb in his briefcase.

After she read the note, Cooper told her to sit beside him – she did as instructed and asked to see the bomb.

Cooper opened his briefcase long enough to let her see eight red cylinders that were attached to wires and a large cylindrical battery. He closed the briefcase and told Florence his demands: $200,000 in American currency, two primary and two reserve parachutes, and that a fuel truck would be standing by to refuel the aircraft they were currently on when it touched down in Seattle.

Florence took these demands to the pilots in the cockpit and returned to Cooper.

The pilot, a man named William Scott, got into contact with the Seattle-Tacoma Airport’s air traffic control, which then contacted the authorities to tell them what was happening with Flight 305.

The aircraft’s other 36 passengers were told that their flight was merely delayed because of a minor technical difficulty, and the flight was left circling Puget Sound for almost two hours while the Seattle Police Department and the FBI gathered the parachutes and ransom money, paid by Northwest Orient under command of its president at the time, Donald Nyrop.

Initially, military parachutes were procured, but Cooper demanded civilian parachutes with manual ripcords instead, which were obtained from a local skydiving school.


Touchdown In Seattle

At 5:24pm, word was sent up to Cooper that his demands had been met, and at 5:39pm, he allowed the aircraft to land at the Seattle-Tacoma Airport. Cooper instructed the pilot to taxi the jet to a brightly lit, isolated spot on the apron and to close all of the window shades to deter any snipers that the police might have set up.

The parachutes and a knapsack that contained the cash were delivered by Al Lee, the Seattle operations manager of Northwest Orient Airlines. He handed them to a flight attendant named Tina Mucklow via the plane’s aft stairs, but never saw Cooper.

Once this delivery took place, Cooper allowed all of the passengers, Florence Schaffner, and the senior flight attendant, Alice Hancock, to leave the plane. He then outlined a very detailed flight plan to the remaining cockpit crew – he wanted them to take a southeasterly course towards Mexico City, flying at the absolute minimum airspeed that was possible without stalling the craft – approximately 100 knots or 115 mph – at a maximum of 10,000 ft in altitude.

He also had some very specific details about the state of the aircraft, including that the landing gear should be left deployed in the takeoff/landing position and the passenger cabin remain unpressurized.

The co-pilot, William Rataczak, told Cooper that, under his specified flight configuration, the aircraft’s range would be limited to around 1000 miles, which meant that they would have to stop for a second refueling if they wanted to make it to Mexico. Cooper and the crew eventually settled on Reno, Nevada for this stop. Cooper then insisted that the plane take off with the rear exit door open and the staircase extended, despite the airline objecting that it was not safe to do so.


A Thin Air Escape

DB CooperThe flight took off from Seattle-Tacoma Airport at around 7:40pm with only five people still aboard – Cooper, Scott – the pilot, Rataczak – the-co-pilot, Mucklow – the flight attendant who received the ransom, and the flight engineer, H.E. Anderson.

A pair of F-106 fighter aircraft took off from nearby McChord Air Force Base and followed behind the aircraft in such a configuration that Cooper could not see them. Additionally, a Lockheed T-33 trainer was diverted from an unrelated mission being conducted by the Air National Guard and shadowed the jet before having to turn back because it was low on fuel.

In all, five other aircraft were trailing the hijacked plane, but none of them ever reported seeing what would happen next. After takeoff, Cooper told Mucklow to join the rest of the crew in the cockpit and close the door behind her. As she did this, she saw him tying something around his waist, though she wasn’t entirely sure what it was.

At approximately 8pm, a warning light came on in the cockpit to indicate that the aft air stair apparatus had been deployed, and the crew noticed a subjective change in pressure that indicated to them that the aft door had been opened.

At 10:15pm, the aft air stair was still deployed when the planed landed at Reno Airport and was swarmed by FBI agents, State Troopers, and various other authorities. The crew had already reported suspicions that Cooper was no longer on board the jet, and an armed search confirmed that he had disappeared, money in tow.


Hunting D.B. Cooper

Upon investigation, 66 unidentified latent fingerprints were found in various spots aboard the jet. Cooper’s black clip-on tie and tie clip were also recovered, as well as two of the four parachutes he’d requested. One of these was open, and two lines had been cut from the canopy.

Eyewitnesses from Portland, Seattle, and Reno were all interviewed, as well as everyone who had come into personal contact with Cooper. A series of composite sketches were developed, though most of these were painfully generic.

Possible suspects were immediately brought in for questioning; there were more than 800 initially, but all but 24 or so were eliminated from the investigation through various means. A man in Oregon, who was unfortunately named D.B. Cooper, had a minor police record and was one of the first persons of interest in the case. He was contacted mostly on the off-chance that the hijacker had used his real name, or the alias in a previous crime.

Though he was quickly ruled out, a reported named James Long confused his name with the hijacker’s alias due to an imminent deadline. The error was published and repeated across multiple sources, giving way to the moniker that has stuck with the public throughout the years.

