On November 24, 1971, a man using the alias “DB Cooper” hijacked Northwest Orient Airlines Flight 305, a Boeing 727 airplane, in American airspace. The hijacker boarded an aircraft from Portland, Oregon, to Seattle, Washington, demanded $200,000 in ransom (equivalent to $1,338,000 in 2021), and asked for four parachutes before landing in Seattle.
Passengers were released in Seattle, and the hijacker gave orders to refuel in Reno, Nevada, before continuing to Mexico City. About thirty minutes after leaving Seattle, the hijacker opened the rear door, dropped the stairway, and parachuted into the darkness over southern Washington. Unfortunately, the hijacker was never identified, captured, or located.
Some of the ransom money was discovered in 1980 in Columbia River. Finding new money piqued the public’s interest in the mystery, but no leads were found to reveal the hijacker’s name or whereabouts, and the rest of the sum was lost forever. The hijacker gave his name as Dan Cooper. However, he was misidentified as “D. B. Cooper” by the media.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) continued its investigation. It amassed a large case file for 45 years after the hijacking, but they could not determine who was responsible for the crime. This incident has been the only known example of air piracy that has never been solved.
The FBI has reason to believe Cooper did not make it through his jump for several reasons: the stormy weather on the night of the hijacking; Cooper’s lack of proper skydiving equipment; his drop zone being a heavily wooded area; Cooper’s apparent lack of detailed knowledge of his landing area; and the disappearance of the remaining ransom money, suggesting it was never spent.
Although the FBI formally concluded its investigation into the NORJAK (Northwest hijacking) case in July 2016, media, fans, professional detectives, and amateur sleuths have continued to follow various hypotheses about Cooper’s identity, success, and ultimate fate.
Cooper’s hijacking and numerous others prompted swift and significant changes to the commercial aviation industry and increased airport security the following year. Passengers who purchased their tickets in cash on the day of departure were randomly picked for further screening in addition to the existing metal detectors and required luggage inspections.
The Cooper Vane, named after its inventor, was installed on 727s as a retrofit to stop the aft staircase from lowering while the plane was in the air. In the years after their implementation, new security measures had a significant impact, reducing the frequency with which airplanes were hijacked for financial gain by 1973. But if the story were this simple, the legend of DB Cooper would’ve faded into obscurity a long time ago.
Who is DB Cooper, and What Did He Do?
In the early evening of November 24, 1971, a man carrying a black attaché bag walked up to the Northwest Orient Airlines desk at Portland International Airport. He paid cash for a one-way ticket on Northwest Airlines Flight 305, which would take him thirty minutes north to “Sea-Tac” (Seattle–Tacoma International Airport).
The man’s name on the ticket was “Dan Cooper.” Cooper was a Caucasian guy in his forties, according to witnesses.
He had dark hair and brown eyes and wore a black or brown business suit with a white shirt, a thin black tie, a black raincoat, and brown shoes. Cooper boarded Boeing 727-100 Flight 305 with a briefcase and a brown paper bag in tow (FAA registration N467US). He settled onto the middle seat of the last row and requested a bourbon and 7-Up.
Flight 305, with its six-member crew and thirty-seven passengers, took off from Portland at 2:50 p.m. PST, just on time.
Cooper, seated in the jump seat right behind him, passed a message to flight attendant Florence Schaffner shortly after takeoff. Schaffner tossed the paper into her handbag without examining it, assuming it was the phone number of a lonely businessman. Cooper came in closer and said in a low voice, “You should read that message, miss. I have a weapon.”
Schaffner opened the note. Cooper had written, “Miss—I have a bomb in my briefcase and want you to sit beside me” in clean, all-capital letters using a felt-tip pen. Schaffner gave Cooper the note, sat down as instructed, and asked to examine the bomb in a low voice. When Cooper opened his bag, Schaffner saw what she took to be two rows of four red cylinders. An enormous cylindrical battery was connected to the cylinders using a wire.
