Video | D.B. Cooper: Folk Hero or Terrorist?

Fifty years after Cooper skyjacked an airplane over Washington, attitudes toward the incident have changed.

One of the Northwest’s greatest mysteries is about a skyjacker who called himself Dan Cooper — more widely known as “D.B. Cooper.”

On Nov. 24, 1971 —Thanksgiving eve — Cooper threatened to blow up a Boeing 727 bound from Portland to Seattle, unless he was paid $200,000 in $20 bills. He sipped from a bourbon and soda, got the money and some parachutes, then jumped into history.

To my mind, his outrageous crime is not even the oddest thing about his story.

To this day, no one knows who D.B. Cooper was. The name he gave for his airline ticket was Dan, the name “D.B.” was said to be a media mistake, but it stuck. For the last 50 years, people have been trying to find Cooper, not unlike Bigfoot hunters. People have fingered their relatives and neighbors, death-bed confessions have been made, more than 800 suspects examined by the FBI. There are many theories, but as yet no definitive D.B.

Let’s quickly retrace the crime.

Cooper, whoever he was, bought a single one-way ticket from Portland to Seattle for $20 on Northwest Orient Flight No. 305. On the plane, he slipped a note to a stewardess saying he had a bomb in his briefcase — this was back before airlines checked for such things. Seeing what looked like a bomb, the flight attendant conveyed to the captain that a man in his mid-40s of medium build and height with brown eyes and a black suit wanted the airline to cough up $200,000, refuel the plane and fly him to Mexico City. He wanted two parachutes, with two reserve chutes, just in case. Why? It’s thought he wanted the authorities to think he might jump with a hostage so they wouldn’t sabotage the chutes.

The 727 landed in Seattle and the passengers and some of the crew were let off, the money was brought on board along with the parachutes, and the plane took off with a refueling stop planned for Reno, Nevada. Cooper insisted they fly no higher than 10,000 feet.

The remaining stewardess on board showed Cooper how to lower the aircraft’s rear stairway, then she left the cabin for the safety of the cockpit, leaving Cooper alone. When they landed in Reno, Cooper, a chute and its backup, the bomb, and the money were gone. The hijacker had jumped midflight somewhere between Seattle and Reno. He left his clip-on tie behind.

A massive manhunt ensued with a focus on southwestern Washington. It was theorized that Cooper must have been a former paratrooper or military man, even an airline employee. Searchers scoured the woods for his chute and loot—or his body. It was speculated that he went “splat” jumping at night in high winds during a thunderstorm with cloud cover so he couldn’t see the ground. He could have landed in deep forest or the Columbia River.

After the jump, the rest of us were left looking for answers. The FBI kept the case open, running down tips and leads. Cooper was a mainstay on the FBI’s most-wanted list. But in 2016, they announced they were focusing their energies on other priorities. But he’s still a wanted man. Though the statute of limitations has run out on air piracy charges, Cooper was also charged, in absentia, with violations of the Hobbs Act, designed for robbery and extortion that interfere with international and interstate travel. No limitations, and a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison.

In 1980, a boy building a fire pit on a beach on the Washington side of the Columbia River at a place called Tena Bar dug up $5,800 in ratty, deteriorating $20 bills whose serial numbers matched those on D.B.’s ransom money. The money was still bound in rubber bands.

Had he buried his loot? Had he dropped a briefcase full of ill-gotten gains? Had he landed upstream and this evidence washed down from his landing site? Did river dredging dump the money there? An analysis of the bundles of bills suggested they were buried under the sand on the bar not long after the hijacking, but no one is certain how the money got there.

If Cooper landed safely and if he’s still alive, he would be in his mid-90s now. If he came forward, he’d be flush in celebrity and facing his twilight years in Club Fed. Still, in our conspiracy-minded times, would anyone believe him? Skepticism and countertheories accompany any D.B. claim.

To me, more interesting than “solving” the D.B. Cooper case is the public response to it.

Today, a skyjacking is considered terrorism. Holding innocent people hostage is a major crime. Security measures have been imposed in airports and on flights. TSA employees, body scanners and sky marshals help ensure nothing like this — or worse, as on 9/11 — ever happens again.

He spawned imitators, which is one reason security was tightened at the time. After Cooper’s, there were at least two dozen hijackings that featured copycat demands for ransom and parachutes.

So, while some people wanted to catch D.B. Cooper, many others dreamed of being D.B. Cooper.

Back in 1971, when people first heard about him, he actually had a great deal of public sympathy. Only four days after the hijacking, an article in The Seattle Times collected the thoughts of what the person on the street in Seattle thought about the crime.

A taxi driver told the paper’s reporter, “You’ve got to admit he was clever. The way I see it, anybody smart enough to take $200,000 just like that, ought to make a clean getaway.”

An Army private said, “I hope he isn’t caught.”

Said another man: “Technically he should be caught, of course, but in a way I’m glad he got away.”

People interviewed almost universally admired Cooper’s technique. They didn’t beat the drum very hard for law and order.

A University of Washington sociology professor, Otto Larsen, speculated that part of the reason people didn’t seem outraged is they could relate. Said the professor: “This man was neither political nor neurotic. His motive was simply $200,000, and people can understand that much better. His was an awesome feat in the battle of man against machine — one individual overcoming … technology, the corporation, the establishment, the system.”

Such comments come with a context. The early 1970s were still, largely, the 1960s. Seattle was racked with the Boeing recession, anti-war protests and bombings. Around the world skyjackings had become somewhat commonplace — more than 130 American planes were hijacked between 1968 and 1972! President Richard Nixon was reelected, but the Watergate scandal was gestating. Wars hot and cold raged; social tumult had become a norm. Youth rebellion was in full flower. Hippies still abounded.

And D.B. Cooper, despite his dapper black suit and clip-on tie, cool shades and taste for bourbon and soda — the guy who pulled off a spectacular heist without anyone else being killed by a bomb or an overzealous SWAT team — somehow embodied for many a cool, anti-establishment rebel whom many ordinary folks could envy.

And like any great performer, D.B. Cooper made a dramatic and memorable exit that we’re still talking about half a century later.

About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.