The D.B. Cooper caper: The infamous unsolved hijacking 50 years later

Nov 24, 2021

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Have you seen D.B. Cooper?

If you do, be sure to let the Federal Bureau of Investigation know. They spent 45 years looking for him before calling off their search. But AvGeeks, crime hounds, treasure hunters and amateur sleuths are still on the case of the only unsolved hijacking in commercial aviation history.

D. B. Cooper wanted poster
(Courtesy of the FBI)

Who is (or was) D.B. Cooper? No one really knows.

We do know that 50 years ago today, on a rainy and stormy Nov. 24, 1971 (Thanksgiving Eve), a man who gave his name as Dan Cooper paid $20 cash for a one-way ticket to fly from Portland, Oregon, to Seattle. He then boarded Northwest Airlines Flight 305, a Boeing 727 (registered N467US) that had an aft stairway that Cooper planned to make use of.

There were 36 passengers on the plane and six crew members. Passenger Dan Cooper – later dubbed D.B. Cooper in news reports – was described by witnesses and the FBI as a white, mid-40s male with an olive complexion, dark hair and dark eyes, wearing a dark overcoat, black suit, white shirt, sunglasses and a black clip-on tie with a tie clip. The FBI’s “Wanted” poster also says he boarded with a dark briefcase or attache case and carried a paper bag.

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During the flight he smoked cigarettes (Raleigh filter tips), drank bourbon and soda, and, not long after takeoff, handed the flight attendant a note that said he had a bomb in his briefcase and that she should take a seat next to him.

A skyjacking was in progress.

At first the flight attendant didn’t believe Cooper had a bomb. But he opened the attache case to show her wires and red-colored sticks that looked like a bomb. Then he told her to write down his demands and take them to pilot. He wanted four parachutes (two front and two back — or reserve — parachutes) and $200,000 in $20 bills ready for him when they landed in Seattle.

After several hours circling over Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (SEA) to give police and the airline time to get the cash and the parachutes (passengers were told there was a mechanical issue that required the plane to burn off fuel), the flight landed in Seattle. Cooper exchanged the passengers and two of the six crew members for the parachutes and the cash. Then the refueled plane took off for Mexico City, Cooper’s next demand.

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Cooper clearly had done his homework. He instructed the pilot to fly no higher than 10,000 feet (above that height the cabin is pressurized), with the flaps at 15 degrees. Then, somewhere over southwest Washington, Cooper put on one of the parachutes, lowered the aft stairs and jumped out of the plane with the bag of money tied around his waist.

He left behind his JCPenney clip-on tie with an imitation-pearl clasp (the FBI has that) and some of those Raleigh cigarette butts, which somehow disappeared. FBI agents also recovered some hair from the headrest and armrests at Cooper’s seat. But no positive ID has been made from any DNA recovered.

D.B. Cooper's tie and money
(Courtesy of the FBI)

After that?

Cooper was never heard from again.

Hundreds of people were identified, interviewed and ultimately crossed off the list as possible suspects. And while there have been 50 years of theories and false IDs floated, the most popular theory is that Cooper died in the jump from the plane. After all, it was a stormy night; he was wearing a suit, loafers and a trench coat, and he was jumping into a wooded area.

Cooper’s body was never found, but on Feb. 10, 1980, a young boy named Brian Ingram found a rotting pack of $5,800 in $20 bills on a sandbar along the Columbia River, not far from Vancouver, Washington. The bills matched the serial numbers of the ransom money given to Cooper.

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Cooper caper continues

In the ensuing years, D.B. Cooper has become somewhat of a pop culture hero. He may have gotten away with (most of) the money and spent his remaining years smoking cigarettes and drinking bourbon on a beach in Mexico. If nothing else, over the years the mystery of what happened to D.B. Cooper has given the world plenty to muse over and, in Ariel, Washington, a reason to party. For at least 25 years, the Ariel General Store and Tavern (now closed) hosted a party on Nov. 24 to mark the hijacking, complete with a special D.B. Cooper stew and D.B. Cooper look-alike contest.

This year, Cooper fans prepared to mark the 50th anniversary of the skyjacking with a gathering at Coopercon 2021 in Vancouver. The scheduled lineup of speakers and special guests included a retired FBI agent, a passenger on Flight 305 who sat near Cooper, a grown-up Brian Ingram (who found some of the ransom money as a kid in 1980) and dozens of Cooper experts.

Throughout the Pacific Northwest there are several other places with D.B. Cooper connections, including Portland International Airport (PDX) and Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (SEA), and Seattle’s Museum of Flight, which displays a Boeing 727 just like the one D.B. Cooper parachuted out of – and into history.

A replica statue depicts “D.B. Cooper” at the Museum of Flight in Seattle, Washington. (Museum of Flight)

Featured photo by Bruce McKim, The Seattle Times (1971) via Getty Images 

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