With the briefcase shut, Cooper presented Schaffner with his requests. Schaffner jotted Cooper’s requests on paper, took the message to the cockpit, and briefed the pilots. Captain Scott instructed Schaffner to stay in the cockpit for the trip and document what happened.
Scott subsequently contacted Northwest Flight Operations in Minnesota and communicated the hijacker’s demands to them “By 5 pm today, [Cooper] has to have $200,000 in cash in a backpack. He requests four parachutes, two in the front and two in the rear. He requests US dollars, which may be exchanged for goods and services.”
Tina Mucklow, a flight attendant, sat next to Cooper when pilot William Schaffner was in the cockpit; she acted as a conduit between Cooper and the pilots. Cooper added other requirements, such as having the fuel trucks meet the jet upon arrival in Seattle and having everyone stay seated while Mucklow carried the cash on board.
Cooper promised that the passengers would be freed once he had the ransom. The four parachutes would be the last to be loaded into the ship.
Air traffic control (ATC) at Seattle-Tacoma Airport was alerted by Captain William A. Scott, and they, in turn, notified law enforcement and the FBI. Due to a “small technical glitch,” the flight crew informed the passengers that they would be late getting into Seattle. The president of Northwest Orient, Donald Nyrop, approved the ransom payment and instructed all staff to comply with the hijacker’s demands.
Flight 305 circled Puget Sound for close to two hours, allowing Seattle police and the FBI enough time to prepare ransom money and parachutes for Cooper and to organize rescue services.
Cooper and the flight attendant, Mucklow, stayed side by side the whole time they were in the air between Portland and Seattle.
According to Mucklow, Cooper’s observation as the plane went over Tacoma proved that he was acquainted with the area. Cooper also said accurately that McChord Air Force Base was approximately a twenty-minute drive from Seattle-Tacoma Airport. Mucklow elaborated on the hijacker’s personality: “[Cooper] did not feel any anxiety.
“He wasn’t mean or unkind and gave out a good vibe,” Mucklow questioned Cooper about why he chose Northwest Airlines as they flew over Seattle. Cooper answered, “It’s not because I have a grudge against your airlines; it’s simply because I have a grudge.”
After Cooper inquired about Mucklow’s origins, Mucklow revealed that she had just relocated to Minneapolis from her native Pennsylvania.
Cooper replied that he thought Minnesota was an attractive state. Mucklow followed up by asking Cooper where he was from, but Cooper grew angry and refused to respond. Cooper then made Mucklow an offer she couldn’t refuse: a cigarette, after asking whether she smoked.
Mucklow denied smoking but took Cooper’s cigarette anyhow.
According to a report from the FBI Files, Cooper had a short conversation with an anonymous passenger while the aircraft was in a holding pattern above Seattle. Passenger George Labissoniere told FBI investigators that he used the lavatory behind Cooper many times.
Labissoniere said a passenger with a cowboy hat blocked his way back to his seat after he used the bathroom and asked Mucklow about the plane’s purported technical problems.
Labissoniere claims that Cooper laughed at first but then became agitated and instructed the guy to return to his seat; nevertheless, “the cowboy” disregarded Cooper and persisted in questioning Mucklow. Labissoniere said he talked “the cowboy” back to his seat.
Mucklow and Labissoniere gave somewhat different accounts of the exchange. Mucklow said that a passenger had approached her and wanted to borrow a sports magazine because he was bored. Mucklow and the passenger walked around to the back of the shop, where they scoured the racks for magazines.
The traveler returned to his seat with a copy of The New Yorker. Mucklow returned to the couch where he and Cooper had been and stated, “If that’s a Sky Marshal, I don’t want any more of it.” Cooper had a short encounter with “the cowboy,” but the FBI never interrogated or recognized him.
The FBI collected the ransom at several Seattle area banks. The FBI took pictures of $10,000 in unmarked $20 notes on microfilm; most of the bills had serial numbers that began with “L,” suggesting that the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco issued them.
