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The Enduring Mystery of D.B. Cooper

For a generation of kids who came to understand a variety of cultural references (The ShiningCape FearThe Godfather, etc.) through media like The Simpsons, D.B. Cooper has come to be understood through any number of throwaway mentions of his name—either from Kid Rock song lyrics, as a plot device on NewsRadio, or even as a sight gag on the animated sitcom We Bare Bears. And there’s a good reason why: the lore surrounding the plane hijacker who came to be known as D.B. Cooper is unmatched in its scope. From his fateful flight to his inexplicable disappearance and all the theories that popped up afterward, the tale of D.B. Cooper is one of the most fascinating and enduring mysteries of the 20th century.

DB CooperShutterstock

From Portland to Seattle

So, to the uninitiated, who is D.B. Cooper? Well, we don’t actually know. The media granted that name to the mystery man (a misspelling of the name he initially went by) and we have almost no information about him. All we really know is what happened on the night before Thanksgiving, 1971. A man who identified himself as Dan Cooper bought a one-way ticket at Portland Airport for the short flight to Seattle on Northwest Orient Airlines Flight 305. Mr. Cooper boarded the flight, sat down, lit a cigarette, and ordered a bourbon and soda—ahh, those were the days. When the plane was in flight, he handed a note to one of the flight attendants, who assumed he was making a pass at her. It all could’ve gone wrong just then—she pocketed the note without reading it—but the passenger then whispered to her, “Miss, you’d better look at that note. I have a bomb.”

She read the note, which instructed her to sit down beside him. He showed her the bomb he was carrying, in a briefcase, and she informed the pilot of the man’s demands. He wanted $200,000, four parachutes, and a fuel truck waiting in Seattle to refuel the plane they were on. The pilot relayed this information to air traffic control, who alerted the authorities, but the passengers were just told that there were mechanical difficulties behind any delays. On the ground, authorities worked quickly to secure the money and parachutes. In the meantime, the crew remarked that Cooper was exceedingly polite, and even attempted to pay for and tip on the two bourbon and sodas he’d drank. When authorities had Cooper’s demanded supplies ready, the aircraft landed and Cooper released all passengers and two flight attendants.

DB CooperShutterstock

The Detour and the Disappearance

Cooper informed the crew of their next destination, Mexico City, and gave them specific instructions on how to fly. The crew told Cooper that they wouldn’t make it all the way to Mexico City even with a full tank, so a second refueling stop in Reno, Nevada was planned. After refueling, the plane took off from SeaTac Airport with Cooper and four crew members aboard. As they flew, no fewer than five planes tailed them. Despite this extensive tail, no one was able to see what happened next.

About half an hour after takeoff, Cooper asked the entire flight crew to congregate in the cockpit. At some point in the next two hours, Cooper opened the aft airstair door and dove from the plane. The crew knew the door was open, but were unsure if Cooper had used it; they remained in the cockpit when they landed in Reno while authorities searched the plane for Cooper. He was, of course, nowhere to be found.

DB CooperShutterstock

An Investigation Begins

No one knew when Cooper had jumped from the plane, or when he’d pulled the ripcord on his parachute, and neither of the Air Force pilots tailing the hijacked plane had seen the jump, so it was a Herculean task for authorities to attempt to pinpoint an area to search for the polite fugitive. Different agencies came up with different calculations, but ultimately, the FBI settled on a jump time of 8:13 PM based on a simulation they’d done, and the fact that the tail of the plane had jumped up at that point in the flight—likely from the sudden loss of Cooper’s weight. At 8:13 PM the plane had been flying over a river in southwestern Washington, but searches turned up nothing. Later interviews with the pilot determined that spot was wrong, and that the drop zone was likely SSE from where they had searched.

The FBI also worked to trace the money that Cooper stole, as they’d taken records of the serial numbers before delivering it. Rewards were offered for any bills featuring the numbers, but no real claims were made. The only legitimate evidence boiled down to just a few clues: a physical description of Cooper from the flight attendants (tall, average build, in his mid-40s); a discarded placard found in 1978 that was most likely from the plane; and finally, a significant discovery that was actually made by an eight-year-old nearly a decade after Cooper’s disappearance.

DB CooperWikimedia Commons
FBI Sketch of D.B. Cooper

Digging for Treasure

The little boy, named Brian Ingram, found three packets of Cooper’s cash buried in the sand on the banks of the Columbia River. It totaled $5,880, and ended up being split between the FBI, the insurer who’d paid out the airline’s claim, and Ingram himself. While there have been some recent discoveries that have been claimed to be physical evidence from Cooper’s jump, none of it has been verified as of yet. The FBI has partial DNA from Cooper’s clip-on tie, but there’s no evidence that it necessarily came from Cooper. The same tie was analyzed by an independent team, who concluded that Cooper may have worked as a chemist or metallurgist.

The original and subsequent FBI profiles of Cooper varied—either he was a highly trained skydiver, or a bungling amateur who must’ve never successfully made the jump; he was alternately in it for the money or simply a thrill-seeker; he was a sophisticated and experienced criminal who’d studied the Lindbergh kidnapping, or, a polite Canadian. In the end, between 1971 and 2016, the FBI went through over 1,000 possible suspects—and those were just the ones they found plausible, not to mention those who claimed to be Cooper but were proven to be lying. Then, of course, there was the rash of copycat hijackings that followed—15 alone in 1972, the year after Cooper’s disappearance.

DB CooperShutterstock

The hijacking of Flight 305, the mysterious vanishing of its perpetrator, and the sporadic discovery of evidence ever since, has led to enduring interest in the case. It’s become a veritable 20th-century legend, and had been referenced across a variety of media—most frequently as a plot device on crime shows like Prison BreakThe 4400, and The Blacklist. It’s even drawn tourism to the area where Cooper supposedly landed after he jumped. The case remains the only unsolved case of air piracy in history, and Cooper has become a sort of folk hero. The FBI officially suspended their investigation in 2016, and if the suspect was in his mid-40s in 1971, he’d be 92 today. Although independent groups of scholars and amateurs alike attempt to parse the case and uncover new evidence, it’s probable that D.B. Cooper passed on long ago, and we’ll likely never really know his true identity. Still, that doesn’t make the case any less fascinating, and it’s safe to say that the brief flight and mysterious disappearance of D.B. Cooper will remain a part of American legend for years to come.

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