Why the only unsolved skyjacking in American airspace has become a thing of lore
By Katrina GulliverKatrina Gulliver is a historian and writer.
More than 150 planes were skyjacked in the United States between 1961 and 1972. 1969 saw both the world’s longest hijacking, covering 6,900 miles, when a TWA flight from Los Angeles to San Francisco was diverted to Italy, and the world’s youngest hijacker, when a 14-year-old tried to commandeer a Delta flight.
The hijackers usually wanted money, the release of political prisoners or to be flown to Cuba. (The first Boeing 747 to land in Cuba was a flight from New York to San Juan that was hijacked in 1970.) These skyjackers made the news, inspiring more copycat attempts.
And yet none of these individuals gained the media attention and public fascination that the man who used the name Dan Cooper achieved for pulling off the only unsolved hijacking in U.S. airspace.
On Nov. 24, 1971, a man boarded a Northwest Orient Airlines flight from Portland, Ore., to Seattle. He paid cash for his ticket, bought less than an hour before the flight. After takeoff, he handed a flight attendant a note saying he had a bomb in his briefcase. He asked for $200,000 and four parachutes. On landing in Seattle, Cooper’s demands were met. The other passengers disembarked, the plane was refueled, and he ordered the pilots to fly to Mexico via Reno, Nev., at low altitude.
At 8 p.m., he lowered the rear stairway of the plane and jumped out somewhere over southern Washington, taking the money and two parachutes with him.
We still don’t know who he was or even whether he survived the jump. But in the 50 intervening years, the story of this mysterious man who made off with bags of cash has inspired pop-culture references and armchair criminologists.
In late 1971, media coverage moved more slowly — the New York Times didn’t pick up the story for a few days, reporting on the search for Cooper on Nov. 27, with brief updates in the following weeks. (On Nov. 30, it also ran a story on the conviction of Glen Elmo Riggs for hijacking a United flight that June. The frequency of skyjackings meant there was some case or other in the papers nearly every week.)
Cooper spawned a number of imitators throughout the following year, but the culprits were all apprehended.
He also birthed a cottage industry of conspiracy theorists. By disappearing, he left others to complete the narrative. Even his name, D.B. Cooper, was based on a reporter’s typo. In the decades since, books and articles have offered various theories, and a range of suspects (most of whom have been ruled out by official investigators). He was in his 40s, based on witness descriptions. Given the number of men who had received some parachute training in World War II, Korea and Vietnam, there was a pretty wide suspect pool.
Cooper demonstrated keen knowledge of the aircraft model, understanding that the Boeing 727 had a rear stairway that could be lowered in flight and the ability to fly slow and low without stalling. This know-how suggested the hijacker had some familiarity with civil or military aviation, spawning the persistent theory that he was, or had been, in the Air Force.
Some experts at the time thought he couldn’t have survived the jump. But the FBI didn’t rule it out, and he stayed on its most wanted list for decades. Serial numbers of the missing cash were distributed, but the only portion recovered were some bundles found in a Washington river in 1980.
The hijacking took place the day before Thanksgiving. He might have been counting on the holiday weekend slowing down any official response. It also could have given him time to get home — nobody would suspect a guy who was back in the office on Monday.
The lack of a resolution, and the fact that a serious amount of cash was involved, led the press — and fortune hunters — to revisit the story over the years. In 1986, for the 15th anniversary of the heist, the New York Times reported on Richard Tosaw, a former FBI agent trying to find Cooper’s remains, which he believed were in the Columbia River. He had organized a scuba hunt and was still searching.
“We’re going to try another mile upstream from where the money was found,” Tosaw said. “We hope to find his skeleton there, and the parachute should still be on his back.” The missing $194,000, he believed, “has to be still tied around his waist in a bag.”
A reward is obviously part of the attraction to solving the Cooper case. But he fits into a longer history of how our culture deals with bandits and bank robbers. He hadn’t harmed anyone, and his heist could be read as “sticking it to the man,” rather than attacking innocent victims. Much as John Dillinger attracted fans in the 1930s for robbing banks (at a time when banks were seen as villains by many for foreclosing on mortgages during the Depression), Cooper fit into an anarchic worldview of the little guy who actually wins.
As early as December 1971, the New York Times was already talking about the romanticization of Cooper. “The name of D.B. Cooper is not legendary — yet. It hardly ranks up there with Jesse James or Black Bart, but it is catching up.”
They interviewed Allen King, manager of a screen-printing firm in Portland, who told them he had already sold 3,000 T-shirts reading, “D.B. Cooper, where are you?” In fact, one can still buy shirts online featuring Cooper’s FBI profile sketch.
The public levity around the case made it seem entertaining, but a Portland grand jury indicted John Doe, a.k.a. Dan Cooper, for air piracy in November 1976 — before the statute of limitations on his crime could expire.
Even so, he has continued to reappear in popular culture throughout the decades. The recent Disney Plus series “Loki” suggested that Cooper had actually been the Norse god of mischief.
David Lynch named his FBI agent from “Twin Peaks” after the hijacker — and that show’s elemental weirdness (and Pacific Northwest setting) meant it wasn’t such a strange crossover for the hijacking mystery.
Today, the FBI has suspended, but not closed, the case. In 2017, new tests on the clip-on tie Cooper left on the plane found traces of titanium. Its limited use in 1971 means he was possibly working at Boeing or in a chemical lab.
There was also an attempt to crowdsource information about him, according to the Smithsonian magazine. That site, too, has now (perhaps appropriately) vanished.
The fascination with Cooper is like that of all missing-person cases. The famously disappeared, from Judge Joseph Crater to Jimmy Hoffa, linger in the public imagination as we dream up potential endings or solutions.
It’s also a strange nostalgia for a period before the surveillance state, when it was possible to buy a ticket an hour before takeoff, board a plane with no ID and literally disappear.