Rather than accepting the military-issue parachutes given by the staff at McChord AFB, Cooper insisted on using four private parachutes equipped with manual ripcords. The Seattle Police Department enlisted the help of a local skydiving school and a stunt pilot to get four parachutes, two for the front (reserve) and two for the rear (primary).
They were told that the parachutes had been delivered to the airport at 5:24 a.m. PST, and Captain Scott informed Cooper that they would be landing shortly. Flight 305 arrived at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport at 5:46 a.m. PST.
Scott requested and received permission to land the plane on a dimly lighted runway distant from the terminal. Cooper insisted that the airline send only one agent with the parachutes and cash, and passengers enter and depart only via the plane’s front door using the movable air steps. While passengers remained seated, ground staff members secured the movable staircase.
Mucklow complied with Cooper’s order and recovered the ransom money after stepping off the plane via the front door. Mucklow reappeared with the money bag and walked through the people to where Cooper was sitting in the back row.
Then, Cooper finally consented to let the travelers go.
Cooper checked the cash as the last passengers got off the plane. Mucklow jokingly requested Cooper for a portion of the funds to defuse the tense situation. Cooper quickly consented and gave Mucklow a wad of cash, but Mucklow promptly returned them and said that collecting gratuities was against company policy.
Mucklow said Cooper had previously attempted to tip her and the other two flight attendants with his own money, but they had all rejected it, citing the company policy.
After all the passengers had disembarked, Cooper and the flight’s six crew members were left in control of the plane.
The parachutes were in the back of the plane, and Mucklow made three excursions outside to get them at Cooper’s request.
While Mucklow loaded the parachutes, Schaffner politely asked Cooper if she could get her handbag from the storage space behind his seat. To which Schaffner responded, “I won’t bite you,” Cooper agreed.
Cooper then said, “Whatever you gals would want,” in response to flight attendant Alice Hancock’s request for the flight attendants to go. Hancock and Schaffner got off the plane. Mucklow handed Cooper written instructions for utilizing the parachutes when she delivered him the last parachute, but Cooper said he didn’t need them.
Due to a holdup in the refueling procedure, a second and a third truck were sent to the plane to finish the job.
Mucklow said that during the wait, Cooper protested because the money had been brought in a cloth bag rather than a backpack, so he had to create a new manner to carry it.
Cooper used his pocketknife to sever the parachute’s canopy from one of the backups, then slipped some cash into the empty container.
Cooper refused to meet with the FAA official face to face on the plane despite the official’s invitation to do so.
As he waited, Cooper became irritated, saying, “This shouldn’t take so long” and “Let’s get this show on the road.” Cooper then briefed the pilots on his flight plan, which called for heading southeast into Mexico City at a maximum altitude of 10,000 feet (3,000 meters) and a minimum velocity of roughly 100 knots (185 km/h; 115 mph).
Cooper also instructed that the cabin pressure be kept at sea level, the landing gear left in the up position, and the wing flaps dropped by 15 degrees.
Cooper’s flying arrangement had reduced the plane’s range to about 1,000 miles (1,600 km). Therefore, First Officer William J. Rataczak advised him that another refueling would be required before approaching Mexico. Cooper and the rest of the crew weighed their alternatives and settled on a pit stop at Reno-Tahoe International Airport to refuel.
Cooper also instructed the pilot to take off with the aircraft’s rear departure door open and airstair extended. The home office for Northwest raised concerns, saying it was risky to leave the rear stairwell open during takeoff.
Although Cooper argued that the method was risk-free since “it can be done, do it,” he ultimately conceded and stated he would lower the stairs once they were flying. Cooper insisted that Mucklow stays on board to help with the operation.
Airborne once more
Cooper, Mucklow, Captain Scott, First Officer Rataczak, and Flight Engineer Harold E. Anderson took off on Flight 305 at 7:40 p.m. A Lockheed T-33 trainer, diverted from an unrelated Air National Guard assignment, and two F-106 fighters from McChord Air Force Base trailed the 727. The three planes flew in a tight “S” formation to keep hidden from Cooper’s sight behind the 727’s sluggish forward momentum.
