D. B. Cooper: The Unsolved Mystery of the Aeroplane Hijacking | History Hit

D. B. Cooper: The Unsolved Mystery of the Aeroplane Hijacking

Composite Sketch A - Nov 1971
Image Credit: Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

On 24 November 1971, a middle-aged, accent-less, suit-wearing white man going by the name Dan Cooper boarded a plane from Portland, Oregon for Seattle, Washington. During the flight, and supposedly armed with a bomb, he handed a ransom note to an air hostess, demanding $200,000 in $20 notes and four parachutes. The airline followed his demands. Hours later, he jumped out of the plane, money in hand, and was never seen again.

The resultant manhunt made international news. Theories abounded about Cooper’s real identity, and it was widely debated whether he could have survived such a perilous jump. Some leads looked promising, but came to nothing. In 1980, the surprise discovery of a wedge of $20 notes from the ransom money renewed interest in the case. However, though thousands of suspects were identified, the case was ultimately suspended in 2016 with no definitive leads. Today, the case is legendary and oft-debated amongst true crime aficionados, and was even the subject of a Netflix show entitled DB Cooper – Where Are You?

Here’s a breakdown of the fascinating case.

Cooper was largely inconspicuous

At around 4pm on 24 November 1971, a man calling himself Dan Cooper bought a one-way ticket from Portland to Seattle for $20. In addition to the pilot, first officer, flight engineer and two flight attendants, the fight carried 36 passengers. Accent-less, of athletic build, middle aged and wearing a dark suit and tie, Cooper drew little attention to himself.

Shortly into the flight, Cooper handed an air hostess called Florence Schaffner a note, which she placed into her pocket without reading, since it was common for men travelling alone to give air hostesses their phone number or hotel room number.

The aircraft involved in the hijacking in 1979 while in service with Piedmont Airlines

Image Credit: RuthAS, CC BY 3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

He claimed to be carrying a bomb

However, the next time she passed, Cooper motioned for her to come closer and told her to read it, warning her that he had a bomb. Schaffer and the rest of the crew read the handwritten note, which contained Cooper’s demands that he be given $200,000 in cash and two sets of parachutes upon arrival at Seattle-Tacome airport. He warned that if they tried any ‘funny business’, he would blow up the plane. Schaffner returned to Cooper’s chair, at which point he showed her what looked like dynamite and lots of wires in his bag.

Shortly after, the pilot announced that the plane would circle before landing because of a mechanical problem. All the while, the other passengers on the plane had no idea that anything untoward was happening.

It proved difficult to get the parachutes

Cooper wanted the $200,000 to be in $20 bills because that would come to 21 pounds in weight, which wouldn’t cause as much of an issue as smaller, heavier bills when it came to his skydive. He specified that he wanted bills with random serial numbers; FBI agents gave him random numbers but made sure that all began with the code letter L.

He demanded civilian, rather than military parachutes. They proved difficult to find; however, eventually a skydiving school sold four parachutes to police in Seattle. Officials considered giving him a dummy parachute, but relented since Cooper had asked for extra, meaning they feared he was going to take a passenger with him.

At 5.24pm, the plane landed, the cabin lights dimmed and no vehicles approached. Cooper specified that the person who brought the parachutes and money come unaccompanied. Upon receiving the money and parachutes, Cooper released the 36 passengers.

He demanded the plane go to Mexico City

Though Cooper demanded that the plane travel to Mexico City, the pilot explained there wasn’t enough fuel to travel that distance, so they’d have to stop in Reno, Nevada, to refuel. Cooper agreed, and the plane set off at a low altitude and airspeed, which was specified by Cooper. Cooper also specified that the cabin be depressurised so that there wouldn’t be a violent gust of wind when the aft stairs were lowered mid-flight for his jump.

Cooper ordered the flight attendant and crew to stay in the cockpit. They had no idea what Cooper was doing in the cabin, save the red light turning on at 8pm as a warning that the door was open. The pilot asked whether there was anything he could do for Cooper: he replied angrily with ‘No!’ which was the last that anyone heard from him.

When the jet landed at 10.15pm in Reno, the cabin was empty: Cooper along with the money and all of his belongings was gone, as was the second parachute.

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It was never clear whether Cooper survived the jump

Though the police attempted to follow the plane in fighter jets and wait for Cooper to jump, the fighter jets they used proved to be too fast for the slow speed that Cooper demanded the commercial plane travel at. Poor weather meant that the police couldn’t search the grounds until the next day.

For several weeks afterwards, a police search failed to turn up any trace of Cooper, the parachute or the money. They set up charges for air piracy in 1976, which still stand today.

Authorities landed upon a suspect, a man from Oregon named D. B. Cooper. Though they quickly eliminated him as a suspect, a member of the press accidentally thought that D. B. Cooper was the name quoted by the hijacker, and it caught on.

Some of the money was discovered by an 8-year-old

In February 1980, an 8-year-old found bundles of $20 bills with matching serial numbers bundled in a stash in the Columbia River. This sparked a new search in the area. However, an eruption of Mr. St. Helens in May of the same year likely destroyed any remaining clues.

Portion of Brian Ingram’s 1980 discovery

Image Credit: FBI, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

In the years since, more than 1,000 suspects have been investigated or even confessed to being Dan Cooper; however, investigations have turned up nothing new, even with fingerprints discovered from the hijacked plane which are thought to possibly belong to Cooper.

Of the suspects, some have been serious and thoroughly investigated by the FBI, while others, such as easily disprovable deathbed confessions, have been more trivial.

One of the most compelling theories is that D. B. Cooper is in fact Robert Rackstraw, a former US Army paratrooper who was discharged from the army after serving in Vietnam. It’s thought that his being discharged from the army might have provided him with the motivation to commit the crime. However, along with other potential suspects, the FBI never definitively connected him with the case.

In July 2016, the FBI officially closed the case. Today, most investigators speculate that Cooper wouldn’t have survived the jump, in spite of the fact that his knowledge of the plane and weather systems means that it is theorised he was a professional skydiver. The weather conditions combined with Cooper jumping in a business suit into the freezing wilderness make it unlikely he survived.

Despite 45 years of tips and theories from across the world, the true identity of one of America’s most famous escaped criminals remains a mystery.

Lucy Davidson

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