July 31, 2022

DB Cooper // 122// The hijacking // Part 1

DB Cooper // 122// The hijacking // Part 1

On the afternoon of November 24th, 1971, a man that called himself Dan Cooper approached the counter of Northwest Orient Airlines in Portland, Oregon. He was wearing a business suit and raincoat and was holding a briefcase. He paid $20 for his one-way ticket in cash, and it was flight #305 for Seattle, Washington on a Boeing 727. After boarding the plane, he handed the stewardess a note and told her he had a bomb. He demanded 4 parachutes and $200k and released most of the passengers but kept some of the pilots and some crew members. He jumped from the plane and the only evidence left behind was 8 cigarette butts, a hair on the headrest and a clip-on necktie. The FBI has closed this case and it's up to the citizen sleuths to solve the mystery of the hijacking.




Between May 1961 and the end of 1972, there were 159 aircraft hijackings in the United States. This time period is referred to as the golden age of airline hijacking. The majority of the hijackings were between 68 and 72, so this is a 5 year stretch, and they were sometimes happening about once per week. Brendan Koerner wrote a book called The Skies Belong to Us and he said, “You could have multiple hijackings in the same day. It was not an infrequent occurrence.” Shortly after the Cuban Revolution in 1959, hijackers began demanding that pilots of captured planes fly to Cuba. The hijackers believed that they would be welcomed as revolutionary heroes, escape punishment from the US, and receive protection from Fidel Castro. Once the hijacking was over, Fidel Castro would offer to sell the planes back to the airlines. This happened so many times that the line “Take me to Cuba!” was actually featured in a famous sketch in Monty Python. 

The US government was trying to find a solution to this hijacking problem. One idea was to build a pretend version of the Havana airport in South Florida so the planes would land there instead, but the cost of this was too high, so they didn't go through with it. That's when they got an idea from the US military prison system...metal detectors. The Federal Aviation Administration wasn't in love with this idea because they thought it would scare too many people and they would complain about an invasion of privacy, so they tabled this idea for awhile. (I would be much more afraid of a hijacking than a metal detector)

Instead, they decided to just reduce the financial impact of the hijackings as much as possible and the top priority was to avoid violence and bad publicity. Every airline adopted a policy of absolute compliance with all hijacker demands and to make the trips to Cuba easier, all cockpits had charts of the Caribbean. They wanted to make the hijackings as quick and easy as possible, but the result was more hijackings. There were 11 of them within the first six weeks of 1969. So, they were like, ok that's not working, so this is when they started profiling passengers and they would watch for failure to maintain eye contact or someone who may not have the correct knowledge about their luggage. Once someone raised red flags during the profiling, they would be escorted to a private room and that's where they got the metal detector. The profiling did help in certain ways, so airlines did adopt this program in November of 1969. Airlines were surprised that people weren't afraid of this method and so many of them were actually thankful to have SOMETHING in place to keep them safer. Passengers said they were happy that they were paying attention and trying to lower the hijackings.

On July 17th, 1970, New Orleans International Airport in Louisiana became the very first airport to use magnetometers (mag-na-tom-eters) to detect weapons. On January 5th, 1973, passengers had to start passing through metal detectors and have their bags searched. Our story happens before the metal detectors. 

This is one of the biggest unsolved mysteries in FBI history because it's the only unsolved hijacking case in the history of commercial aviation, the case of D.B. Cooper. Over 900 people have confessed to being D.B. Cooper and there are TONS of suspects and we certainly can't cover them all. This case is unique because almost every single detail of this case is disputed, so I will absolutely have some details wrong. There's no way around it, but I did my best researching this thoroughly. Before we dive in, let's start with the name. The hijacker's name wasn't truly D.B. Cooper, we know that for sure. The airplane ticket was actually purchased under the name Dan Cooper, but there wasn't anyone with that name in 1971 that was the true hijacker. No one is completely sure how the name even got changed to D.B. Cooper. There were two journalists in the bureau on the night that it happened though and neither one is alive anymore. There are two theories about how the name got changed from Dan to D.B. Clyde Jabin released the hijacking story the day that it happened and he named the hijacker as D.B. Cooper. The first theory is that he just made a mistake when he was writing it and switched Dan to D.B or that he heard the wrong name on the police scanner. The other theory is that he was given the wrong information because the story was developing so quickly and they were trying to break the story first. This theory is actually backed up by a memoir published by a retired FBI investigator who worked on the case. Clyde was listening to a police scanner as they were talking about the hijacking and he contacted the FBI in Portland to ask if the suspect had a name. Here's one version of how the story goes. The agent said D. Cooper and Clyde asked D as in dog or B as in boy? And the agent said Yes, that's right.

