On the evening of Thanksgiving 1971 the first, the most daring, and the only successful, skyjacking took place. A man known only by the alias of Dan Cooper boarded a “milk run”– a 727 bound from Portland, Oregon, to Seattle, Washington. As soon as they were airborne he passed a note to the stewardess. It was a demand for ransom from the carrier, Northwest Orient. He demanded 200,000 dollars. He had a bomb in his briefcase. If they didn’t comply he would blow the plane up.
It shouldn’t be long for the flight to arrive at Seattle, but instead the plane was about 2 hours late. The pilots had been circling Seattle, waiting for instructions. The other passengers were kept in the dark. The company acquiesced and accepted to pay. In the meantime the FBI was photographing the bills.
Dan or D.B. Cooper had everything but this figured out. He knew the route from Portland to Seattle. He even recognized McCord AFB below as they circled. He had even figured out how to escape. Along with the money, he had demanded two sets of parachutes. He also knew the 727’s rear door could be lowered in flight, something not even the stewardess knew. He had worked out what to do with the passengers. As the Boeing airliner idled on the tarmac, at a dark and distant corner of the airfield, the few passengers who had been on this short run had to wait in the area nearby, standing in the rain as the airliner basked in the glare of klieg lights. After the money was delivered and the 727 was airborne, he had proved he had more things figured out. He instructed the pilot to fly under 10,000 feet and to keep the flaps down 15 degrees. The plane would be flying only under 200 miles per hour. Impressive knowledge of the huge aircraft. Instructions such as these made it possible for him to make and survive a jump.
After the money was delivered, the passengers were allowed to walk off the tarmac.
The crew, including the stewardesses, huddled in the cockpit on his orders. He prepared himself all alone in the back of the plane. He selected the parachute he wanted, then cut the cords off one of the extras. He stuffed the money in it and tied it around his waist. Snug now in his black suit, he removed his tie, for it could flap wildly in his face, then he opened the aft stairs. A light came on in the cockpit. The crew knew he had opened the door. Then, several minutes thereafter, the aircraft genuflected. He had jumped from the stairs and was gone.
One of the greatest manhunts in history was initiated after the aircraft landed in Reno, Nevada, its schedule refueling stop. The crew tried to guestimate where he had jumped. The forests north of Portland, Oregon, not so surprisingly, were estimated to be the location. With all the preparations he had done, it seems undeniable that he would have had an escape route preplanned.
The sheriffs and the FBI scouted the woods, cruised the rivers, but never found a trace of D.B. Cooper dead or alive. They never found his distinctive red parachute, nor the briefcase he had jumped out with. The lead Fed, Ralph Himmelsbach, could not believe that Cooper could have survived. The loafers he was wearing would not have even stayed on as he tumbled to earth. If he had survived the jump, he could not have made it out of the woods. To Himmelsbach, Cooper was a desperate, middle aged failure. He saw nothing smart in him, nothing cool.
However, as time had gone by the legend of D.B. Cooper was growing. He was looked upon as a cool and sophisticated daredevil who pulled off the stunt and heist of the century. In appearance D.B. Cooper also had looked like a laconic Bond. He had dressed in a dark suit, neat, narrow tie, dark fedora, and dark wrap around glasses hid his eyes. He ordered a Bourbon from the stewardess as they flew south. She gave it to him. He tried to pay for it. She refused. He sipped it slowly. Despite the briefcase with the supposed bomb in it (the stewardess saw the sticks of what looked like dynamite) he is the image of a suave, in a rumpled Bond way, heist man. This legend of D.B. Cooper has remained with us.
But because of the foolhardiness of jumping out over a dark, rain swept forest at night, Himmelsbach formed the opinion Cooper was just a desperate fool. On the contrary, every other detail proves to what extent the man known as Dan Cooper had preplanned. He learned the Boeing 727. He knew the route. He must have timed it more than once. He prepared meticulously how to get the money. He must have prepared his escape just as well. No one goes to all the planning he did just to jump out and take a chance in uncharted territory. But because no sign was ever found of Cooper, the law eventually opted to believe he died in the fall. Moreover, none of the bills were ever passed. He never spent any of his ill gotten gains.