Cooper ordered Mucklow to lower the aft staircase after takeoff. Mucklow expressed her concern to Cooper and the rest of the flying crew that she may be swept out of the plane. The pilots and copilot advised Mucklow to go to the cockpit to get an emergency rope and secure herself to a seat. Cooper said no, and added that he didn’t want Mucklow or the rest of the flight crew back in the cabin.
Mucklow kept telling Cooper about her worries, and eventually, she requested him to make a safety rope for her out of the parachute cord. Cooper then informed Mucklow that he would be lowering the steps himself, directed Mucklow to go to the cockpit, shut the curtain dividing the Coach and First-Class areas, and urged her not to return.
Mucklow pleaded with Cooper, “Please, please take the bomb with you,” as she went.
Cooper said he would either defuse the device or take it. Cooper was standing in the aisle, strapping what looked like the money bag around his waist, while Mucklow moved to the cockpit and turned to shut the curtain barrier. Only four or five minutes had passed after liftoff before Mucklow made her way into the cockpit. Mucklow stayed in the pilot seat for the journey to Reno. Mucklow saw the hijacker for the last time.
Around 8:00 p.m., a cockpit caution light flashed, signaling that the rear stairwell had been opened. The pilot had asked Cooper over the cabin intercom if he needed help, but Cooper had responded with a simple “No” in his last message. As the air pressure in the cabin decreased due to the open aft door, the crew members felt a popping sensation in their ears.
At 8:13 p.m., the tail part of the aircraft unexpectedly pitched upward, requiring the pilots to trim and bring the plane back to a level trajectory. Bill Rataczak, the plane’s co-pilot, told federal agents that the plane’s steep upward pitch happened in the suburbs north of Portland.
The flight crew had stayed in the cockpit with the rear cabin door open, and the stairs extended, but they were beginning to wonder whether Cooper had made it out. Mucklow radioed the cabin to let Cooper know they were getting close to Reno and to raise the steps so they could land safely. As the plane came in for its final approach to the runway, Mucklow reiterated her appeals to the hijacker, but neither she nor the flight crew heard anything from him.
Flight 305 landed in Reno, Nevada, at 11:02 p.m. with the rear stairwell still up.
Fearing that the hijacker and the explosives were still on board, the FBI, state troopers, sheriff’s deputies, and Reno police set up a cordon around the jet. After 30 minutes of searching, an FBI bomb squad certified that the cabin was secure after Captain Scott had checked on it and established that Cooper had left.
In addition to 66 latent fingerprints found on the airplane, FBI officials also located Cooper’s black clip-on tie, tie clip, and two of the four parachutes, one of which had been opened and had two shroud lines cut from the canopy. FBI agents in Portland, Seattle, and Reno conducted witness interviews and created composite drawings.
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The Hunt for DB Cooper
The FBI and local law enforcement officials started interrogating leads right away.
Portland police found and interrogated a local man named D. B. Cooper after receiving information that the hijacker may have previously used his actual name (or the same alias) in a crime. Police in Portland soon ruled out Cooper, who had a minor record.
Reporter James Long was under pressure to fulfill a deadline and made the mistake of identifying Portland Cooper as the hijacker’s alias. Clyde Jabin, a reporter for United Press International, repeated Long’s error in print. After the name was reported in many news outlets, the alias “D. B. Cooper” was widely used to refer to the hijacker.
Cooper uses the back airstair to exit the 727 while in flight. The gravity-operated device held its position until the plane touched down.
Because of all the many factors and features, pinpointing the exact search region proved challenging. The jet’s estimated velocity changed, and the flight path’s environment differed depending on the plane’s position and altitude. Only Cooper knew how long he was in free fall until he pulled his ripcord.
Nobody was seen leaping from the plane, and the Air Force F-106 pilots’ radar didn’t pick up a falling parachute. Furthermore, given the restricted sight, cloud cover, and absence of ground illumination, a person dressed in black leaping into the moonless night would be impossible to notice. Nobody from the T-33 saw the 727.
