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D B Cooper: A Leap of Fate

Updated on September 2, 2016
Artist's rendering from eyewitness accounts of D.B. Cooper
Artist's rendering from eyewitness accounts of D.B. Cooper

On November 24, 1971 (Thanksgiving Eve), Northwest Airlines Flight 305 departed from Portland International Airport in Portland, Oregon promptly at 2:50pm local time—right on schedule. It is desirable to be punctual when meeting an appointment with destiny. The Boeing 727-100 was only a third full, containing thirty six passengers…an unusually light number of patrons considering holiday travel. The crew consisted of six members. But, what made this particular flight unique, even legendary, is that it was involved in a disappearance. Not the vanishing of the plane itself, but of one of its passengers -- a man who remains unidentified yet iconic to this day. Moreover, his legend remains inextricably linked to one of the foremost unsolved American mysteries in history.

On that fateful day, a professionally-dressed gentleman purchased one-way ticket on Flight 305 (a thirty minute flight from Portland to Seattle, Washington), under the name of Dan Cooper. He wore a black lightweight raincoat, dark suit, white shirt, loafers, and a black tie with a mother-of-pearl tie pin on his roughly 6 foot, 200 pound frame. He had the appearance of a man in his mid-forties. The unassuming figure carried a black attaché case which he was allowed to carry aboard the flight unmolested. Subsequently, this incident and subsequent “copycat” attempts to replicate it marked the genesis of increased inspections and accompanying security upgrades inside airports.

Upon entering the aircraft, the man took a seat in the rear of the plane. Then, with the style and panache of a villain in a James Bond film, he ordered bourbon and soda; lit a cigarette; then turned his attention to a nearby stewardess by passing her a hand-written note. This passenger, however, was not looking for companionship…he was seeking a liaison to the cockpit. After beckoning the attendant toward the empty seat next to him, Cooper directed her to read the note he had passed to her (which she had assumed was just another phone number from a lonely business traveler). However, this note proposed an entirely different relationship: “I have a bomb in my briefcase. I will use it if necessary. I want you to sit next to me. You are being hijacked.”

At his hostage’s request, the hijacker cracked open his attaché case just enough for her to be able to glimpse his cargo. The “bomb” consisted of eight red cylinders (four stacked on four) which were attached to red-insulated wires leading to a considerable cylindrical battery. Upon closing his luggage, Cooper conveyed his demands which the messenger was to relay to the cockpit. The gentleman requested $200,000 in negotiable American currency (10,000 unmarked $20 bills), four parachutes (two primary and two reserve), and a refueling truck ready for when the flight landed in Seattle. After dispatching the demands to the cockpit, the flight attendant returned to find Cooper wearing sunglasses which he continued to don for the remainder of his journey.

At 5:39pm, the flight landed at Seattle-Tacoma Airport – after a protracted delay spent circling Puget Sound while the items Cooper requested were gathered. The FBI had collected the unmarked currency then microfilmed each individual bill for future tracing. Also awaiting the flight on arrival was the refueling truck along with the four parachutes. Upon delivery of a cash-filled knapsack and the parachutes to a different flight attendant on the rear stairs of the plane, the hijacker released all of his fellow passengers and most of the crew: only the pilot, co-pilot, flight engineer, and the flight attendant who received Cooper’s contraband remained aboard.

During the subsequent refueling process, vapor lock within the pumping mechanism occurred with the first truck, requiring additional trucks to be enlisted. During the delay, Cooper sent his new emissary to lay-out his plans to the flight crew in the front of the plane: a Southeast flight path toward Mexico City at the minimum airspeed possible without stalling the aircraft in mid-flight. Furthermore, the craft was to fly no higher than 10,000 feet with its landing gear extended as if to land; the wing flaps were to be reduced by 15 degrees with the cabin left unpressurized. Afterwards, once the plane was again air-born, Cooper instructed the remaining stewardess to join the remainder of the crew in the cockpit with the connecting door to be shut and remained closed. As this final occupant with Cooper was exiting the cabin, a brief glance backward revealed that he was securing something to his waist.

Unbeknownst to Cooper, as soon as the plane re-ascended to the prescribed 10,000 foot ceiling, two F-106 fighter jets were scrambled from nearby McChord Air Force Base to chaperon Flight 305 (remaining out of Cooper’s view). Regardless, the presence of these additional aircraft would not help penetrate the upcoming mystery.

Back inside the Boeing 727, an emergency light was triggered within the cockpit at approximately 8:00 pm. It warned that the rear stair apparatus of the airplane had been activated. Worried personnel in the cockpit called via the intercom to offer assistance, and were curtly denied. Moments later, the crew felt a marked change in the air pressure levels onboard the craft…the rear door had been opened. At 8:13 pm, the tail section of the plane endured a pronounced upward movement which required specific maneuvering for the craft to re-assume level flight. Subsequent tests by investigators using a weighted sled device confirmed that approximately 200 pounds had abruptly exited the passenger cabin of Flight 305 at that precise moment. “Dan Cooper” had leapt into history…and oblivion.