With time, the attitude would change. Other Feds would come to believe he had survived. In 1979 Carroll Hicks found the torn placard from the back door of the Boeing 727. He was out hunting elk and came across it. It was the warning sticker on the door. It must have been sucked out when Cooper lowered the stairs and the suction of breaking the seal on the aircraft was great enough to rip it off the open door. Yet 40 years have gone by. Those woods are not as isolated as they once were. Yet no discoveries have come of the parachute, parachute pack, clothes, briefcase or the money.
In 1980, $5,800 dollars of the ransom was found on Tina Bar on the Columbia River north of Portland. It was down river of the estimated drop zone, however. Some Feds came to share the popular view that Cooper had survived and the money had been dumped upstream and floated through Portland. The man known as Cooper probably had found the money was worthless. After all his preparations he had not prepared for the Feds to photo every bill and retain the serial numbers before the payoff had been delivered on the tarmac.
D.B. Cooper must have found out. This is a clue. When? I am not sure. But the location of the money indicates he had remained around Portland, the city from which he had boarded the plane 9 years before this paltry amount of money had been found, the city south of the forests he felt confident he could jump into at night and survive.
The circumstances of finding the money confirmed that it had not been dumped there the night of November 24, 1971. The money was found in a sediment layer on top of a dredge layer that was laid down in 1974 when the Columbia was dredged. It had been dumped in the river years after the skyjacking.
This too is a clue. There are many clues in the case of Dan Cooper, but no real evidence. Nobody’s uncle or brother, or father or husband, ever was put on the Doe list or listed as missing. If D.B. Cooper had died in the fall you would think the man’s true identity would end up on a missing person’s list. If he came from the Portland area, this should happen rather quickly. But it never did. No one failed to check out of their motel. An abandoned car was never found. The FBI’s handbill with the sketch of Cooper and his distinctive features didn’t register with car rental clerks, motel managers. In short, it seemed Cooper had not stayed around Portland. He must have driven himself or somehow got to the airport, didn’t leave a car behind, took the flight, and vanished into the woods. Yet somehow part of the ransom got back into the river years later. He seemed to still be around.
The case has riveted the nation and even the world thereafter. The heroism, albeit villainous heroism, the looting of corporate funds, the complete mystery of his fate, but the irony that he must have learned it was all for nothing and dumped the ransom, comes together to create a real life movie plot.
Dan Cooper was thought to be close to 40 years old at the time. He is no doubt dead today. But he lived and quietly died, probably around Portland, after having pulled off the most daredevil heist of the 20th century. He has entered legend as the “Jesse James of the Jet Age” and like the fate of the great Old West outlaws, people still want to know what happened to him.
We still question the fate of Billy Bonner, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. In like manner, D.B. Cooper’s exact fate intrigues us. Like the outlaws of the Old West he wouldn’t rob a citizen, only a corporation. He has left admiration behind, mystery, and intrigue. But most of all he left many clues. And it is time to start following them.
I have done so for years. They lead to and from Canada, and reveal a complex plan that places the man behind the moniker in another location while he returned to Portland to pull off the heist of the century. He stashed the money in the woods he knew and left again to appear he had always been away. With his French Canadian background, this part was easy. Having been an AKAN in the US Air Force in Korea is probably what led him to select this daredevil way to extort money for his retirement. But what type of mind truly conceives of something so daring, so complex as a skyjacking? Dan Cooper’s did, and all the clues say he got away with it.
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Since 1990 Gian J. Quasar has investigated a broad range of mysterious subjects, from strange disappearances to serial murders, earning in that time the unique distinction of being likened to “the real life Kolchak.” However, he is much more at home with being called The Quester. “He’s bloody eccentric, an historian with no qualifications who sticks his nose into affairs and gets results.” He is the author of several books, one of which inspired a Resolution in Congress.