If you ask Clyde's wife, she claims that her husband asked for the suspects name and the agent said, D.B. Cooper and this matches information that an FBI agent put in his book about the case too. According to the FBI agent, on the night of the hijacking, agents were investigating a man in Portland whose initials were D.B., so they think someone accidentally provided this name instead. This theory makes the most sense to me because it would be too much of a coincidence to believe agents were investigating someone named D.B. And the reporter accidentally printed that without ever hearing the name. Either way, the case was released as D.B. Cooper and that name has always stuck.

That's not the only place that the name got messed up. Mike Cooper who was a history teacher, was a passenger on the plane and the FBI thought they were looking for him. This poor guy was just trying to go home to see his family for Thanksgiving and finds out that he's a suspect and he was fired from his job since they thought he was the hijacker.

On the afternoon of November 24th, 1971 or what many people refer to as Thanksgiving Eve, a man that called himself Dan Cooper approached the counter of Northwest Orient Airlines in Portland, Oregon. He was wearing a business suit and raincoat, and was holding a briefcase. He payed $20 for his one way ticket in cash and it was Flight #305 for Seattle, Washington on a Boeing 727-100 and the flight was scheduled for 2:45 PM. Flight #305 is one of the shortest flights on the schedule and only takes about 30 minutes in normal conditions. He asked the agent, this is a 727, right? There were no security or identify checks on domestic flights. You could just hop on a plane with a gun or bomb and no one checked. The man was very quiet, wore sunglasses even though it was dark, a business suit with a black tie and a white shirt and appeared to be in his mid 40s. He was one of the last people to board the plane and was seated at the back near the aft stair door which is an unusual thing that this particular aircraft happens to have. He ordered a bourbon and soda and lit a cigarette while waiting for his flight to take off.

The aft door in the back of the plane near Cooper had a flaw, it could be opened during a flight and there was no mechanical preventative that would stop it form opening. The flight took off at 2:50 PM and shortly after 3PM the man handed the stewardess, Florence Schaffner, a note and she thought he was hitting on her, so she just tucked it in her pocket. At the time, stewardesses were highly sexualized and were truly getting notes and being hit on all the time. A commercial in the 70's showed a stewardess and the man says, she's not just pretty, she's pretty smart. When Florence walked by again, he said he wanted her to read the note and it said, “Miss, I have a bomb here. I want you to sit by me.” Florence says the note was written neatly, in all caps, with a felt tip pen. Cooper took the note back after she read it, so it was never able to be analyzed. 

Florence followed the directions and sat down next to him. He opened his briefcase which was described as a cheap attache case and he showed Florence what was inside. She saw 8 red cylinders connected to wires and a large cylindrical battery. Cooper held up the bare ends of two wires and threatened to blow the plane up. He told her she was going to write down his demands and take the note to the captain of the airplane. The note was a list of demands that said he needed 4 parachutes (2 main back chutes, and 2 safety front chutes) and $200k in negotiable American currency to be delivered on landing at Sea-Tac Airport and a fuel truck needed to be waiting for them to refuel when they landed in Seattle. 

