A Primer on the D. B. Cooper Mystery

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In 1971, a mysterious man wearing a suit boarded a flight from Portland to Seattle, ordered some drinks, hijacked the plane, negotiated a ransom, refueled the plane, took off again and parachuted out into the void of infinite forests of the Pacific Northwest with a suitcase full of money. Who was he?

What We Know

The D. B. Cooper mystery is a real rabbit hole of interesting details. There are details about the details that can be discussed ad infinitum (the amount and type of rare metals found on things he touched, for example). However, we are going to summarize the key story here. The avid reader will find a plethora of reading material out there in the expansive annals of armchair speculation.

On a flight from Portland to Seattle on November 24, 1971, an attractive man wearing a suit and smoking on the back of the 727 ordered a bourbon and soda. He was wearing a black raincoat, a dark suit with a white shirt, a black tie, and a pearl tie pin. All of the other passengers had been offered to sit up front but the man, whose ticket was issued to Dan Cooper, was sitting in the back. One other person was sitting in the back, a sophomore from the University of Oregon.

As the flight progressed, Cooper handed the flight attendant, Florence Schaffner, a note after she had sat down to make small talk with him. Schaffner pocketed the note, apparently because she both thought he had given her his phone number and wanted to retain said phone number. At that point, Cooper says “Miss, you’d better look at that note. I have a bomb.” Schaffner read the note but it was later given back to Cooper and she could not read the exact details but that the general idea was he had a bomb in a briefcase. He then asked her to sit with him. She asked to see the bomb and he opened the briefcase enough for her to see two rows of four red cylinders connected with wires to a battery.

He then shut the briefcase and told her his demands. He wanted $200,000 in “negotiable American currency” (which apparently sounded as weird in the 1970s as it does to our ears today), four parachutes and a fuel truck waiting at the airport to fill the plane back up.

After Schaffner relayed the demands to the crew and returned, Cooper was wearing sunglasses, leading to the infamous FBI sketch we know today.

FBI Wanted Poster of D. B. Cooper

The crew told the passengers that there was a mechanical issue with the plane and for two hours, they circled over Puget Sound while Cooper negotiated with the FBI over his demands.

During this time, Cooper made small talk with the flight attendants and made a few curious comments that are important to the story. At one point, he looked down and said “Looks like Tacoma down there”. He also commented that McChord Air Force Base was only 20 minutes from the Tacoma airport. Both of these comments would shape the rest of the investigation and may already have your gears cranking.

After a series of further negotiations on the ground and a slight refueling problem, Cooper told the crew to take off and fly to Mexico city as slow as possible, at a low altitude, with the landing gear down and the rear airstairs open. The pilot told him that, following that plan, there would definitely not be enough fuel to make it anywhere near there and Cooper and he decided they would refuel in Reno. The pilot also told Cooper that the rear airstairs could not be down when the plane takes off. Cooper argued that the plane can take off with the rear airstairs open but, rather than argue, he would open it later.

Example of airstairs on a 727 at the time.

At that point, the Air Force had dispatched fighter jets and they were following the plane. In total, there were five aircraft following the 727. The plane was only going right above 100 miles per hour and had only been flying for about half an hour when the airstairs were activated. Just prior to closing themselves off in the cabin, one crew member saw Cooper tying something around his waist. Later, it would be discovered that he had used one of the primary parachutes for its straps, probably for that purpose. In fact, he chose to use as his primary chute the more manual of the two options he had. At this point, Cooper presumably jumped out of the plane somewhere near Lake Merwin or South of Ariel, Washington. However, not a single person witnessed the jump.

Evidence

We know that Cooper left behind some of his clothing, including the black tie. Later, fingerprints and some DNA were lifted from the clothing. These fingerprints and DNA have not yet matched any living person but the DNA were partial matches to begin with, meaning the samples were not perfect.

Tie worn by Cooper which was used for fingerprint and DNA evidence.

The authorities released the full list of serial numbers that were on the bills. They also offered a reward, as did a number of other organizations, for anyone who could produce a single bill that had found its way into circulation. So far, nobody has successfully found a single bill in circulation.

In 1980, a boy named Brian Ingram was playing on a beach on the Columbia River, near Vancouver, Washington and found three stacks of money which totaled to $5,800, all badly eroded, buried in the sand. The money was confirmed to have been part of the ransom money paid to Cooper. The bills were still wrapped in rubber bands and were in the exact same order as when given to Cooper.

