Finding D.B. Cooper

It has been my experience that even an average mind that obsesses on one thing is going to do fairly well at it. The most successful criminals (i.e. those whose crime sprees were daring and complex but they were never caught) have left enough clues to reveal to what extent they had planned, pre-planned, and worked out their crime. They need not be geniuses. Some have great ingenuity, but “ingenuity is a poor substitute for intelligence,” as Demetrios told Mr. Van Leyden.

D.B. Cooper fits into this mold perfectly. The “Jesse James of the Jet Age,” as he has been romanticized, planned and pre-planned his daredevil skyjacking and escape. Those who follow true crime and cold cases know of whom I speak. What is his real name? No one knows, but his alias of Dan Cooper or D.B. Cooper is good enough.

He gave the name Dan Cooper to the ticket agent.
He gave the name Dan Cooper to the ticket agent.

This mysterious middle-aged, slender man, in dark suit, overcoat, and carrying a brief case, bought a ticket on Thanksgiving Eve (November 24) 1971 in Portland, Oregon, for a short trip to Seattle, Washington. With lots of details omitted right now because there is no need to be redundant to all that has been published, let’s just say that he ended up pulling off the extortion crime of the century. Nearing Seattle he told the waitress he had a bomb in the briefcase and used that threat to make the airliner’s owners fork out 200K. After they landed at Seattle, he demanded that they bring 2 pairs of parachutes and also refuel the jetliner. He finally released the passengers but kept the crew aboard. He told the pilots they were going to take him to Mexico, so he could escape.

After all this was done, the jetliner took off, with only a slim crew and D.B. Cooper smoking his Raleigh cigarettes.

The parachutes were a dead giveaway, of course, that he had always intended to jump and not head to Mexico. Everything he ordered them to do underscored this– and they obeyed his orders precisely. They flew at 10,000 feet altitude. They kept the flaps lowered by 15 degrees and kept the airspeed under 200 mph. D.B. Cooper clearly  knew the aircraft, the Boeing 727. This was evident in that no one can parachute out of a jetliner’s side door. He needed an aircraft with a rear exit door. The Boeing 727 was the one airliner that had a rear door and a staircase that lowered.

News photo of the airliner at Seattle's airport.
News photo of the airliner at Seattle’s airport.

In addition, D.B. Cooper also knew the route. He had even recognized Tacoma from the air before they had landed in Seattle. They also now headed back the same way to Portland, though Copper had made it sound as if the route wasn’t important. At that altitude, however, it was the only route they could take, and Cooper no doubt knew this.

But “Dan Cooper” made a curious mistake before they took off. He had insisted that the 727 takeoff with the rear door open and the staircase deployed. The airline objected. The airliner angles up on takeoff and that staircase is going to be crunched up. He relented and said he would open it in the air himself. He did indeed know that type of aircraft. Not even the stewardess knew the stairs could be lowered in-flight.

Why was Dan Cooper insistent on taking off like this? The only explanation is that he didn’t want his drop zone to be known with any precision. He knew what would happen when the door was opened. And so it did. Around 8 p.m. a light came on in the cockpit telling the crew the rear door was opened. About 15 minutes later the aircraft genuflected, that is, the nose dipped and the tail rose and then compensated, both indications the staircase had sprung up and lowered again, indicating someone had jumped from the stairs. The crew, huddled in the cockpit on his orders, deduced that Dan Cooper, their villainous skyjacker, had jumped.

The 727 with its rear stairway lowered upon arrival at Portland.
The 727 with its rear stairway lowered upon arrival at Portland.

The pilot estimated they were near Ariel, Washington, by the Merwin Dam, when D.B. Cooper bailed. Yet a huge search found no trace of “Dan Cooper,” his bright red parachute, or the briefcase. And until 1980 none of the money. A few bundles were discovered at Tina Bar on the Columbia River by Caterpillar Island. How did they get there? It’s nowhere near the estimated jump zone. Nor could winds have caused Dan Cooper to drift toward this area.

Much mystery surrounds this, the greatest and most romanticized skyjacking in history. Of all that I investigate, only a couple of topics do not have tragedy. This always puts them at the top of my favorite’s list, even if they aren’t some of the most famous cases. D.B. Cooper’s daredevil hold-up has no tragedy with it. He committed a seemingly outlandish, complex and dangerous crime to get money. It was greed. But he had style. He wasn’t a desperado in appearance. Rather he was a bit of a James Bond, smooth, easy, smoking his Raleighs, dressed well. He even offered to pay for his drink when the stewardess brought one at his request. Apparently, he’d rob a corporation but not a citizen.

Finding D.B. Cooper or at least his ultimate fate is a mystery hunter’s dream. They’re forests to be covered and a cunning mind to second-guess. Clues are everywhere, but where is Dan Cooper?

The FBI preferred to believe he had died in the jump. Yet the money could not have gotten to where it was found if he had. Later, much later, the lead Fed on the case believed he had survived.

The FBI wanted D.B. Cooper no matter what.
The FBI wanted D.B. Cooper no matter what.

I, too, believe that “Dan Cooper” survived. Thus the location of the money is a valuable clue. So is the meticulousness with which he planned his skyjacking. From Portland he came. Back to Portland he was obviously going. No one plans as much as he did and then expects to simply bail out of a jet on a stormy night, land in a muddy field or dangerous, scraggly forest, and then thumb a ride back to Portland with 200K wrapped around his waist. He had escape and pick-up planned, and he didn’t want anybody to know the drop zone.

But there’s that interesting mistake on D.B. Cooper’s part. He must not have known that the stairs would act like a rudder and that they would make the plane genuflect. He seemed worried about the light going on. He apparently did wait a while after he lowered the stairs. Perhaps up to 15 minutes. The reason? Probably to hide his drop zone. But the stairs give us a clue. When he jumped they sprang back up.

Examining the drop zone must be the first clue that we pursue in the next D.B. Cooper post. A couple of discoveries and one of D.B. Cooper’s own mistakes will tell us more in the next blog.

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One thought on “Finding D.B. Cooper

  1. Informative website and articles especially EARS/ONS. Concerning D.B Cooper, The FBI found a comic called Dan Cooper which jumps out of airplanes. Maybe, he read the comic book and that inspired his plan. Also, the airline was having trouble with its employees and on strike for greater pay. Could be an employee or former one. The suspect could be former military. A lot of former military people do work for airlines.

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