Another stewardess, Tina Mucklow, spent the rest of the flight next to Cooper, getting his drinks, and she was lighting his cigarettes for him because he had to keep his finger on the bomb trigger. Tina said, “He wasn't nervous. He seemed rather nice. He was never cruel or nasty. He was thoughtful and calm all the time.” FBI agents were scrambling to meet Cooper's demands and they went to various banks in Seattle to collect $200k in unmarked $20 bills and they were photographed to document serial numbers. The pilot had to fly in circles above Seattle until the police and airline staff were able to get everything together. Passengers were not told that this was a hijacking, they were told that there was a minor mechanical issue that had forced the plane to burn fuel and that's why their flight was prolonged. They would definitely have realized something was off because it was supposed to be a 30 minute flight, but it was in the air for over 2 hours. A flight attendant asked if Cooper had a grudge against Northwest airlines and he said, “I don't have a grudge against your airline, Miss. I just have a grudge.” A hijakcing in the 70's was not unique, but Cooper was. Most hijackers became unhinged during the ordeal, but he was calm, even when he had to wait hours for his demands to be met. He was so calm that the passengers had no idea they had been hijacked.

Let's breakdown the demands that Cooper laid out. The $200k was in $20 bills and this would add about 21 to 23 pounds in weight. If the bills were smaller, it would have added more weight which could be more dangerous for someone that is skydiving. Large bills would weigh less, but it would be more difficult to use the bills and not get caught. Cooper specified that the bills needed to be random serial numbers, not sequential. The FBI did comply with this demand, but they gave him bills that had random serial numbers and most started with the code letter L and most were either 1963A or 1969 series. Cooper said he needed 4 parachutes. Seattle cops had to contact a skydiving school and the owner sold them four parachutes. The fact that he asked for 4 parachutes, could actually be a very calculated move. If he asked for just one, then it would be assumed that he was the only person that would be jumping and the parachute could have been doctored up to make sure he didn't make it. If he had 4 parachutes, it's reasonable to believe that he planned to take a hostage on the jump and they better give him the proper equipment. 

At 5:24 PM, the cash and parachutes were secured, so Captain Scott was radioed and told that the crew was ready for their arrival and the plane landed at 5:39 PM. Cooper ordered that they taxi to a remote, well-lit area after they landed and he had the cabin lights dimmed and ordered that no vehicle could approach the plane. He said the window shades needed to all be shut so a sniper couldn't see in. He also said the person who brought him the cash and parachutes must be alone. Flight attendant, Tina Mucklow, lowered the stairs and gathered the parachutes and grabbed the large bag full of money. Once Cooper received this, the hijacker let the 36 passengers and flight attendants, Florence Schaffner and Alice Hancock go. There was a bus waiting to pick everyone up as they got off the plane and this is when the passengers finally learned that their plane had been hijacked.

Cooper said he wanted the rear stairs down when the flight took off, but the pilot and Northwest Orient refused because they felt this would be unsafe. He said it was perfectly safe, but he would just lower them in flight. Northwest Orient called Boeing and they were told that it IS possible to fly a 727 with the rear stairs down. The pilot and flight crew didn't even know that. So you have to wonder who was trained to know this information. Does that point to someone who worked at Boeing? Or maybe someone in the military? Special Operations believe that Cooper is one of their men. 

Cooper kept some crew members with him and the plane took off again, and headed towards Mexico City. He gave the pilots a very specific flight plan. He told them to fly southeast for Mexico City (they did agree to stop in Reno to refuel), but they had to keep it below 10,000 feet, the airspeed needed to be 250 mph and fly as low as the Boeing 727 could go without stalling, keep the wing flaps lowered to minimum height and the landing gear down. The pilots didn't even know that the plane could fly that slow, but Cooper insisted that it could. It's mentioned that an experienced skydiver would know that they could dive at 150 knots and someone experienced with a Boeing 727 would know that the plane would easily fly at a such a low speed because it's a lightweight jet. 

The pilot told Cooper that if they traveled at that altitude and airspeed, the jet wouldn't travel more than 1,000 miles even with the 52,000 gallons of fuel, so that's why Cooper agreed to stop in Reno, Nevada to refuel. Cooper knew that the Boeing 727 could take in 4,000 gallons of fuel per minute and called them out when they weren't done refueling within 15 minutes. Captain Scott worked with Cooper to find a low altitude route called Victor 23 and this allowed them to fly at low altitudes just west of the mountains. Cooper directed the captain to depressurize the cabin and he knew that people can normally breathe at 10,000 feet and if the cabin had equalized pressure inside and out, there wouldn't be a violent gust of wind when the stairs were lowered. The plane took off again around 7:46 PM once they worked out all the details.