What We Think We Know

We know his name was probably not Dan Cooper, and with even more certainty, was not D. B. Cooper. A journalist tracked down a D. B. Cooper which seemed to fit the background of someone who could pull off the hijacking but that person was quickly ruled out. However, the journalist confused the names and released the name in an article as D. B. Cooper, which is how it came to be the way it is today.

Cooper’s knowledge of the plane and his specific instructions for flying it, including the exact angle of the flaps, seems to indicate he was very educated about flight. This led the FBI to focus on people with military backgrounds or people working in aviation.

The Pacific Northwest is profoundly remote and difficult to search.

Traces of titanium and other metals were found on the tie. This seems to indicate that Cooper was probably working in advanced manufacturing somewhere. However, there were many possible factories where he could have been exposed to such metals in the area and the evidence was circumstantial at best.

The money that was found had been eroded in a rounded way, with the corners being rounded off pretty heavily. Based on this, most people believe Cooper did not bury the money in the sand but it rather came down from upstream in one of the many tributaries.

Some of the money found by Brian Ingram.

In 1978,instructions for lowering the rear airstairs of a 727 was found by a deer hunter on a logging road near Castle Rock, Washington. This is well north of the primary search location but it is not out of the realm of possibility considering the stormy conditions on the night of the event.

In 2017, some amateur investigators found the remnants of a parachute strap in the area, as well as a piece of foam. It is suspected that they could be related to the case but it has not been confirmed.

What We Do Not Know

Despite intense efforts to re-enact the jump and the path of the plane, the area in which Cooper could have jumped out of the plane is vast. The entire region is covered in thick Northwest forests which are about as remote as you could get in the continental US. The area has been narrowed and widened tremendously and there is almost no consensus about where he could have jumped out exactly.

In 2009, someone realized that Dan Cooper was also the name of an obscure French language comic about a Canadian pilot who parachutes out of planes and even took ransom money in a backpack. The comic was in print from 1957 to 2010 and somehow escaped public attention nearly the entire time. The circulation of the comic was really centered in France, Belgium and French speaking Canada. Based on this, some people have speculated that Cooper must have at least seen the comic and could have either been in the military in Europe or could have been French Canadian.

Cooper did use the strange phrase “negotiable American currency”, which is not something you would expect to hear and could indicate that English was not his primary language. However, all witnesses said that the man did not have a discernible accent, indicating he may have grown up outside of Quebec, where French speakers in Canada are much less likely to have an accent.

The back and forth with the pilot about where the refuel is bizarre, since Cooper seemed to have planned on jumping out as soon as possible regardless. He must have known that the crew would notice the change in cabin pressure and would realize, due to the parachute request, that he had jumped out.

What We Know We Do Not Know

D. B. Cooper became a folk hero in a way that perhaps no other person since the cowboy bandits of the 19th century has been able to match. In the months and years following the case, there were numerous copycat attempts.

Richard Floyd McCoy, Jr

The most famous of these was Richard Floyd McCoy, Jr. who pulled off a nearly identical hijacking in 1972 from the San Francisco airport and jumped out into the desert near Provo, Utah. He was caught with handwriting analysis, put in prison and escaped with another inmate by ramming through the fence of the prison with a garbage truck. He was then killed in a shootout in Virginia Beach. The FBI focused heavily on McCoy but largely ruled him out as a suspect because he did not match the physical description of Cooper.

Due to the extensive time the crew spent with Cooper, his physical appearance has been used to rule out various suspects, some of whom have even confessed to being Cooper on their deathbeds.

Most importantly, we do not know if Cooper even survived the jump. The conditions were horrific with heavy rain and wind. Anyone who has ever seen Twilight can attest to the fact that jumping out into the endless sea of fir trees, in the dark, with a parachute has a very low chance of success. The money that was found had washed down the river and seems to indicate that it was not inside the bag he had used to carry it. More importantly, the media attention surrounding the case was so extreme that people did report finding money with serial numbers within a digit or two from Cooper’s bills. This seems to indicate that, had a bill showed up in circulation, it would almost certainly have been found at some point.

In 1980, Mount Saint Helens erupted and covered much of the area in volcanic ash. It is possible that any surviving evidence was destroyed or buried as a result of that event and that we may never know the actual identity of D. B. Cooper. In all likelihood, Cooper will recede into the past like Billy the Kid and become just another legend of the American West.

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