On This Day

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FBI composite sketch of D.B. Cooper

On This Day: D.B. Cooper Hijacks Plane

November 24, 2011 06:00 AM
by Denis Cummings
On Nov. 24, 1971, a man hijacked a Boeing 727 and, after receiving a $200,000 ransom, parachuted out over Washington state. The identity and the whereabouts of the man, who became known as D.B. Cooper, remain unknown.

Man Hijacks Plane and Parachutes Away With $200,000

On the rainy afternoon of Nov. 24, 1971, the day before Thanksgiving, a man calling himself “Dan Cooper” boarded Northwest Airlines Flight 305 in Portland Ore. Wearing a plain suit and dark glasses, Cooper took a seat near the rear of the plane.

A little after 3:00 p.m., as the plane flew toward Seattle, Cooper handed a note to a stewardess that 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.” When she put away the note without reading it, Cooper told her, “Miss. You’d better look at that note. I have a bomb.”

Cooper opened his briefcase, which contained wires and two red sticks that appeared to be dynamite, and demanded $200,000 in $20 bills and four parachutes. The demand was relayed to airline officials and the FBI, which collected the money and parachutes.

The plane arrived at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport at about 5:40 p.m.; Cooper allowed all 36 passengers and two stewardesses to disembark. The FBI handed over a bag full of 10,000 $20 bills, along with the four parachutes.
Cooper demanded the plane be flown to Mexico City at a low altitude and low speed, but when the pilots said there wasn’t enough fuel, Cooper settled for Reno, Nev. He told the crew to leave the rear door unlocked, with the stairwell left down.

Cooper went to the back of the plane and ordered the flight crew to close the curtain dividing first-class and coach. Soon after 8:00 p.m., while the plane was over southwestern Washington, a light in the cockpit indicated a drop in air pressure. It is at this time that Cooper is believed to have opened the rear door and parachuted out with his briefcase and the ransom money.

There were five planes trailing the Northwest flight, but the dark storm clouds made it nearly impossible to spot Cooper. Authorities conducted a four-state manhunt for Cooper, but found no signs of him. “By week's end,” wrote Time, “officers were scratching their heads and wondering where to look next for the dapper, audacious fellow with $200,000 to spend.”

Almost immediately, Cooper became a folk hero. “Folks are actually pulling for this man,” said one Washington resident. “That’s all anybody wants to talk about. I hear it all day long. ‘Hope he made it, he deserves it, hope he gets away with every nickel.’ Like he’s some kind of Robin Hood character.”

Who Was D.B. Cooper?

The real identity of “Dan Cooper,” who due to a miscommunication between a reporter and a police source became known as “D.B. Cooper,” has yet to be determined. The FBI has had several promising leads, but all have turned up dry, and the Cooper case remains the only unsolved airplane hijacking in U.S. history.

The first main suspect was Richard McCoy Jr., who hijacked a plane and parachuted off it just four and a half months after Cooper’s hijacking. Though his crime was nearly identical to Cooper’s, McCoy was dismissed as a suspect because he didn’t match the physical descriptions of Cooper.

In 1980, an 8-year-old boy dug up a dozen packets of $20 bills from the Columbia River bank near Vancouver, Wash. The FBI discovered from the serial numbers that the money was part of Cooper’s original $200,000, leading them to believe that the money and Cooper landed somewhere upstream then drifted down to that spot on the river bank. Despite the breakthrough, the bills remain the only physical evidence to be discovered.

In 1995, Florida man Duane Weber made a deathbed confession to his wife that he was Dan Cooper and that he had buried $173,000 in a bucket. He resembled Cooper, had a criminal past, said he had a bad knee after jumping out of a plane, exclaimed in his sleep that he had left his fingerprints on the aft stairs, and took a vacation to the Columbia River near where the money was discovered. However, the FBI conducted DNA tests and found that Weber did not match Cooper.

A 2007 article in New York magazine put forth former Army paratrooper and Northwest purser Kenneth Christiansen as a suspect. The FBI dismissed him as a suspect because his physical description was not a close enough match to Cooper.

In 2011, the FBI investigated a tip from a woman named Marla Cooper, who believed that her uncle, Lynn Doyle Cooper, was D.B. Cooper. Ms. Cooper told ABC News that L.D. and his brother “were planning something very mischievous” around the time of the hijacking and that L.D. had returned home the day after the hijacking with a bloody shirt. “I heard my uncle say we did it, our money problems are over, we hijacked an airplane,” she said. However, DINA tests were inconclusive.

The FBI’s official stance is that Cooper died during his crime, though its investigation is ongoing. “Diving into the wilderness without a plan, without the right equipment, in such terrible conditions, he probably never even got his chute open,” says Special Agent Larry Carr.

Historical Context: Hijacked planes

During the 1960s and early ’70s, plane hijackings were fairly common, as there was little surveillance of passengers at airports. By the time Cooper hijacked the Northwest flight, the U.S. was already in the process of significantly upgrading security procedures at airports.

In January 1972, two months after the Cooper hijacking, the Federal Aviation Administration ordered tighter screening of passengers and baggage. Following a major hijacking in December 1972, the FAA issued emergency procedures that are “almost identical” to the procedures used over the next several decades, according to the National Materials Advisory Board. In January 1973, metal detectors began to be installed in airports, greatly improving security.

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