DB Cooper: Has the most baffling hijacking in history been solved?
The bizarre 1971 feat has gone down in aviation and criminal folklore, and spawned countless investigations
It is said DB Cooper lit a cigarette and ordered a bourbon and soda before revealing the bomb in his briefcase with which he threatened to blow up Northwest Orient Airlines Flight 305, en route from Portland to Seattle in the US.
It is November 24 1971 – 47 years ago on Saturday – and Cooper, smartly dressed in a dark suit with a pressed, white shirt, black tie and mother-of-pearl tie pin, is in seat 18C on the Boeing 727.
After alerting a member of the cabin crew to his intentions to hijack the plane, he explained his demands: $200,000 (about R16m in today’s money) in “negotiable American currency”, four parachutes (two primary and two reserve), and a fuel truck standing by in Seattle.
That Cooper hijacked a plane is not so extraordinary – especially in the 1970s when aviation security was nothing compared to today – but what followed is indeed unmatched in travel and criminal folklore.
Bear in mind, this man has never been caught. The case was never solved. The FBI officially called time on the investigation in 2016, prompting a number of amateur investigators, dubbed Cooperites, to take up the cause. And as recently as this month, one man, who wants to remain anonymous, claims to have solved the mystery, though he would not be the first.
So, the pilot phones in Cooper’s demands to Seattle, which are duly agreed to by the authorities. Northwest Orient’s president, Donald Nyrop, authorises the payments and instructs all cabin crew to co-operate fully with Cooper. It is worth noting at this point that DB Cooper is not the man’s real name. He bought his ticket under the name Dan Cooper, but due to a peculiar miscommunication, the media christened him DB Cooper, and DB Cooper he has remained since.
At Seattle, Cooper is handed the 10,000 unmarked $20 bills (the FBI had made a microfilm photograph of each of them) and the parachutes. He rejects military-issue chutes in favour of civilian ones, operated by a ripcord. Once satisfied, Cooper allows all passengers and staff but the pilot and copilot, a flight engineer and flight attendant to leave, and outlines his plan.
If you hadn’t guessed already, Cooper wanted to parachute from the aircraft to escape.
The smartly dressed man, described by flight attendant Tina Mucklow as “rather nice” and “thoughtful and calm”, begins his negotiations with the flight crew. He wants the aircraft to fly southeast towards Mexico City as slow and low as possible without stalling (he says a maximum of 10,000 feet; planes normally cruise at about 36,000 feet). He asks for the landing gear to stay down, the wing flaps to be at 15 degrees and the cabin to remain unpressurised.
After some debate Cooper agrees to change his intended destination to Reno, Nevada, since the flight would not reach Mexico City under such flying conditions. Another sticking point: Cooper wants the rear door left open and the steps lowered, but Northwest says it is not safe to take off with it extended. The hijacker disagrees but acquiesces. He will lower it himself once in the air.
The flight takes off two hours later with the five on board. Two fighter jets follow the 727, one above, one below, so Cooper can’t spot them.
Once in the air, Cooper tells Mucklow to join the crew in the cockpit and remain there with the door closed. At 8pm, 20 minutes into the flight, a warning light on the control panel indicates that the rear steps have been lowered. Shortly afterwards the crew notices a change in the air pressure, suggesting the back door is open. At 8.13pm the aircraft experiences a wobble from the back, forcing the pilots to readjust the plane’s balance. Two hours later yet, the plane lands at Reno Airport. Surrounded by state troopers, sheriff’s deputies and the FBI, the crew disembark but there is no sign of Cooper.
What follows is a manhunt of immense proportions, including door-to-door searches, a replication of the flight, during which FBI officers push out of the aircraft a 90kg sled to simulate Cooper’s jump, and a widespread aerial search. Though the estimated location of Cooper’s jump was thought to be near Lake Merwin, Washington, no trace of him has been found.
The FBI first thought Cooper did not survive the jump. “We originally thought Cooper was an experienced jumper, perhaps even a paratrooper,” said FBI special agent Larry Carr, leader of the investigation from 2006 until its end. “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 trenchcoat. It was simply too risky.”
The only evidence the FBI had was the tie-clip Cooper left on the aircraft, 66 fingerprints and the two parachutes he left on the flight (incidentally, the superior chutes given to him. He had, in fact, taken a dummy reserve chute included in the bargain by mistake).
In 1980 an eight-year-old boy found three packets of the ransom cash in the sandy riverbank of Columbia River, downstream from Vancouver. The FBI confirmed it was Cooper’s money – two packets of 100 bills and a third of 90. No more of the ransom money has been found, despite the serial numbers remaining online for public search.
Though the case was closed by the FBI in 2016, in 2017 the agency agreed to consider “an odd piece of buried foam” believed to be part of Cooper’s parachute. Found in a mound of dirt in the deep Pacific Northwest mountains, it somewhat rekindled the fascination in the case, though we have not heard a whisper from the FBI since.
There is not enough room here to describe the various theories and conspiracies that encircle the mystery, including the most recent, but it seems that Cooper, whoever he is, could still be on the run.
The year after Cooper’s hijacking, 1972, about 15 people attempted to copy Cooper’s scheme. None were successful and all were caught.
– © Telegraph Media Group Limited