The Mystery of DB Cooper

To some, he was just a robber who carried out the US’s only remaining unsolved hijacking. To others, he was a folk hero who beat The Man and got away with it. To all, “DB Cooper” is an American legend.


FBI sketch of “DB Cooper”

On Wednesday, November 24, 1971–the day before Thanksgiving–a well-dressed middle-aged man went to the ticket counter at the airport in Portland OR and bought a one-way ticket to Seattle on Northwest Orient Airlines Flight 305, a Boeing 727 that would make the trip in 30 minutes. He listed his name as “Dan Cooper” (later, the initial press reports would mistakenly give this as “D.B. Cooper”, and this incorrect name is now how he is universally known). There were 36 passengers on the flight. Cooper took a seat in the very last row of the plane, lit up a cigarette, and sipped a bourbon and soda. On his lap was a briefcase.

Shortly after the flight took off, at 2:50pm, Cooper called the stewardess, Florence Shaffner, and then, without a word, handed her a note. Thinking he was just hitting on her, Shaffner went to put the note in her purse unread, when Cooper quietly said, “Miss, you better read that note. I have a bomb.” The note read, “I have a bomb in my briefcase. I will use it if necessary. I want you to sit next to me. You are being hijacked.” As Shaffner took a seat, Cooper opened the briefcase and showed her a group of red cylinders connected by wires to a battery. He then asked her to write out a message to take to the Captain, instructing him to fly the plane to Seattle, where Cooper was to be given $200,000 (about $1.1 million in today’s dollars) and four parachutes, and a truck was to be standing by to refuel the 727.

The plane circled the Seattle area for two hours as, on the ground, airline officials and the FBI gathered $200,000 and the parachutes, and arranged for refueling. Cooper had another bourbon and soda, then paid his $2 bar tab with a $20 bill, telling the stewardess to keep the change. Upon landing, Cooper allowed the other passengers and two of the three flight attendants (including Shaffner) to leave the plane, and after the parachutes and money were delivered to the plane, he ordered the pilot to take off and fly to Mexico City. When the pilot countered that they did not have the range to reach Mexico, Cooper agreed to a stop in Reno, Nevada, for refueling. He then ordered the pilot to take off with the rear stairway down: when the crew objected that it was not safe to do that, Cooper said that he wouldn’t argue with them, he’d put the stairway down himself. As the plane took off at 7:40pm, two F-106 fighter jets were following it at a discreet distance.

Shortly after takeoff, Cooper ordered the remaining flight attendant to go into the cockpit and close the door, sending along specific instructions for the pilot to keep the plane below 10,000 feet, to keep the cabin unpressurized, and to set the flaps at fifteen degrees (giving the lowest speed possible without stalling, about 120mph). Once alone, Cooper put on two of the parachutes, and apparently used the cord from one of the other chutes to strap the money bags around his waist. At around 8pm, twenty minutes after the plane had taken off, the flight crew in the cockpit got an instrument warning indicating that the rear stairway had been deployed, then a change in pressure indicating that the rear door had been opened. The captain used the 727’s intercom to ask Cooper if he needed any help: Cooper replied that he was fine. It was the last anyone ever heard from him. At 8:13pm, there was a sudden upward motion of the tail section (likely caused by the shift in balance as Cooper parachuted out the open door.) When the plane landed at 10:15pm in Reno, Cooper was gone. He had jumped out somewhere over the Cascade Mountains.

Since then, “DB Cooper” has been the subject of legend: books, movies, and songs have been written about him, and he has been the subject of many a barroom debate about his identity and, more especially, whether he successfully made the jump.

The FBI immediately concluded that “DB Cooper” was someone who was familiar with aircraft operations, and perhaps someone who was local to the area. He knew that, unlike most other planes, the 727’s rear stairway could be safely lowered during flight; he also specified the flap settings that he wanted the captain to use to keep the plane at a low speed. At one point, Cooper had looked out the window and remarked, “That looks like Tacoma down there”; at another time, he had noted that the McChord Air Force Base was 20 minutes away from the Sea-Tac Airport. On the other hand, in his ransom demand he had asked for $200,000 in “negotiable American currency”, an unusual phrase which indicated that Cooper may have been a foreigner. Other researchers have noted that “Dan Cooper” is the name of a comic-book hero published in Belgium and available (in French but not English) in Canada, and have speculated that “DB Cooper” was Canadian.

