It is still the strangest – and most mysterious – crime in US aviation history.
On Thanksgiving Eve, November 24, 1971, a middle-aged man by the name of “Dan Cooper”, settled himself into seat 18C of flight 305, a North West Orient Airlines flight from Portland Oregon to Seattle.
He lit a cigarette – you could do that in those days – and ordered a bourbon and soda.
Shortly after take-off, he handed a note to Florence Schaffner, the flight attendant. He whispered, “Miss, you’d better look at that note. I have a bomb.”
To make his point, he opened the black attaché case on his lap and showed her what appeared to be eight red cylinders attached to wires coated with red insulation.
He told her his demands; $200,000 –about one and a quarter million dollars in today’s money – and four parachutes.
The stewardess told the pilot in the cockpit; he, in turn, talked to the control tower in Seattle.
Schaffner later described “Dan Cooper” as calm, polite, and well-spoken; in fact, she said, he seemed rather nice. He ordered a second bourbon, paid for his drink (and attempted to give Schaffner the change). He even offered to make a meal request for the flight crew part of his demands.
When the flight finally landed in Seattle, FBI agents had assembled the ransom money from several Seattle-area banks – 10,000 unmarked 20-dollar bills– having first recorded them on microfilm.
The cash-filled knapsack and parachutes were delivered to the plane. Cooper ordered all the passengers off and told the crew to plot a southeast course towards Mexico City at minimum airspeed and a maximum 3000 metres altitude.
Two hours later the Boeing 727 took off again, with only five people onboard: Cooper, the flight crew and one flight attendant. Meanwhile, two fighter aircraft were scrambled from nearby McChord Air Force Base and tracked the airliner, out of Cooper’s view.
He told the attendant to join the rest of the crew in the cockpit and to remain there with the door closed. Shortly afterwards, a warning light flashed in the cockpit, indicating that the aft air stair apparatus had been activated.
“Dan Cooper” had strapped on one of the parachutes, secured the ransom money to his person and jumped into the cold, night sky over the Cascade Mountains.
The airstair was still deployed when the 727 landed at Reno Airport. FBI agents stormed the plane, but Cooper was gone.
Neither of the Air Force fighter pilots had seen a parachute open, but the extremely poor weather that night made it unlikely that they would have done.
A massive air and ground was ordered, and focused on Cooper’s supposed landing area in a wilderness area a few miles southeast of Ariel, Washington.
But no trace of Cooper or the money was ever found.
So who was the mysterious hijacker? It turned out “Dan Cooper” was the hero of a popular Belgian comic book series of the 1970s, who had many daring adventures, including parachuting out of planes.
Whoever he was, he knew something about aircraft. The 727 was ideal for such a bail-out escape, because of its ability (unusual for a commercial jet airliner) to remain in slow, low-altitude flight without stalling; he also knew that the aft airstair could be lowered during flight—a fact never disclosed to civilian flight crews, since there was no situation on a passenger flight that would make it necessary. He also knew that its operation, by a single switch in the rear of the cabin, could not be overridden from the cockpit.
Who was this knowledge unique to? CIA paramilitary units.
What happened to him? The FBI never found out.
But they were convinced he did not survive. He jumped from 10,000 feet without proper protection against the extreme wind chill.
Even if he survived the jump, his survival in mountainous terrain at night during the onset of winter would surely have been impossible
Why do it at all? He must have known the bills would be traceable, and that he could never spend the money anyway.
The hijacking marked the end of unscrutinized commercial airline travel. In 1973, luggage searches were instigated on all commercial flights, and the FAA also required that all Boeing 727 aircraft be fitted with a so-called “Cooper vane” that prevented the lowering of the aft airstair during flight.
It didn’t stop other would-be hijackers from committing copycat crimes during the seventies – fifteen in all, none of them successful. My favourite is a desperado called Glenn Tripp.
On July 11, 1980, Tripp seized Northwest flight 608 at Seattle-Tacoma Airport, demanding $600,000, two parachutes … oh, and somebody to top his boss – please. After a 10-hour standoff, Tripp reduced his demands to three cheeseburgers and count to ten while I get away. He was apprehended. But two years later, while still on probation, he hijacked the same Northwest flight and demanded to be flown to Afghanistan. When the plane landed in Portland, he was shot and killed by FBI agents.
The Dan Cooper story has one further footnote.
In 1980, eight-year-old Brian Ingram was holidaying with his family on the Columbia River 20 miles southwest of Ariel. He uncovered three packets of the ransom cash as he raked the sandy riverbank to build a campfire. The bills were significantly disintegrated, but still bundled in rubber bands.
It was assumed the bills had floated there. But if they had, why were ten bills missing from one packet, and how did the three packets remain together after separating from the rest of the haul?
The case remains the one of the most enduring mysteries in criminal history.
What did happen to Dan Cooper and the $200,000?
Unlike fiction, it’s a story without a satisfying ending. The truth is – we’ll probably never know.