Let’s give thanks for parachutes

Let’s give thanks for parachutes

Maggie Harvey


“Once upon a time, there was an English archer named Robin Hood, who lived in Sherwood Forest in Nottinghamshire. He gathered unto himself a band of rebels who supported themselves by robbing the rich upper class gentry that ventured into his domain.” Thus begins an article found in the Feb. 1972 issue of Air Line Pilot, the official journal of the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA), a page of which is pinned into the closed Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) case file on D.B. Cooper. Just three months before, on Thanksgiving Eve of 1971, Cooper pulled off the only unsolved plane hijacking in aviation history. That an aviation magazine would compare him to Robin Hood is a little blasé, but the ALPA moves past this comparison later in their piece, and, unlike Robin Hood, “Mr. Cooper is no hero. He is a criminal in every sense of the word. He is being sought for an act of piracy that cannot be condoned or excused … When found, he will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.”

 On the afternoon of Nov. 24, 1971, a nondescript man — going by the name Dan Cooper — used cash to buy a one way ticket from Portland, Ore., to Seattle, Wash. Before the flight took off he ordered a bourbon and soda, and sat quietly in his aisle seat without drawing any attention to himself. He was described as a white man in his mid forties, with dark slicked back hair, wearing a simple dark business suit. Soon after ordering his drink, the flight took off. According to the FBI, a short time after 3:00 p.m. Cooper handed flight attendant Florence Schaffner a note. Thinking that it was just a lonely businessman giving her his phone number, Schaffner tucked the note in her pocket without reading it and moved on. As she circled past Cooper once again, he leaned over and explained that she should read the note he had given her, and that he had a bomb.

 After consulting with other flight attendants and having the pilot radio the police, the flight crew agreed that they should comply to whatever demands that Cooper had. Schaffner returned to Cooper, who had moved to the window seat, and sat down next to him. Schaffner asked to see the bomb, and Cooper gave her a brief glimpse into his suitcase where she saw some wires and red cylinders. According to crimemuseum.org, Cooper instructed Schaffner to return the note to avoid the police gaining any potential forensic evidence, so no one is sure what the note said exactly. However, Schaffner remembers the note requested $200,000 in cash and two parachutes. He wanted these items to be delivered to the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport before they landed, and if those items were not at the airport, he would blow up the plane.

The pilot used the intercom to tell passengers that the plane would be delayed in landing due to a mechanical error, and circled Seattle for two hours while the police and FBI collected the items that Cooper demanded. Cooper was very specific in what he wanted: the money needed to be in $20 bills that had non sequential serial numbers, and the parachutes needed to be civilian hand operated. The local United States Air Force base offered to provide parachutes for the exchange; however, Cooper refused. Luckily, the police found a skydiving school that sold them the parachutes. 

Once the items were ready, Cooper instructed the plane to land on an isolated, well-lit area of the tarmac and wait for someone to deliver the requested items. An airport employee approached the plane, and Cooper instructed the flight attendant to lower the stairs. All 36 passengers and flight attendant Florence Schaffner were released once he received the money, and Cooper had the rest of the flight crew stay aboard with him as he executed his next move.

Cooper explained to the pilot that he wanted to fly to Mexico City next, specifically at an altitude of 10,000 feet and at an air speed of just below 150 knots, and for the pilot to depressurize the cabin once they were in the air. The pilot told Cooper that at that speed and altitude the plane would need to refuel between there and Seattle, so they agreed to make a stop in Reno, Nev. to refuel. After a brief fueling delay in Seattle, the plane took to the air once more at 7:46 p.m.

Normally, if the cabin of an airplane was depressurized it would become extremely difficult for passengers to breathe. Cooper obviously knew that at 10,000 feet and at a low speed, not only would breathing be fine, but the plane would be able to handle having the cabin opened mid flight without a gust of air sucking everything out. According to crimemuseum.org, after take off Cooper ushered the rest of the flight crew into the cockpit and closed the door. At 8:00 p.m., the red light indicating that the cabin door was open flashed, and the pilot used the intercom to ask Cooper if there was anything they could do for him, and he responded with an angry sounding “No!” That was the last that anyone ever heard from him.

FBI composite of D.B. Cooper.   Photo Courtesy of Wikipedia

FBI composite of D.B. Cooper. Photo Courtesy of Wikipedia

At 8:24 p.m. the plane briefly dipped and corrected itself, and the pilot made a note that they were 25 miles north of Portland at that time. When the plane finally landed in Reno at 10:15 p.m., the pilot made a call over the intercom. Receiving no response, the flight crew left the cockpit to find the plane empty. Cooper, the money, and one of the parachutes were gone. The other parachute, and a black, clip-on JCPenney tie were still aboard the plane.

The subsequent search in the weeks after turned up next to no evidence of Cooper’s whereabouts, or if he was still even alive. One possible lead was a man found in Oregon by the name of D.B. Cooper. Though he was proven to not be involved in the hijacking, press latched onto the story and sensationalized the name, and Dan Cooper became known as D.B. Cooper. The only evidence that authorities found pertaining to Cooper’s whereabouts surfaced eight years later in 1980, when a boy found several bundles of $20 bills with the same serial numbers as the money given to Cooper money in the Columbia river. This sparked more searches in the area, but when Mount St. Helens erupted in May of that year, any other possible evidence was lost.

47 years later, D.B. Cooper still has not been found. Many people have come forward with claims that they are Dan Cooper, or that they know Dan Cooper, or that their creepy uncle who suddenly became mysteriously rich is most definitely Dan Cooper, no question. In fact, the most promising claim came from Marla Cooper in 2011, who told authorities that Cooper was in fact her uncle L.D. Cooper. She remembered him talking about how he would not need to worry about money anymore, and that he had hijacked a plane. Her claim becomes faulty when she says that her uncle lost the money in the skydive.

Dan Cooper, or Cooper, has definitely left his mark on history. Anyone living in Washington at the time has a story to tell about that Thanksgiving. My own mother was eating dinner with her family when her cousin, a Yacolt sheriff, got called away from dinner to help with the hijacking. It is interesting to think how close we can be to a famous story without realizing it, though I’m sure we all have famous stories we’re associated with, somehow. For instance, my uncle remembers the day the sky darkened as the ash from Mount St. Helens drifted over Richland, Washington. My math teacher from high school went on a date with Ted Bundy (according to her, he wasn’t even that nice.) One of my aunt’s ex-boyfriends was Adam West, the original Batman. And I’m sure, somewhere, someone is looking at a picture of their dark haired uncle in one of his signature business suits, just wondering if he could possibly be the infamous D.B. Cooper.