40 years after D.B. Cooper's brazen hijacking and later skydiving leap out of a Boeing 727-100 over the wilderness of the Northwestern US, the mystery of what happened to him still captivates the American public. Did he survive his jump into the dark forest, slip by the search teams, and blend back into civilization? Or did he die in his risky leap of faith and his body just hasn't been discovered yet? As the case heads for its 50th anniversary, many still wonder if D.B. Cooper is alive or if the case is still relevant and worth chasing.
It all started on the cold and dank afternoon of November 24th, 1971. That's when a man dressed in a business suit and carrying a briefcase approached the Northwest Orient ticket counter at Portland International Airport and bought one-way ticket to Seattle-Tacoma Airport. The man gave his name as Dan Cooper but through a later news story mix-up, his name was tweaked to be D.B. Cooper. He was assigned seat 18-C in the very back of the coach section of Flight 305 departing at 2:50 PM. No one paid much attention to the man as he boarded the flight – he was dressed like any other business traveler heading home for the Thanksgiving weekend. Once on board, he settled into his seat, smoked a few cigarettes and even ordering a drink – a bourbon.
Credit: Andy Rogers / Seattle Post-IntelligencerIt wasn't until they were airborne that Cooper brought attention to himself. That's when he handed one of the flight attendants, Flo Schaffner, a note. Thinking that it was one of many indiscrete propositions she received weekly, Shaffner dropped the note into her pocket and continued on with her duties. It wasn't until Cooper flagged her down and told her that she "better read that note. I have a bomb." that she finally read the note and realized the trouble they were in.
Though Cooper demanded the return of the note, the flight attendant and crew remembered many details about it, including that it was written in neat block letters with a felt tip pen and plainly informed the crew that he had a bomb and was hijacking the plane. His demands were precise and simple: $200,000 in non-sequential $20 bills, two sets of parachutes to be delivered to the plane when it landed in Seattle, and a fuel tanker to refuel the plane for takeoff. If these demands were not met, he would blow up the plane with all 37 passengers and 5 crewmen onboard.
Shaffner quickly informed the flight crew, who immediately called Sea-Tac air traffic control. The local police and FBI were immediately notified, who began to fulfill the hijacker's demands. The plane circled the Sea-Tac area for two hours while the cash and parachutes were gathered. The FBI quickly photographed each and every $20 bill so the serial numbers could be later pulled for tracking purposes. Though the bills were random, as requested, the FBI did make sure each serial number began with the code letter L and were dated 1969 to make tracking easier.
Parachutes were another matter in itself. The local Air Force Base was more than willing to provide military-issues parachutes but Cooper shot down that idea. He wanted civilian chutes with user-operated ripcords. After many calls, Seattle police finally located a skydiving school with the correct chutes available.
While the chaos ensued on the ground, the attitude on Flight 305 was calm. The passengers did not know about the emergency and their long delay was blamed on a "minor mechanical difficulty" that required the plane to circle the airport. It helped that DB Cooper stayed calm, whispering his demands to the authorities on the ground through the flight attendants, all the while drinking another glass of bourbon and making comments about the passing landmarks.
It was 5:24 PM when the ground team radioed to the plane with a simple message, "Everything is ready for your arrival." Captain Scott landed the plane at Sea-Tac Airport a mere 15 minutes later. Cooper ordered the captain to taxi to a remote, well-lit portion of the tarmac and to kill the inside lights to deter any possibility of a sniper attack. He then demanded that one person, a Northwest employee, Al Lee, approach the plane with the money and chutes. As the employee approached with the items, Cooper ordered the captain to lower the rear stairs and asked a flight attendant to retrieve the packages.
Once he was sure his demands had been met completely, Cooper then allowed the passengers and Flo Schaffner to disembarking, leaving only the three members of the flight crew and a flight attendant on board.
While the plane was being refueled, the hijacker began to outline his flight plan with the crew across the plane's intercom. He wanted them to head south towards Mexico City going at minimal air speed (around 100 knots), with the landing gear down, and the wing flaps at 15 degrees. The co-pilot, William Rataszak, informed him that between his specific flight requirements and the distance, they would require at least one refueling. After much debate, they decided on a stop in Reno, Nevada. This information was passed on to the ground, which hurriedly planned an intercept when the plane came in for refueling.
It was almost 7:40 PM by the time the plane was refueled and ready to take off again. As it took to the air, two F-106 fighters and a Lockheed T-33 trainer were being scrambled to follow the plane covertly. Once they were airborne, Cooper asked the one remaining flight attendant to join the rest of the crew in the cockpit and stay there with the door closed.
Around 8 PM, a warning light came on in the cockpit, noting Credit: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/a/a4/727db.gif/220px-727db.gifthat the aft airstairs had been opened. When the captain called back on the intercom, asking, "Is there anything we can do for you?", he is curtly told no. That was the last the crew heard from DB Cooper. Approximately ten minutes later, there was a sudden upward movement of the plane, significant enough to require the pilot to correct the plane's trim to keep the flight in the air.
When the plane landed at Reno Airport two hours later, they were met by a swarm of FBI agents, state troopers, and local police. The plane was thoroughly searched but neither DB Cooper nor the money was found onboard.
It was later surmised that Cooper jumped from the plane's aft airstairs around 8:13, when the crew felt the "sudden upward movement" of the plane. Officials scrambled to track the plane's course. Most of the plane's trip took it across undeveloped forested land filled with thick trees and brush. Police, FBI, and the Air Force wondered if Cooper could even survived such a leap into the wilderness dressed as he was with no helmet or survival gear.
When officials checked with the Air Force's planes that had been trailing the 727-100, they were disappointed to find that no one had seen anything leap or fall from the airplane.
The FBI immediately questioned the flight crew and quickly developed a sketch which they sent out to local newspapers and stations. A reward was soon added to the fliers, spurring on the search. Though thousands of tips and leads came in, nothing pCredit: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/b/bb/Dbc.jpg/220px-Dbc.jpganned out. It was as if the moment DB Cooper jumped from that plane, he fell off the earth.
Where is DB Cooper now today? Is his body lying dead and undiscovered somewhere in the Washington or Oregon wilderness? Is he lying on some beach somewhere, enjoying the fruits of his labor? Or maybe he's the old man living next door to you or your family, just waiting for the day that the great mystery Flight 305 and DB Cooper finally falls off of the American radar? Who know…