No trace of this dare devil extortionist who called himself “Dan Cooper” has ever been found. Many FBI specialists believe that he probably didn’t survive the jump. They cite a lack of skydiving experience displayed by the suspect. Upon exiting the plane, Cooper would have encountered: pitch black night, a driving rain that was falling at the time, a 200 mile per wind into his face, and a 70 below wind chill while wearing a light jacket and loafers. Moreover, he did not bring or request a helmet; and chose an older less-efficient primary chute between his two choices, and a secondary chute that could not open at all. It was a dummy chute that had been accidentally procured from a local Seattle sky diving school as officials hurriedly gathered demands.

Nevertheless, authorities immediately began questioning potential suspects and conducting several extensive man-hunts…searching for Dan Cooper. Police even questioned a man named D.B. Cooper regarding the crime, hoping he may have been foolish enough to use his real name. Of course, it was a dead end lead. Yet it provided the name by which the legend has become known to posterity. A confused writer misreported the story regarding the questioning of this suspect, and “D. B. Cooper” became the moniker by which this figure is known to this day.

Despite a list of a handful of legitimate suspects, innumerable phony confessions by glory-seekers, and countless false death bed confessions, the true identity of D. B. Cooper is no closer to being ascertained than it was forty years ago.

The facts in the case are few:

1) The suspect was a thorough and efficient planner and strategist.

2) He was extremely familiar with aircraft.

3) He was geographically familiar with the Portland-Seattle area.

4) He left behind his clip-on tie (which contained trace DNA evidence) and tie pin.

5) While a small portion of the stolen cash was found by a boy on the Columbia River near Vancouver, Washington in 1980; none of the rest has ever been spent or recovered.

6) The instruction plate for deploying the rear steps of the same make and model of airplane was discovered thirteen miles east of Castle Rock, Washington in 1978.

7) No human remains or evidence of the parachutes used has ever been discovered on a possible trajectory of the daring jump.

8) The name “Dan Cooper” was probably borrowed from the title character in a Belgian action-adventure comic book which was never translated into English, or imported to America…indicating potential military service.

9) The suspect spoke without an accent, yet specifically requested negotiable “American” currency…possibly betraying a Canadian origin.

In Summer of 2016, The History Channel debuted a two-part documentary called: "D B Cooper: Case Closed." In the program, a seasoned former FBI assistant director, and an experienced investigative journalist, follow up on all of the leads and with the majority of prime suspects who have haunted investigators for decades.

One of the highlights of the entire program was when the two men attempt to corner, on camera, the man who has long been suspected of being DB Cooper. The two catch up with Robert Rackstraw at his current home. Fortunately, for this prime suspect, a large, chain link privacy fence separates him from his inquisitors.

Mr. Rackstraw had not done himself any favors when, in the 1970s, he gave a rather cryptic interview in which he did not explicitly deny being DB Cooper; merely stating that he was "afraid to sky dive." However, this assertion did not ring true, as a simple perusal of Mr. Rackstraw's military service records portray a skilled soldier who possessed all of the prerequisite skills necessary to have executed the daring crime...including skydiving. When confronted by the two investigators, and their camera crew, Mr. Rackstraw mumbled a tepid response about "having addressed this issue years ago," and would offer nothing else. Realizing that they had encountered a dead end, the former IRS director and journalist take their suspicions, along with their strong circumstantial evidence, to the FBI.

The seminal moment of the documentary occurs when the pair sit down with the director of the regional FBI office charged with DB Cooper follow up. After eschewing the two men's theory and evidence, the FBI official drops a bombshell. He informs the two men that, after 45 years, the FBI is closing the "cold" case. Further, he explains that, given the current geopolitical environment, agency resources and manpower can be better spent--than on an archaic cold case. In fact, the FBI site director stated that nothing short of discovery of "the clothes, parachute, or more of the missing money" will cause the case to be re-opened.

Verifying the agent's premature revelation, on July 13, 2016, the FBI announced that it was "no longer actively pursuing what it called one of the longest and most exhaustive investigations in its history." And so ended the "official federal involvement" of one of the greatest unsolved mysteries in modern history.

Throughout the course of events on that day, the fellow passengers and flight attendants who witnessed or came into direct contact with Cooper described him the same way. Ostensibly, he was something of a bandit in the mold of “Gentleman Jim.” He was genteel. He remained calm, patient, and reserved throughout the entire ordeal and never even raised his voice. Moreover, he paid the tab for his two drinks; even offering to purchase meals for the flight attendants while they awaited landing in Seattle. His demeanor and personality have probably helped lead to his current status as an idealized and romanticized outlaw similar to Dillinger or Billy the Kid.

Whether the man behind the legend of D.B. Cooper died that fateful night, has subsequently passed away, or still keeps his secret in hiding today will probably never be determined. Regardless, the mystery associated with this infamous act will outlast its perpetrator no matter his fate. The delicious mystery behind D.B Cooper’s true identity, his fate, and the location of the remainder of the stolen cash will live on in lore and speculation for eternity.

A small sample of the money recovered near Vancouver, Washington in 1980.
A small sample of the money recovered near Vancouver, Washington in 1980.

What became of D B Cooper?

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