People immediately began trying to pinpoint where he could have landed, but this was easier said than done – even the tiniest differences in variable estimates like the aircraft’s speed or the environmental conditions changed the projected landing point significantly. The most important, and least known, variable was how long Cooper remained in a state of free fall before he pulled his ripcord, if he succeeded in opening his parachute at all.

Astonishingly, neither of the Air Force pilots saw anything exit the airliner, he did not show up on radar, and no one saw a parachute opening either. However, considering the limited visibility and night flying conditions, a human figure clad in black, as Cooper was, could have easily remained visually undetected.

An experimental recreation concluded that 8:13pm was the most likely jump time, during which the aircraft had been flying through a heavy rainstorm over the Lewis River, located in southwestern Washington.

Initially, estimates placed his landing zone somewhere around the southern outreach of Mount St. Helens. The search efforts were focused in two counties, Clark County and Cowlitz County, which encompass the terrain surrounding the Lewis River. The FBI and deputies from those counties searched the area, which was mostly mountainous wilderness, on foot and with helicopters.

Local farms were searched as well, in the hopes that the hijacker may have made his way to a barn or stable to hide out for a while. There were other search parties patrolling nearby bodies of water with boats, including Lake Merwin and Yale Lake. Despite all of this and multiple subsequent searches, nothing relevant to the hijacking of Flight 305 was ever found.


Follow The Money

DB CooperAs it became clear that the hijacker had escaped capture, the FBI began attempting to track the money that he was paid. The money had been assembled from several banks in the Seattle area, and consisted of 10,000 unmarked $20 bills. In a clever move that would have helped them catch any other robber, they used microfilm to take a photograph of each individual bill, so that they would be able to match the serial numbers and know for certain that any bills that were recovered later came from the ransom.

Lists of these serial numbers were distributed to various financial institutions, as well as businesses that regularly conducted large cash transactions like casinos and race tracks. Northwest Orient offered a reward of 15% of whatever money was recovered, up to $25,000.

In early 1972, with none of the bills having been recovered, US Attorney General John N. Mitchell released the serial numbers to the public. Later that year, two men swindled $30,000 from a reporter who had been working for Newsweek named Karl Fleming. They counterfeited bills with some of the Cooper serial numbers on them and used them as “proof” that they could put him into contact with the hijacker.

The ransom money was still missing in 1973, so The Oregon Journal republished the serial numbers and offered $1,000 to anyone who could turn in even one of the ransom bills to the newspaper or any FBI field office. The Post-Intelligencer in Seattle made a similar offer, but with a $5,000 reward. These remained until Thanksgiving 1974, but no genuine bills turned up.

To this day, none of the ransom money has ever been recovered. Most theories state that he either lost the ransom during his descent, like what happened with his eventual copycat, Martin McNally, or he buried it somewhere and simply never went back for it.


Legacy and New Developments

In 2007, the FBI announced that they had recovered a partial DNA profile from Cooper’s clip-on-tie, though they later acknowledged that it is impossible to prove that these samples came from the hijacker himself.

They also noted that Cooper had not taken the superior sport parachute that he was provided, instead choosing an older, less reliable chute and a reserve parachute that was a “dummy” that could not be used, even though it had clear markings that would have identified it as such to anyone with skydiving experience. The FBI stressed that the inclusion of this dummy parachute was entirely accidental, but in any case, it is entirely possible that Cooper died shortly after he left the plane.

The most notable result of the D.B. Cooper hijacking is a tightening in airport security. Despite the beginning of the federally mandated Sky Marshal Program the previous year, 1972 brought 31 attempted hijackings to US airspace; 19 of those were Cooper-esque copycats for the purposes of extorting money, with 15 including demands for parachutes.

In early 1973, the FAA began requiring all airlines to search passengers and their bags before boarding. Multiple lawsuits charged that these searches violated a passenger’s protections against search and seizure under the Fourth Amendment, but the federal courts ruled that the searches were acceptable when applied universally and limited to checks for weapons and explosives.

That year, only two hijackings were attempted, both by psychiatric patients.

Additionally, the FAA instituted a mandate that all Boeing 727 aircraft were to be fitted with a device that would later be known as the “Cooper vane”, which prevents lowering of the aft air stair device during flight. Peepholes were also installed in all cockpit doors as a direct result of this event, making it possible for the cockpit crew to observe those in the passenger cabin without having to open the door.

D.B. Cooper would eventually become a symbol of “the last outlaw”, and his bold crime would inspire song, film, and literature for decades to come.

There are still restaurants and bowling alleys in the Pacific Northwest that hold various Cooper-themed promotions and sell tourists souvenirs commemorating the event. The hijacking, or plots that closely resemble it, has appeared in popular television shows like Prison Break and The Blacklist, as well as two films: The Pursuit of D.B. Cooper in1981 and Without a Paddle in 2004.

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