Fifty years ago today, 1971-11-24, a man identified as D. B. Cooper highjacked a Boeing 727-100. Sometime that day he disappeared.
A middle-aged man stood at Northwest Orient Airlines’ flight counter at Portland International Airport, identified himself as Dan Cooper and purchased a one-way ticket in cash for a 30-minute trip north to Seattle. After boarding the aircraft he, in all likelihood, sat in seat 18C.
Flight 305, with 36 passengers and a crew of six, departed Portland on schedule at 14:50 PST. Shortly after takeoff, Cooper handed a note to flight attendant Florence Schaffner. Although she initially put it in her purse, Cooper asked her to read it. It mentioned a bomb and directed her to sit beside him, which she did. Cooper showed her the bomb, then demanded $200 000 in “negotiable American currency”, four parachutes (two primary and two reserve), and a fuel truck to stand by in Seattle to refuel the aircraft upon arrival. Schaffner conveyed Cooper’s instructions to the pilots in the cockpit, then returned.
William A. Scott (1920–2001), the captain, contacted Seattle–Tacoma Airport air traffic control, which informed local and federal authorities. The passengers were told that their arrival in Seattle would be delayed because of a minor mechanical difficulty. Northwest Orient’s president, Donald Nyrop, authorized payment of the ransom, and ordered all employees to cooperate fully with the hijacker’s demands. The aircraft circled Puget Sound for about two hours while the parachutes and ransom money were assembled, and emergency personnel mobilized.
FBI agents assembled the ransom money, 10 000 unmarked 20-dollar bills and microfilmed each of them. Cooper rejected military parachutes, and obtained civilian parachutes with manual ripcords.
At 17:39, the aircraft landed at Seattle-Tacoma Airport. The aircraft taxied to an isolated, but brightly lit section of the apron. All window shades in the cabin were closed. Northwest Orient’s Seattle operations manager, Al Lee, delivered a cash-filled knapsack and parachutes to flight attendant Tina Mucklow on the aft stairs. Once on board, Cooper allowed all passengers, Schaffner, and senior flight attendant Alice Hancock to leave the plane.
Cooper’s flight plan involved a southeast course toward Mexico City at the minimum airspeed possible without stalling the aircraft—approximately 100 knots = 185 km/h at a maximum 3 000 m = 10 000-foot altitude, with landing gear remaining in the takeoff/landing position, and wing flaps set at 15 degrees, and the cabin unpressurized. This meant that a second refuelling would be necessary. Cooper and the crew discussed options and agreed on Reno, Nevada, as the refuelling stop.
At about 19:40 the aircraft took off with only Cooper, Scott, Mucklow, first officer William J. Rataczak and flight engineer Harold E. Anderson on board. Two F-106 fighters shadowed the airliner, one above and one below, along with a Lockheed T-33 trainer, for part of the trip.
After takeoff, Cooper asked Mucklow to show him how to open the door to the aft staircase. He then ordered her to join the rest of the crew in the cockpit and remain there with the door closed. At about 20:00, a warning light indicated that the aft airstair had been lowered. At 20:13, the aircraft’s tail moved upward movement, requiring trim to level it. The plane landed at 22:15, at Reno Airport. Cooper was no longer on board.
From my perspective, the most interesting aspect of the case has to do with investigators describing the highjacker as D. B. Cooper, rather than the name he used on his ticket, Dan Cooper. Agents theorized that Cooper took his alias from a popular Belgian comics series of the 1970s featuring the fictional hero Dan Cooper, a Royal Canadian Air Force test pilot in a Belgian comic book/ graphic novel series, who participants in numerous heroic adventures, including parachuting. These comics were never translated into English, nor imported to the U.S. Thus, there are suggestions that Cooper was Canadian. In particular, the phrase “negotiable American currency”, aroused attention, because it would seldom be used by Americans.
On 1980-02-10, Brian Ingram (ca. 1972 – ) uncovered $5 800 of the ransom from the Columbia River bank at Tina/ Tena Bar, about 14 km downstream from Vancouver, Washington. This is the only money from the highjacking that has ever been recovered.
There have been any number of suspects. Only one will be mentioned. In an article by Jake Rossen, writing in Mental Floss, in 2016, he suggests that D. B. Cooper may have been Barbara Dayton (1926 – 2002), who, before gender-reassignment surgery in 1969, was born Bobby. For the high-jacking she had disguised herself as a man. Pat and Ron Formans’ book, The Legend of D. B. Cooper (2008) gives a more detailed version.
There are any number of sources of information about D. B. Coooper, including a Wikipedia article that has provided much of the information here.