The Unsolved Mystery of Hijacker D.B. Cooper Continues to Baffle Investigators

The Unsolved Mystery of Hijacker D.B. Cooper Continues to Baffle Investigators

Patrick Lynch - April 22, 2017

At the time of writing, the robbery on board the Boeing 727 flight bound for Seattle, Washington on November 24, 1971, remains the only unsolved case of ‘air piracy’ in the history of commercial airlines. The daring robbery was carried out by a man who used the alias Dan Cooper to purchase his ticket. A simple case of media miscommunication resulted in the hijacker becoming known as D.B. Cooper. Although evidence suggests the man did not survive his leap from the plane, the FBI refused to close the case for 45 years.

The Unsolved Mystery of Hijacker D.B. Cooper Continues to Baffle Investigators
Flight 727. Tacoma Weekly

The Robbery

The story begins on November 24, 1971, on board a Northwest Orient Airlines flight from Portland, Oregon to Seattle, Washington. A man in his mid-40s named Dan Cooper purchased a ticket and paid cash. He was dressed like an executive in a suit, white shirt, and black tie. Cooper had ordered a bourbon and soda before the flight took off and once the plane was in the air (shortly after 3 pm), he gave the stewardess a note.

She probably assumed that it was yet another case of a lonely businessman giving her his number. Therefore, she dropped it into her purse without opening it. Cooper apparently leaned over and told her to look at the note because he had a bomb. He reclaimed the note, so we don’t know the exact wording. However, the stewardess said the note warned that Cooper had a bomb in his briefcase and wanted her to sit beside him. Cooper opened the case to allow her to glance at the contents. She said it contained eight red cylinders attached to wires and a battery.

Cooper shut the case and issued his demands: $200,000 in $20 bills, four parachutes (two reserves and two primaries) and a fuel truck ready and waiting in Seattle to refuel the plane. Once the flight landed at its destination, Cooper released the 36 passengers in exchange for the money and parachutes. The plane was refueled and took off again; all that remained were the cabin crew, the pilot team, and Cooper.

He ordered the plane to fly to Mexico City, but after 8 pm, when the plane was somewhere between Seattle and Reno, he decided to leap out of the plane with the money. The exact location of his jump is a mystery because he managed to do it when no one was looking. The airplane’s staff found two parachutes and Cooper’s clip-on tie on his seat.

Clearly, Cooper knew that he would be arrested the moment he landed in Mexico so decided that a daring jump was the only option. Later, the crew said that Cooper was nothing like the stereotypical loud, angry and potentially violent air pirates of the age. They said he was nice, polite and not nervous at all. Cooper even ordered a second bourbon and soda, paid his drink tab and tried to tip the stewardess. His whereabouts after his leap remain a mystery despite a huge manhunt immediately after the hijack.

The Unsolved Mystery of Hijacker D.B. Cooper Continues to Baffle Investigators
Remains of the money found by Ingram –

Failed Investigation

FBI agents found 66 latent fingerprints on the plane at the beginning of their investigation. They questioned an Oregon man named D.B. Cooper in the forlorn hope that the hijacker was foolish enough to use his real name. A local reporter confused the man’s name with the pseudonym used by the hijacker. Various media outlets published the missing thief’s name as D.B. Cooper instead of Dan Cooper, and it stuck in the public’s memory.

The police and FBI interviewed those who interacted with the hijacker and created a composite sketch from their descriptions. After questioning other people and following hundreds of leads, the frustrated FBI ran into a brick wall. There is even some doubt as to where he jumped out of the plane. Initially, it was believed that Cooper left the plane a few miles away from Ariel, Washington near Mount St. Helens. Search parties focused on Cowlitz and Clark Counties and Yale Lake and Lake Merwin. Later, it was suggested that Cooper might have jumped out over the Washougal River.

Did Cooper Survive?

Whether Cooper survived to enjoy his notoriety is open to debate. Skydivers say a first-timer would almost certainly have died whereas someone with experience could definitely have made a safe landing. However, we have no idea if he had skydiving experience although he probably didn’t since he selected the worst of the two primary parachutes while the reserve unit he chose wasn’t even functional. Even if he survived the jump, the extremely cold weather might have killed him if he landed miles from civilization.

However, the crew said that Cooper appeared to know the terrain so why would he jump out of the plane in a dangerous location unless he knew what he was doing? The plane was not set to land for a couple more hours, so he had time to choose a better landing spot.

New evidence that came to light in 1980 suggests Cooper might have perished after all. Brian Ingram was digging a fire pit at Tena Bar when he found three bundles of cash with the elastic on them. The serial numbers matched the money given to Cooper, and there was a total of $5,800. The FBI dredged the river in the area but found nothing. The rest of the money was never recovered.

In 1978, deer hunters found the information placard from the rear staircase of the hijacked flight; along with the $5,800 and the tie, it remains the only piece of evidence available from the case. A parachute was found near Amboy, Washington in 2008 but it was dated to World War II.

Who Was D.B. Cooper?

It’s likely the answer to this question will remain a mystery forever. The flight attendants said he was around 5 feet 10 inches tall and weighed between 170 and 180 pounds. He was in his mid-40s and had close-set brown eyes. In other words, he was a pretty generic hijacker with little in the way of distinguishing features.

The FBI processed approximately 1,000 people as ‘serious suspects’ including Jack Coffelt, Ted Mayfield, Robert Rackshaw and Richard Floyd McCoy Jr. There is little evidence that ties anyone to the crime, and the most likely scenario is that Cooper worked in a 9-5 job that required him to wear a suit. He chose a four-day weekend to commit the crime with the expectation that he could be back at work without being missed.

Cooper knew a lot of things that the average person did not; that the plane’s aft airstairs could be lowered during flight, the appropriate flap setting of 15 degrees and how to control the airspeed and altitude of the plane without going into the cockpit. The hijacking was meticulously planned, but the FBI believes Cooper probably died jumping from the plane.

He was not an experienced skydiver otherwise he would not have jumped in the dark wearing loafers and a trench coat with a 200mph wind in his face. Cooper chose the wrong parachutes and leaped into a wind chill of -70 degrees Fahrenheit; he also jumped into the history books. On July 8, 2016, the FBI announced that it was suspending its investigation; if Cooper is still alive, he will never be caught.

Some Sources For Further Reading:

Google News – Parachute Finds Stirs Interest in Legend

King5 – Scientist Uncovers New, Minuscule Clues On DB Cooper Ransom Money Found In Washington

Coin World – D.B. Cooper Skyjacking: Boy, 8, Unearths Ransom Notes

Northwest Public Broadcast – Yet Another D.B. Cooper Theory: He Survived And Landed In … Cle Elum?

History – Were These Taunting Letters Really from D.B. Cooper, the Mysterious 1971 Hijacker?

Hollywood Reporter – Has the Mystery of Skyjacker D.B. Cooper Finally Been Solved

Google News – D.B. Cooper’s Identity Revealed

Oklahoman – D.B. Cooper Was Con Man Self-Proclaimed Hijacker Lost Money During Jump?

ABC News – FBI Uncovers a Possible New Suspect in D.B. Cooper Hijacking