The 45+-Year Hijacking Mystery In US History: D.B. Cooper

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Even if you were not alive when the now notorious D.B. Cooper jumped out of an airplane with close to a quarter-million dollars strapped to his body, you’ve probably heard the tale. If not, hang onto your proverbial hat, because this story’s a doozy.

On Wednesday, November 24, 1971, a man traveling under the name of “Dan Cooper” hijacked a Boeing 727 during an American flight from Portland, Oregon to Seattle, Washington.

He received $200,000 in ransom and then jumped from the plane via parachute. Despite an extensive manhunt and protracted FBI investigation, the perpetrator has never been located or identified. The case remains the only unsolved air piracy in commercial aviation history.

As recently as 2016, the FBI said it ended its 45-year pursuit of D.B. Cooper, giving up any real hope of closing the case file on the nation’s only unsolved hijacking.

During the course of the decades-long investigation and manhunt, the FBI has reviewed tens of thousands of leads, claims and plausible theories, conducted scores of searches, interviewed witnesses and collected evidence — all in vain. 

While available evidence and a preponderance of expert opinion suggested from the beginning that Cooper probably did not survive his risky jump, the FBI nevertheless maintained an active investigation for 45 years following the hijacking.

So let's see the details of the story.

On the afternoon of Thanksgiving eve, November 24, 1971, a man carrying a black attaché case approached the flight counter of Northwest Orient Airlines at Portland International Airport.

He identified himself as "Dan Cooper" and purchased a one-way ticket on Flight 305, a 30-minute trip to Seattle.

Eyewitnesses on board recalled a man in his mid-forties, around 1.78 m tall.  He wore a black lightweight raincoat, loafers, a dark suit, a neatly pressed white collared shirt, a black necktie, and a mother of pearl tie pin. Cooper boarded the aircraft, he lit a cigarette and ordered a bourbon and soda.

Flight 305 was approximately one-third full when it took off. Cooper handed a note to Florence Schaffner, the flight attendant situated nearest to him.

Schaffner, assuming the note contained a lonely businessman's phone number, dropped it unopened into her purse. Cooper leaned toward her and whispered, "Miss, you'd better look at that note. I have a bomb."

He had one condition to release the passengers.

The plane landed in Seattle where he demanded 200K in cash, four parachutes and food for the crew before releasing all the passengers.

With only three pilots and one flight attendant left on board, they took off from Seattle to Mexico city with the marked bills.

In the 45 minutes after takeoff, Cooper sent the flight attendant to the cockpit while donning the parachute, tied the bank bag full of twenty dollar bills to himself, lowered the rear stairs and somewhere north of Portland jumped into the night above Columbia river. When the plane landed with the stairs down, they found the two remaining parachutes and on the seat Cooper was sitting in, a black tie.

Jets had been scrambled to follow Cooper's plane. The military was called and searched the suspected jump zone on foot and in helicopters but no sign of D.B. Cooper was ever discovered.

Nine years later in 1980 just north of Portland on the Columbia River, a young boy named Brian Ingram was digging a fire pit in the sand at a place called Tena Bar. He uncovered three bundles of cash a couple inches below the surface, with rubber bands still intact. There was a total of $5800, the Cooper serial numbers matched, and the first evidence since 1971 came to light.

Decades passed, D.B. Cooper became famous in book, movie and song. In 2007, Special Agent Larry Carr took on his favorite case with the restriction not to waste government time or money pursuing it.

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