One Night in the Life of D.B. Cooper

You stand inside the opened aft stairs of a Boeing 727. The plane beneath your feet races at 200 miles per hour. You stare into a vacuous night sky that defines pitch black. The wind outside the aircraft plummets the temperature to below freezing. The weight of the ten thousand $20 bills strapped to your body bogs you down like proverbial cement shoes. The bomb in your briefcase may as well be a severed, human head. The parachute on your back? You’re not certain if it works, because the person who packed it wants you dead. You’ve smoked enough Raleigh filter-tipped coffin nails in the past two hours to keep the tobacco industry in business until 1975. It’s 1971. Your gut is full of cheap bourbon. What do you do?

If you’re D.B. Cooper, the answer to that question is, “Jump!”

A 1972 F.B.I. composite drawings of D. B. Cooper 

The evening sky was anything but calm that night when a wiry man, donning business attire and prescription sunglasses, took his seat aboard Northwest Orient Airlines flight 305 at Portland International Airport in Oregon. A mere $18.52 had gotten him this far. He had paid for his E-ticket thrill ride in cash.

It wasn’t long following the plane’s departure that same man calmly handed “Flo” Schaffner, the nearest flight attendant, a note. Used to the attention from male passengers, Florence assumed the average looking traveler was bequeathing her another phone number for the circular file. She pocketed the scrap of paper that quietly fed her ego.

Leaning in, the man elucidated, “Miss, you’d better look at that note. I have a bomb.”

Opening his briefcase just enough so the terrified stewardess could view a pair of maroon cylinders, cables and a battery, the man, whose name appeared as “Dan Cooper” on the passenger list, drove his point home with sledgehammer force, “No funny stuff.”

The traveler, in his mid-forties and somewhere near six-feet-tall, demanded $200,000 in used $20 bills, and two sets of parachutes.

As the plane lurched into the mouth of a hungry storm, the remainder of the commuters white knuckled their way through the meteorological predicament, unbeknownst a hijacking was taking place.

“This was a desperate act…something you would expect from somebody who had nothing to lose,” claimed Ralph Himmelsbach, retired FBI agent who spent more than two decades hunting Dan Cooper, later dubbed “D.B.” by an ill-informed journalist.

Prior to landing at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, pilot William Scott contacted authorities, who echoed the hijacker’s demands to the FBI.

Both the crew of the aircraft, and those on the ground, complied implicitly with Cooper’s demands. In an act of expeditious thinking, FBI agents amassed a ransom comprised entirely of bills printed in 1969, all containing serial numbers starting with the letter “L,” and all issued by the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco.

Amazingly, with the strict time constraints imposed upon them, officials were able to photograph each and every bank note, thereby retaining records of the individual serial numbers on the currency.

As the cash and parachutes were loaded onto the plane, D.B. Cooper allowed his fellow passengers, as well as stewardess Florence Schaffner, to evacuate the aircraft. Pilot William Scott, the flight’s first officer and a single attendant stayed on board with their hijacker.

On the ground, puzzled FBI officials pondered Cooper’s motives for requesting extra parachutes.

Did he have an accomplice on board?

Was he planning the pilot, first officer and attendant jettison the aircraft with him?

Once the plane was refueled, and D.B.’s demands were met, the hijacker ordered the jet get airborne, this time en route to Reno, Nevada. Cooper demanded Scott fly at no more than 200 miles per hour, at an abnormally low altitude of 10,000 feet. When the aircraft was securely aloft, D.B. sent the remaining flight attendant to the cockpit, leaving himself alone in the cabin.

At approximately 8:13 PM, over southwestern Washington state, the crew observed an emergency light flashing, signifying the aft stairs of the plane had been opened. Shortly, thereafter, an obvious change in air pressure was noted. Moments later, the crew collectively felt the aircraft jolt, as if someone had jumped from the jumbo jet. At this point, weather conditions were so unforgiving, a pair of F-106 fighters pursuing the airliner had been unable to witness Cooper’s escape.

What would compel a middle aged man, clad in nothing more than flimsy business garb and loafers, to jump from an altitude of 10,000 feet into a driving rainstorm, over uncharted wilderness?

“If the cold didn’t kill him,” stated Ralph Himmelsbach, “if he withstood the powerful turbulence, Cooper was still parachuting into a dense forest at night, at the onset of winter, with no food or survival gear.”

Was D.B. Cooper insane, or one of the single greatest criminals in recorded history?

The fact the hijacker’s remains have yet to be recovered may point to the latter. Not only have authorities failed to uncover Cooper’s body, but the parachute, briefcase, moneybag and most of the ransom D.B. had on him when he jumped, are still missing. No one, outside of Cooper, himself, is certain where he landed. In fact, the only physical reminder of this mysterious figure was the hijacker’s mother of pearl tie clip, which officials found on board the Boeing 727, following the incident.

Subsequent to an unsuccessful ground search over the area where authorities felt D.B. may have come to rest, it was concluded Cooper had either been killed during his descent, or sometime after landing. Even so, no physical proof verifies either conclusion.

But the story of D.B. Cooper doesn’t end there.

Late 1978. A placard containing directions for the correct procedure of lowering the aft stairs of a Boeing 727 is discovered near D.B. Cooper’s theorized drop zone.

February 10, 1980. Whilst on a picnic with his family, eight year-old Brian Ingram discovers $5,800 in deteriorating $20 bills, along the shoreline of the Columbia River. Authorities authenticating the serial numbers on the cash determine they match those of the legal tender D.B. had on him when leaping from the plane. To date, this is the only portion of the stolen money recovered.

For many, D.B. Cooper has become a folk hero, having committed the perfect crime. After all, at the time, he was the only hijacker of a domestic plane to escape capture.

The FBI’s official search for Cooper, dubbed Norjak, is open to this day. Local eateries, taverns and towns in southwestern Washington state continue to celebrate an annual event known as D.B. Cooper Days, in which the memory of a legend is honored, and mass quantities of alcohol are consumed.

Hugh Mungus

© 2010. Hugh Mungus

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