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Monday, December 10, 2007

D.B. Cooper Gets Away, November 24, 1971

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Today in 1971, Northwest Airlines flight 305 began a scheduled run between Portland, Oregon and Seattle, Washington, an easy flight by airline standards. One man on board the aircraft, however, had a different flight plan in mind. Thus begins the story of D.B. Cooper, perhaps the best known airline hijacker of the 20th century. His identity and his ultimate fate remain a mystery more than 36 years later.

On the day before Thanksgiving in 1971, a man identifying himself as Dan Cooper bought an airline ticket at the Northwest Airlines counter in Portland, Oregon. He was dressed in a dark suit covered by a raincoat and had short hair, the uniform of the day for business travelers. In those days of nearly non-existent airline security, Cooper boarded his flight with a briefcase that was not inspected. He checked no baggage.

While the aircraft was still on the ground in Portland, Cooper slipped a note to a passing stewardess. Thinking it contained the passenger’s phone number and request for a date, the woman slipped the note into her pocket and continued down the aisle. After the flight was in the air, Cooper stopped the same stewardess and told her calmly, “Miss, you’d better have a look at that note. I have a bomb.” The note reiterated Cooper’s statement, informing the flight crew that a hijacking was underway. Captain William Scott, the plane’s pilot, radioed the air traffic control center at Seattle-Tacoma airport and informed them of the situation. Scott was told to cooperate with the hijacker until the FBI and state law enforcement could be notified. In the meantime, one of the flight attendants talked Cooper into showing her the inside of the briefcase, which appeared to her to contain a real bomb.

Cooper’s demands were simple: he wanted $200,000 in cash and four parachutes, two mains and two emergency chutes which are worn over the chest. He also wanted the plane to be refueled in Seattle. The request for so many chutes made officials wonder if Cooper had an accomplice on the plane or if he was planning on taking a hostage with him. Regardless, the money was gathered and the parachutes were borrowed from a Seattle parachute school. Once informed that his demands were being met Cooper allowed Captain Scott to land the aircraft at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. He then allowed the passengers to leave the aircraft in exchange for the parachutes and money. As the plane took off again, only four people were on board: Captain Scott, his co-pilot, the flight attendant to whom Cooper had slipped his note and Cooper himself.

Once airborne, Cooper ordered the flight crew to fly towards the Mexican border at a speed not exceeding 170 knots or about 195 miles an hour. He also ordered them to stay under 10,000 feet, keep the landing gear down and raise the 727’s flaps by 15 degrees. This last demand later became important in the search for Cooper, as it indicated the hijacker probably had more than a passing familiarity with civilian jet aircraft.

The stewardess remained in the main cabin per Cooper’s order. Once the airliner was at altitude, he asked her to show him how to open the plane’s aft stairway. At that time, the Boeing 727 was the only civilian aircraft in commercial service that had a stairway at it’s tail end. The stewardess showed Cooper, but then told him that once opened, the stairway could not be raised again while in flight as it was only lowered by gravity and not a hydraulic mechanism. The hijacker then ordered the young woman into the cockpit with the pilot and co-pilot. Some time around 8:13PM local time, the crew reported feeling a “bump” from the rear of the aircraft. Visibility was poor that night, which worked in Cooper’s favor. Following the Northwest Airlines plane were two Air Force F-106 fighters, which stayed far enough behind the 727 as to not attract attention. Between the fog and the darkness, they did not see anyone leave from the aft stairway at 8:13. D.B. Cooper had jumped into the night and into the fog of history, making a clean getaway.

At 11PM that night, Northwest Airlines flight 305 landed safely in Reno, Nevada, dragging her aft stairway along the tarmac. FBI agents and local police boarded the plane and searched for anything Cooper may have left behind. In the end, they found fingerprints which may or may not have been his, two of the four parachutes and the hijacker’s tie and tie clip. The area thought to be Cooper’s landing site was searched for eighteen days but nothing was found. In April, 1972, 400 soldiers from Fort Lewis, Washington spent six weeks scouring the same area on foot to no avail. The FBI questioned a man named Dan B. Cooper, but he was nowhere near the area on the night of the hijacking and did not fit the composite sketch made by the FBI. The name D.B. Cooper, however, stuck with several media sources and became the name of the hijacker, despite the fact he gave his name as Dan and never used a middle name.

More than 1,000 people have been suspected of being Dan Cooper over the past 36 years. A copycat hijacker, Richard McCoy, Jr., was suspected of being Cooper because his method of taking over the plane and his demands were so similar. However, the FBI eliminated him as a suspect when it was revealed he was in California on the day of the hijacking. Kenneth Christiansen, John List and Duane Weber remain strong suspects, made more so by the dozens of books and television shows written about the incident.

The simple truth is that we will probably never know who hijacked that Northwest Airlines flight in November, 1971. In fact, there is no evidence that the perpetrator even survived his jump from the aircraft. No matter his fate, D.B. Cooper will remain a recognizable name in the annals of American crime for generations to come.

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