Somewhere between Seattle and Reno, a little after 8 PM, the hijacker rounded up the crew members and put them in the cockpit. Stewardess Tina Mucklow saw Cooper tying something around his waist and she believed he was attaching the money bag to himself and she also noted that he got the parachute on quickly, without any issues, but there was no way for them to see what he was doing after the door was closed. After 8 PM, a red light came on saying that a door was open. The crew was terrified that Cooper was going to detonate the bomb and jump. 

He was in the back of the plane by himself and he picked up the phone and said he couldn't lower the stairs, so the pilot slowed the plane down so he could open them up. He lowered the rear stairwell and jumped from the back of the plane with the parachute and ransom money over the forests of the Pacific Northwest. At 8:10-8:12 PM, the pressure in the cabin changed and the jet genuflected which means the nose of the plane dipped first and this was followed by a correcting dip in the tail end. Captain Scott was on the radio when the pressure changed and he mentioned that he believed Cooper jumped. Everyone that was listening noted the time, so we know this is pretty accurate. The dip was 25 miles north of Portland, near the Lewis River. The crew assumed Cooper had jumped, but remained in the cockpit just to be on the safe side. The plane landed safely at 10:15 PM in Reno, Nevada. Captain Scott spoke over the intercom, but didn't receive a response, so he opened the cockpit door. The cabin was empty and Cooper, the money, and his belongings were gone, but two parachutes were left behind.

Think about how ballsy this is for a second. Cooper opens the door, the wind is whipping and it's dark and stormy. The sound of the jet engines are deafening and he has to walk down a set of stairs, looking into nothingness and he has to jump.

While the hijacking was happening, the police did try to follow the plane to see where Cooper jumped. They originally used F-106 fighter jets to shadow the plane, but these jets are built for high speeds and weren't built to match the low speeds that Cooper demanded. They had to get a different plane from the National Guard, but it was too late, Cooper had already jumped before they got there. Due to the horrible weather that night, the police couldn't immediately search the grounds either, so they had to wait until the next day.

Once the plane landed in Reno, the FBI agents were waiting. The only items that Cooper left behind was a black tie, two parachutes, and 8 cigarette butts in the ashtray. 

When the FBI heard about this hijacking, they began an extensive search that lasted many years. It was called NORJAK which stands for Northwest Hijacking. They interviewed hundreds of people, tracked leads, and went through the aircraft to search for evidence. Within 5 years of the crime, they had looked at more than 800 suspects and eliminated almost all of them, but had about two dozen left for consideration. The FBI describes the hijacker as a white male, 6'1” in height, 170-175 pounds, mid forties, olive complexion, brown eyes, black hair with a conventional cut that is parted on the left. 

On Thanksgiving day in 1971, one of the biggest man-hunts in US history began. Helicopters, spotter planes, the military and the FBI were searching for weeks and they combed forests and farmlands, but they didn't find anything. Approximately 1,000 troops searched the area that was believed to be the jump zone on foot and in helicopters. The Boeing 727 used in the hijacking was flown over the ocean, the stairs were lowered and weights were dropped so they could analyze the beach to narrow down their searches. 

There wasn't a lot of evidence that D.B. Cooper left behind, but investigators found a few things. There were some cigarette butts, a hair on the headrest of the seat, and a clip-on necktie that he tore from his collar before he jumped from the plane. The FBI was not able to get any fingerprints from these items.

For the first time in FBI history, citizen sleuths have been called upon to help solve the mysteries of DB Cooper. Basically, the case was handed over to a group of citizen scientists so that NO government money would be spent to continue the investigations. A paleontologist has been analyzing the tie that was left onboard. The black clip-on tie contained a tie clip, yellow gold in color, with a round, white pearl in the center. It was a Towncraft tie which comes from JC Penny. Ties are not typically an item that is washed after every use or ever, so it picks up dirt, grime, and other particles, which could tell us where this person lived if the proper microscopes are used. The black tie was found on the cushion of seat 18E, which is where Cooper had been sitting. As technology advances, it's possible that we will finally get the evidence we need to crack the case. 