At first, the FBI also thought that the hijacker was probably an experienced parachutist and perhaps even a military paratrooper. But later they concluded that some factors instead indicated that he was not an experienced skydiver: Cooper had picked a reserve chute that was used only for training and was sealed shut, and of the two primary chutes he was given, he had used an older military-style parachute rather than the more capable steerable sporting parachute (on the other hand, the military-style chute was better suited for a high-speed exit from the airplane).

Investigators also quickly concluded that Cooper did not have any help from anyone on the ground. There was thick cloud cover below the airplane at the jump area, and Cooper would not have been able to jump at an exact spot to rendezvous with someone else. He seemed to have instead jumped more or less randomly.

In the aftermath of the hijacking, the FBI made a map of the plane’s flight path, as determined by radar contacts and the reports of the pilot, and searched the area where they thought it most likely for Cooper to have landed–near Lake Merwin–and found nothing. By some reports, even the top-secret SR-71 spy plane was sent to photograph the area, hoping to find a parachute tangled in the top of a tree. Gradually, the search was expanded, but no trace was found of Cooper, the money, or any of his equipment. Later, the flight path was corrected to account for new information about wind speed and direction, and it is now generally accepted that Cooper would probably have landed somewhere in the Washougal River valley. However, investigators noted that Cooper had jumped into a fierce thunderstorm and that he was only wearing a trenchcoat and a business suit in the freezing November weather, with 21 pounds of money strapped to his waist–and concluded that he most likely had not survived the jump.

On the plane itself, Cooper had left behind 66 fingerprints and a black necktie, from which the FBI was able, decades later, to extract three DNA samples–though it was not absolutely certain that the samples belonged to the hijacker.

In 1978, a tantalizing clue was presented when a hunter near Castle Rock WA found a sign in the woods from an airplane, illustrating how to deploy the rear stairs on a Boeing 727. Although this was within the possible flight path, it has not been definitively established that the sign came from Cooper’s plane or that it had anything to do with the hijacking.

The most concrete evidence came in February 1980, when Brian Ingram, an eight year old boy on vacation with his family, was digging in the sand along the Columbia River eight miles outside of Vancouver WA, at a place called Tena Sand Bar, when he uncovered three bundles of old rotted $20 bills held together with rubber bands. The money given to DB Cooper had not been marked, but the FBI had photographed all the bills and recorded the serial numbers–and the numbers on the bills found by Ingram matched those given to Cooper. In all, the bundles contained $5800. It was the only portion from the Cooper money that was ever found.

But the money raised more questions than it answered. The Tena Sand Bar lies outside of the most likely flight path and is some distance away from any likely landing areas. Most current theories postulate that Cooper and the money actually landed somewhere else and that the money was later transported to Tena, either carried there (and perhaps buried) by Cooper (or someone else), or carried there by running water after falling into one of the tributaries (like the Washougal River) further upstream. But there are problems with both hypotheses. The money bundles were rounded at the corners and matted together from water damage, making it unlikely that they were deliberately buried in the sand bar, and were probably carried there by running water. But there was a timing problem: the Tena Bar area was dredged in 1974 and the bills were found in the layer above the dredged debris, indicating it had arrived fairly recently–but the intact rubber bands indicated that it must have arrived there and been buried within a relatively short time of the hijacking. Various theories have been offered: the money was inside a bank bag as it washed down to the river which protected it until the bag rotted away; the money was accidentally dropped by Cooper in the doorway of the plane and fell to the ground at Tena Bar; the money was dragged to the river and buried there by animals, or maybe found elsewhere and buried by some unknown person; the assumed flight path is wrong and the plane actually went over Tena Bar; Cooper lived in the area and buried the money there years after the hijacking. Another unexplained mystery is that while the original 100 bundles given to Cooper each contained 100 $20 bills, one of the three recovered bundles was missing ten bills.

One thing is known for sure; if indeed Cooper survived the jump and got away, he apparently never spent any of the money–none of the remaining bills ever turned up in circulation.

Since 1971, there have been over 1000 people identified by either the FBI or by amateur investigators as “DB Cooper” suspects, and at least a dozen “deathbed confessions”. None of them ever checked out. Today, the FBI still lists the case as “open”.

So, did “DB Cooper” make it? The circumstances of the jump make it unlikely that he survived–a conclusion which is supported by the fact that none of the money ever entered circulation. So the most probable end of the DB Cooper legend is a skeleton lying next to a rotted parachute and a bag of moldy money, somewhere in the rugged woods of the Pacific Northwest.

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Forgotten mysteries, oddities and unknown stories from history, nature and science.