D.B. Cooper, a 727, And $200,000: The Greatest Unsolved Mystery Of The '70s

Culture | November 24, 2020

source: FBI.gov

D.B. Cooper was a thief and a hijacker who escaped capture by jumping out of a Boeing 727 -- and left us with one of the biggest unsolved crimes of the '70s. The brazenness of Cooper's plan, the fact that he seemed to have executed it perfectly, and perhaps most of all his complete disappearance, has made him a folk hero in spite of our own law-abiding instincts.

Because, of course, you wouldn't steal $200,000, you wouldn't threaten a flight attendant with a supposed bomb, you wouldn't parachute out of that plane -- but man, wouldn't that be the way to go? You'd be halfway to anywhere, starting a new life with your suitcase full of cash, while the clueless FBI was still combing the woods near Mt. St. Helens.

Cooper, who actually did steal $200,000 on November 24, 1971, has never been found and he's never been identified, making this crime the only unsolved case of air piracy in the history of aviation. Long thought to be dead, Cooper remains a mystery with some FBI agents believing him to be dead in spite of the lack of a body, and others thinking that he's a member of their ranks.

The case was suspended in 2016, so we may never really know what actually happened with Cooper. His jump changed him from some guy in a suit with a job to a piece of real deal American mythology. We love the story of D.B. Cooper because it tells that we too can enter the annals of history with little more than a plan and the courage to jump.

Day one of a long weekend

Source: Wikimedia Commons

On the afternoon of November 24, 1971, a normal looking middle-aged man carrying a briefcase boarded Flight 305 out of Portland. He was taking a Boeing 727 bound for Seattle, it's a 30 minute flight but long enough to pull off some serious crime. Cooper wore a business suit with a white shirt and black tie. He ordered bourbon and soda while he waited for the plane to take off.

Once the plane departed at 2:50 PM he passed a note to Florence Schaffner, a flight attendant who thought this solo passenger was hitting on her. She didn't even read the note, but when Cooper said, "Miss, you'd better look at that note. I have a bomb," everything changed.

Cooper opened his briefcase and showed Schaffner eight red cylinders and a large battery. Once he was sure his message was understood Cooper said that he wanted $200,000, four parachutes (two to use in his escape and two for backup), and a fuel truck ready to fill the plane when it arrived in Seattle.

All eyes were on Cooper and no one saw him jump

source: history.com

While the FBI and the Seattle police put together Cooper's request, the plane circled in the air for two hours. The rest of the passengers on the flight were told that a mechanical issue was keeping them from landing. During that time Cooper had a second Bourbon and soda and remained calm.

The plane landed at Seattle-Tacoma Airport at 5:39 PM and the passengers were released while Cooper's money and parachutes were delivered. During that time he worked out a flight plan with the crew. He wanted to fly to Mexico, but to do so the plane would have to stop for refueling in Reno. He agreed with that assessment, and after some hemming and hawing about whether or not the plane could safely depart with the aft staircase deployed (they could but they didn't) and at 7:40 PM the plane lifted off with a five people on board: Cooper and a reduced flight crew.

Cooper moved the crew intro the cockpit shortly after takeoff, and from the safety of the front of the plane the aft airstair apparatus was activated, and between 8:00 and 8:13 PM Cooper escaped the plane. No one on board and none of the five planes trailing the 727 saw Cooper jump from the plane or could figure out where he landed. When the plane landed in Reno for refueling he was gone.

Dan Cooper, not D.B.

source: Oregon Live

When Cooper boarded the plane for Seattle he did so under the alias "Dan Cooper." He wasn't D.B. until FBI investigators interviewed an Oregon man named D. B. Cooper with a minor police record. They spoke to him on the possibility that he had the brains to use his real name to commit a federal crime. He didn't, but a local reporter who was rushing to meet a deadline mixed up Dan Cooper with D.B. Cooper and published the wrong name. A service reporter from either UPI or the AP reported the inaccurate name and "D.B. Cooper" became Dan's nom de crime.

No one knows what happened to Cooper or the money

source: pinterest

The FBI immediately started searching for Cooper or his remains on the southernmost outreach of Mount St. Helens following a recreation of his jump, but no remains or significant evidence was ever discovered. It was like he jumped out of the plane into another universe. Latent fingerprints inside the plane made it impossible to identify Cooper and he was so plain that an on the ground search wasn't going to work.