Paleontologist Tom Kay has become the lead citizen scientist. He examined the Cooper tie and found particles of pollen which means this is where the tie was in the Spring, not when he jumped from the plane in November. If the species of pollen happen to be rare enough, they may be able to pinpoint where he came from. There was also commercially pure titanium metal on the tie. There was a second piece of titanium that had a piece of stainless steel smashed into it. Where could this come from? In 1971, this would be very rare to come in contact with this, unless you're in the aerospace sector potentially. Boeing was actually experimenting with commercially pure titanium. At the time, titanium was included in two trainer planes: CT-133 Silver Star and CT-114 tutor aircraft. If DB Cooper was working on the planes, he would have come in direct contact with the titanium. Or he could have used the tie from someone else that worked there. 

It was initially believed that D.B. Cooper was a skilled skydiver or paratrooper, but the FBI thinks this may not be true. FBI Special Agent Larry Carr said “We originally thought Cooper was an experienced jumper, perhaps even a paratrooper. We concluded after a few years this was simply not true. No experienced parachutist would have jumped in the pitch-black night, in the rain, with 200 mile an hour wind in his face, wearing loafers and a trench coat. It was simply too risky. He also missed that his reserve chute was only for training and had been sewn shut-something a skilled skydiver would have checked.” It is believed that D.B. Cooper acted alone. If he had worked with an accomplice, investigators think he would have requested a more specific flight path instead of just telling the pilot to fly to Mexico and then jumping out with poor visibility. He would have needed to provide specific coordinates so he could jump in the correct drop zone if someone was meeting him. 

The man that packed the two main parachutes for Cooper that night, said that he gave him an NB 8 and the other was a pioneer sport parachute. This man said he is convinced that Cooper was not a skydiver because Cooper chose the NB 8 which is very uncomfortable, opens much harder, and the ripcord is very flat and mixed in with the harness, so it's hard to find the ripcord. The wind factor was below freezing, he didn't have goggles or gloves, and he had a parachute that was difficult to operate. When it's cold, it's tougher to grip the handle. When the parachutes were delivered to Cooper, there was a set of instructions with them and he told flight attendant, Tina Mucklow that he wouldn't need instructions.

A professional skydiver, Troy Hartman, dressed just like Cooper and strapped on a 23 pound weight for a simulation test jump. Troy tumbled a lot through the air to simulate disorientation which could have happened since it was dark and stormy. Troy believes that Cooper would have been able to open the parachute. The old gear would allow the parachute to open even if you were tumbling and all you had to be able to do was pull the handle.

The two flight attendants that spent the most time with Cooper were interviewed separately and they gave almost identical descriptions of him. They both said he was about 5'10 to 6', 170 to 180lbs, mid 40s, and he had brown eyes. The people that had contact with the man before he entered the plane also had a similar description. The sketch of Cooper is so basic and people say that it could look like anybody and nobody at the same time. There's no defining features. One of the flight attendants was SURE Cooper was wearing makeup. Another witness said his black hair was super shiny, as if it was freshly dyed. 

FBI Special Agent, Larry Carr does not believe that DB Cooper is the heavy drinking, chain smoking person that has been portrayed to us. If someone is a drinker and in a highly stressful situation, you might expect them to lean into that a bit more and have more drinks. You may also expect that they would smoke more and he had 8 on the flight. The profile for a typical Raleigh cigarette smoker is upscale and well-educated. Bourbon and 7 up was popular with the sophisticated crowd in the 70's, so it's possible that this person wasn't just after the money.

In 2016, the FBI announced that they were going to stop the search for D.B. Cooper. They said they would be redirecting their resources to focus their investigations on other priorities. If more evidence emerges, such as parachutes, or money from the hijacking, they will look into that, but it's no longer an active investigation. This case remains a mystery to this day and has been referred to as America's most notorious sky pirate.