To help track down the goods Cooper took with him during his jump, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover gave the green light on December 6, 1971, for an Air Force SR-71 Blackbird to retrace and photograph Flight 305’s flight path.
The SR-71 made five efforts to photograph the path taken by Flight 305, but the weather was too cloudy.
By pushing a 200-pound (91 kg) sled out of the open airstair, FBI agents were able to replicate the upward motion of the tail section and quick change in cabin pressure described by the flight crew at 8:13 p.m. during an experimental re-creation of the hijacking using the same aircraft used in the hijacking in the same flight configuration.
At first, it seemed likely that Cooper had touched down in the vicinity of Lake Merwin, an artificial lake created by a dam on the Lewis River a few miles southeast of Ariel, Washington, on the southernmost extension of Mount St. Helens. Clark and Cowlitz counties, located south and north of the Lewis River in southwestern Washington, respectively, were the primary focus of the search operations.
Large swaths of the densely forested terrain were searched on foot and by helicopter by FBI agents and sheriff’s officers. Local farmhouses were also searched individually. On the east side of Lake Merwin is the reservoir Yale Lake, where other search groups operated patrol boats. Cooper and the gear he was thought to have with him were not located.
The FBI arranged an aerial search from Seattle to Reno using fixed-wing aircraft and the Oregon Army National Guard helicopters. The flight route was known as Victor 23 in U.S. aviation terminology but “Vector 23” in most Cooper literature.
Nothing related to the hijacking was discovered, even though several broken trees, other plastic pieces, and other materials resembling parachute canopies were seen and studied.
In early 1972, when the snow finally melted, the FBI dispatched teams to thoroughly search Clark and Cowlitz counties on the ground for another eighteen days in March and another eighteen days in April with the help of some 200 United States Army soldiers from Fort Lewis, as well as United States Air Force personnel, National Guardsmen, and civilian volunteers.
Marine salvage company Electronic Explorations Company, using a submersible, explored the bottom 200 feet (61 meters) of Lake Merwin.
Two ladies in Clark County, Washington, discovered a skeleton in a derelict building; the body was eventually recognized as that of Barbara Ann Derry, a youngster who had been kidnapped and killed a few weeks before.
Extensive search and recovery efforts revealed no substantial proof of the hijacking.
Based on computer calculations made for the FBI, Cooper’s first drop zone was predicted to be between Aerial Dam in the north and the town of Battle Ground in Washington in the south.
After a collaborative investigation with Northwest Orient Airlines and the Air Force, the FBI realized in March 1972 that their initial estimates were wrong and that Cooper had most likely jumped over the hamlet of La Center, Washington.
Northwest Airlines provided the FBI with a calculated drop zone, and in 2019 they issued a report suggesting that around three hours after Cooper jumped, a burglary was recorded at a small grocery store near Heisson, Washington, an unincorporated settlement inside the drop zone.
The FBI said the intruder only took survival gear, including beef jerky and gloves.
The Fate of DB Cooper
The FBI had doubts about Cooper’s survival prospects from the start of their inquiry and assumed he had not made it through the fall. The FBI cited several factors and arguments in support of their conclusion, including Cooper’s lack of apparent skydiving experience, unfamiliarity with parachutes, improper equipment for his jump and survival, the stormy night of the hijacking, the wooded terrain into which Cooper jumped, Cooper’s lack of knowledge of his landing area, and the unused ransom money.
To begin with, Cooper seemed to need more background or expertise to pull off the kind of skydive he tried. Carr, a special agent, added that the FBI first assumed Cooper was a seasoned jumper, maybe even a paratrooper. “After some time had passed, we concluded that this was false. No professional skydiver would have risked jumping in the pouring rain with 172 mph (77 m/s) winds while wearing loafers and a trench coat in the pitch dark of night. Simply put, the stakes were too high.”
Skydiving instructor Earl Cossey provided the parachutes Cooper requested, who testified that Cooper did not require much expertise to survive the leap and that “… anybody who had six or seven practice flights could achieve this.” Nevertheless, Cossey also emphasized that the danger of injury was much raised while leaping at night and that Cooper likely had serious ankle issues upon landing without jump boots.