Rather than go door to door searching for Cooper the FBI started searching for the ransom money. They ran the serial numbers of each bill in the multiple regional papers and offered a reward for information leading to Cooper's capture, but nothing turned up until 1980.

On Sunday, February 10, 1980, eight-year-old Brian Ingram found three packets of the ransom cash while gathering firewood nine miles downstream from Vancouver, Washington. Altogether, the boy found $5,800 of disintegrating cash wadded up in rubber bands, none of the 9,710 remaining bills have ever turned up. It all begs the question, what happened to the money?

Was Cooper a highly trained operative, or was he just a thrill seeker?

source: citizen sleuths

There are hundreds of variables in the D.B. Cooper case that make it impossible to know what happened to the ransom money after Cooper left the plane and the identity of Cooper. The FBI believes that Cooper was an inexperienced jumper, not only because he chose to jump with an inferior parachute and a reserve parachute that was clearly marked as a non-working dummy chute, but he also failed to jump with a helmet into 15 degree wind at 10,000 feet. The FBI's official position is that Cooper died before he could open his chute, but they did keep the investigation open for 45 years so they must have thought there was some small possibility that he survived the jump.

Citizen investigators led by Tom Kaye, a paleontologist from the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture in Seattle, believe that Cooper may have chosen the day before Thanksgiving as a way to make sure no one noticed he was missing. Choosing day one of a four day weekend gives you plenty of time to pull off a heist and then go back to work on Monday.

Both the FBI and the citizen sleuths believe that Cooper dressed inappropriately for his jump. Even if he survived, covering the terrain necessary to get back to civilization in a wind beaten suit would be tough regardless of the weather conditions.

Case closed, sort of

source: pinterest

Associate professor of geology at Portland State University, Dr. Leonard Palmer believes that Cooper and the money are long gone. Not in the cool Danny Ocean way, but in the oh my god I just jumped out of a plane and I don't know how to skydive kind of way. Palmer believes that Cooper died during his jump and that the money was deposited at Tena Bar, where Brian Ingram discovered it. His theory suggests that the money was most likely destroyed by natural erosion and by the 1974 dredging of the Bar. Although many Cooper-Truthers believe the cash is still out there.

In 2016, the FBI closed the Cooper case until more information turned up. There were more pressing issues than a mystery man and payload of ransom money that's never turned up. But that hasn't stopped amateur sleuths from throwing in their two cents.

Tom Colbert is certain that Robert Rackstraw was D.B. Cooper. Rackstraw is a U.S. Army veteran with a criminal record and training in demolition and parachuting, and according to Colbert (a former researcher for Hard Copy and field producer for CBS) he's the guy who pulled off a crime that became American mythology. Colbert believes that Rackstraw was a CIA asset at the time of the heist, which is why the FBI never moved in on him.

At different times Rackstraw claimed to be Cooper and then turned around and said he didn't want anything to do with the case. When he passed away in 2019 some members of the conspiracy theory community believed that the only person to pull off a perfect crime had done it again. He was gone.

This kind of thinking permeates the Cooperverse, a world of funhouse mirrors where conspiracy and beliefs are refracted off one another until they're indiscernible.

D.B. parachuted into an America that no longer exists. One where smoking was still allowed in airplanes and where there were no smart phones tracking our every move. His heist signaled a need for changes in the aviation industry. Our bags are searched thoroughly before we get near a plane, IDs are required, and it's no longer possible for the stairs of a plane to descend mid-flight. Whether Cooper died before he opened his chute or found some way to launder his bills is irrelevant. In a few short hours he changed the world and became immortal.

Tags: Air Travel In The 1970s | Crime In The 1970s | D.B. Cooper | Unsolved Crimes

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Jacob Shelton


Jacob Shelton is a Los Angeles based writer. For some reason this was the most difficult thing he’s written all day, and here’s the kicker – his girlfriend wrote the funny part of that last sentence. As for the rest of the bio? That’s pure Jacob, baby. He’s obsessed with the ways in which singular, transgressive acts have shaped the broader strokes of history, and he believes in alternate dimensions, which means that he’s great at a dinner party. When he’s not writing about culture, pop or otherwise, he’s adding to his found photograph collection and eavesdropping on strangers in public.