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America's Only Unsolved Airplane Hijacking - D.B. Cooper's Great Escape

Updated on July 12, 2016
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Thelma Raker Coffone is an award-winning writer who enjoys writing on a variety of topics, especially lighthouses.

Cartoon rendition of D.B. Cooper
Cartoon rendition of D.B. Cooper | Source

A Flight that Went into the History Books - Hijacked by D. B. Cooper

The following story is true and gives the details of the unsolved mystery of the hijacking of an airplane and the escape of the hijacker who became an American folk "hero", D. B. Cooper.

It was a busy day in the Portland International Airport, as you might expect, on Thanksgiving Eve. The crew of Northwest Orient Airlines Flight 305 were preparing the Boeing 727-100 for departure for the 30 minute trip to Seattle. The plane was only about one-third full with 37 passengers on board, so the attendants had no problem getting the flight ready for an on-time takeoff. At exactly 2:50pm on November 24, 1971, the plane left Portland, Oregon on a flight that would make history.

Seated in row 18 was a man in his mid-forties carrying a brief case. He was dressed in the standard travel attire for that period in time; a dark suit, white pressed shirt and black tie with a mother of pearl tie pin. He could easily be an average passenger on his way to Seattle for a family Thanksgiving celebration. Nothing in particular set this man apart from many other travelers on this day before a holiday.

Miss, You Better Look at that Note!

Florence Schaffner was a 23 year old flight attendant assigned to work Flight 305 and seated in a jumpseat near the man in row 18. She paid no particular attention to the nondescript passenger until he passed her a note. She thought he was being flirtatious and she assumed he was giving her his phone number. She did not want to encourage his attention, so she merely put the paper in her purse without reading it. The man leaned over to her and whispered, "Miss, you better look at that note. I HAVE A BOMB!"

He instructed her to move to the seat next to him which she did. She whispered to him to let her see the bomb and he opened the briefcase slightly and she could see it inside. He then proceeded to explain his demands: "I want $200,000 in unmarked 20-dollar bills. I want two back parachutes and two front parachutes. When we land, I want a fuel truck ready to refuel. No funny stuff or I'll do the job".

Schaffner notified the pilot who advised the authorities they had been hijacked. The passengers were told their arrival in Seattle would be delayed due to a "minor mechanical difficulty". The president of the airline authorized the ransom payment and gave the order to cooperate fully with the hijacker. The plane would circle Seattle for two hours while the FBI arranged for the parachutes and collected the ransom money. During that time, the hijacker ordered a couple of bourbon and soda cocktails and paid for them even though, under the circumstances, that wasn't expected. He even demanded Schaffner accept the generous tip he offered her. She would later describe his demeanor as being very calm and polite, not at all like the "take-me-to-Cuba" political dissidents associated with air piracy during that time period in history.

The Great Escape is America's Only Unsolved Airplane Hijacking

The aircraft landed at Seattle-Tacoma Airport at 5:45pm and the money and parachutes were delivered to the plane. The passengers, Schaffner and another flight attendant were allowed to leave the aircraft.

After refueling, the plane took off with the pilot, co-pilot, a flight engineer and one flight attendant on board with the hijacker. The destination was Mexico City with a fuel stop scheduled for Reno, Nevada. The flight crew was ordered to remain in the cockpit and the hijacker was the only person in the cabin. During the flight, a warning light signalled the crew the aft air-stair had been lowered. There was a change in the cabin air pressure, meaning the aft door was opened while the plane was somewhere over the southern tip of Washington state.

When the flight landed in Reno, the FBI and local authorities surrounded the aircraft and confirmed the cabin was indeed empty ... the hijacker and the money were no longer on board. He had made a daredevil escape from the plane in pitch black darkness into a torrential rainstorm in temperatures of 7 degrees below zero wearing a business suit and a pair of loafers.

FBI Composite Sketch of D.B. Cooper

From Witness Descriptions
From Witness Descriptions

Hijacker's Identity Remains a Mystery

The ticket for the trip was purchased under the alias name of Dan Cooper. Due to a miscommunication by an inexperienced news journalist, the name was erroneously reported as D. B. Cooper. That name would find a place in folklore through songs, movies, television and books relaying the story of the unsolved hijacking. A cult following surrounding D. B. Cooper and his great escape developed and is fueled by people that rejoice in Cooper "pulling one over on the authorities" and he got away with a big bag of money from the airline.

The FBI believes there is no possibility Cooper survived the parachute jump into the wilderness, but they continue the investigation in one of the most expensive American manhunts in history. J. Edgar Hoover was the FBI Director at the time and was very angry and the agency was quite embarrassed they never recovered the money or found D.B. or his remains. Many publicity seekers and deathbed confessors have come forward to claim to be Cooper resulting in the FBI investigating more than 1,000 suspects. The failure of these leads to solve the case has been referred to as the "Cooper Curse". Treasure hunters continue to scour the Pacific Northwest for D.B.'s bankroll.

Cult Following for D.B. Cooper ... Ariel, Washington Celebrates Cooper Days

D. B. Cooper is remembered in Ariel, Washington (population 700) each year on the Saturday after Thanksgiving with a "Cooper Day" celebration. At this party to cheer for the "bad guy", Cooper fans can participate in a D. B. Cooper look-alike contest.

The FBI composite sketch of D. B. Cooper shown here was put together with descriptions from witnesses on the plane. An amusing anecdote to this story is many people believe the sketch bears an amazing resemblance to Ross Perot! Perhaps Mr. Perot should enter the look-alike contest.

D.B. Cooper's Story Lives on in History

It has been said that the crime was perfect if he lived, perfectly crazy if he didn't.

As of August, 2011 New Leads Surface in Case of Unsolved Hijacking

The FBI has reported new leads in this cold case of America's only unsolved airplane hijacking. Following is a video with a news report from the NBC Today Show in August, 2011 describing new information. Will these new details solve the 40 year old case or prove to be just another subject of the "Cooper Curse"? As one of the lines in the movie, "Pursuit of D. B. Cooper" so aptly states, "What happens next is anybody's guess".

UPDATE: July 12, 2016

Today, the FBI announced they are no longer investigating this unsolved mystery. After a 45 year investigation, the case is now closed.

Please vote in this poll and share your comments below

Should the FBI continue the costly attempts to solve the D.B. Cooper case?

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© 2011 Thelma Raker Coffone


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