The second issue is that Cooper did not seem to be prepared for either the leap or for surviving in the bush. Cooper did not have a helmet, nor did he ask for one. Without suitable protection from the intense wind chill, he jumped into a 15°F (9°C) wind at 10,000 feet (3,000 m) in November above Washington State.
Cooper’s paper bag measured 4 inches by 12 inches by 14 inches (about 10 centimeters by 30 centimeters by 36 centimeters), and its contents are unknown. However, since Cooper did not use the bag’s contents in any way during the hijacking, the FBI believes it contained boots, gloves, and goggles for his jump.
To top it all off, Cooper didn’t seem to have anybody waiting for him on the ground to assist him in getting away. Cooper did not provide the flight crew with a planned flight route, which would have necessitated a perfectly timed leap and the participation of all members of the flight crew. In addition, the flight crew suggested—and Cooper consented to—changing the flight route and flying from Seattle to Reno for refueling.
Cooper had no method of keeping an accomplice abreast of his altered intentions. Cooper’s ability to locate himself, establish a bearing, and see his landing zone was further hampered by the dense cloud cover and the inability to see the ground.
In the end, it was discovered that the retrieved part of the ransom still needed to be spent.
Since the weather was so bad, Carr speculated that the diver never even managed to release his chute after plunging into the unknown wilderness unprepared. FBI agent Richard Tosaw hypothesized that Cooper suffered from hypothermia after his leap, fell into the Columbia River, and perished.
Even among FBI personnel, opinions on what happened to Cooper were mixed. An unnamed senior FBI agent offered insight in a Seattle Times piece from 1976: “Cooper, I believe you made it. He probably spent the night in his bed. The night was starry and bright. Considering how vast the nation is, he could have easily left. Just down the street from here. No one was even trying to find him there. He wasn’t where they believed he was. Perhaps a short trip down the street would take us there.”
Cooper’s death cannot be confirmed at this time.
Five men tried to replicate the Cooper hijacking in the months after it occurred, and all five managed to escape by parachute.
FBI’s lead case agent Ralph Himmelsbach had to rethink his initial assumptions about Cooper’s survival prospects after hearing about the success of the copycats, some of whom encountered situations and conditions comparable to Cooper’s leap. Himmelsbach listed Martin McNally, Frederick Hahneman, and Richard LaPoint as three hijackers who, like Cooper, survived jumps under comparable circumstances.
The hijacker, Martin McNally, parachuted without any safety equipment at night over Indiana while using his reserve chute.
While Cooper seemed to be comfortable with parachutes, McNally needed instructions before he could use his own. McNally’s pilot also cranked up the speed to 320 knots, almost twice as fast as Flight 305 was going when Cooper made his leap. McNally jumped violently as the wind picked up, and the money bag was ripped from him, but he landed with minor scrapes and bruises.
Frederick Hahneman, then 49 years old, from Pennsylvania, hijacked a 727 and landed safely in the Honduran forest that night.
Richard LaPoint, the third imitator, stole a 727 in Nevada. LaPoint, clad just in pants, a shirt, and cowboy boots, leaped into the biting January air of northern Colorado and landed in the snow. Himmelsbach revealed in 2008 that he had given Cooper a 50% chance of life, but he had since changed his mind.
By 1976, the majority of published legal studies had concluded that the approaching expiry of the statute of limitations for prosecution of the hijacker would make little difference: Cooper might lose his legal immunity on any number of arguable technical reasons, given the statute’s meaning changes from case to case and from court to court.
A Portland grand jury in absentia delivered an indictment for air piracy and violation of the Hobbs Act in November 1976 against “John Doe, a.k.a. Dan Cooper. If the hijacker is ever found, the indictment will allow the prosecution to resume from where it left off.”
Now, read in detail about the Unbelievable Story of a Man With Two Faces, and the Story of How the Ego of a Captain Destroyed the City of Halifax and claimed Nearly 1800 Lives!
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