D.B. Cooper

On November 24, 1971 a man calling himself Dan Cooper purchased a seat on Northwest Orient Flight 305. What followed was the smoothest hijacking we've ever heard of and a lack of closure on par with Tony Soprano eating onion rings.

Is $200K enough to live off of forever? Even if he won, he also lost.

The FBI thinks he  had some aviation knowledge, would a guy interested in airplanes be into a comic like this and if so, wouldn't he be able to read French?

Just The Facts

  1. The guy called himself Dan Cooper, the press called him D.B. Cooper and so do we, because it's the name that stuck. (Even the FBI calls him D.B. Cooper)
  2. He left the aircraft carrying $200,000 dollars, in 20 dollar bills which were Xeroxed by the FBI to record the serial numbers.
  3. $5,880 of it ended up at a spot on the Columbia River about five miles northwest of Vancouver Washington, in 1980.
  4. Cooper and the remaining money have never been found which means he either never spent any of it or...
  5. ...after he did the Treasury missed the serial numbers when the bills were eventually sent back to them for destruction. You know, like in Dead Presidents.

Air Travel in the Early 1970's and a Quick Flight to Seattle

We'd probably not recognize the airports of 1971, well except for the airplanes outside, doing the things airplanes do. Inside they were very, very different. Hare Krishnas were handing out flowers, people could be found smoking almost everywhere, metal detectors were not yet delaying people with concerns like security and one could bring almost anything aboard an aircraft that would fit in a suitcase. Like say, stolen jewels, a decent amount of drugs, or just a plain ol' bomb. To illustrate how much things have changed, we don't even call them bombs anymore. Today they're called IEDs, Improvised Explosive Devices, because bomb was just to vague.

Though IED works here too, with a different meaning: Immensly Epic Disaster.

While terrorists took advantage of these facts to hijack airliners for their cause overseas, one man had noticed similar deficiencies in the United States too. He used the opportunity to make some money and his name was Dan Cooper, or at least that was the handle he gave when purchasing the ticket. They didn't check id back then either, well to buy airplane tickets at least, and like we said before nobody was looking to search his briefcase. He got aboard Northwest Orient Flight 305 without trouble and took a seat in the back, because everyone knows people up to no good always sit there. Well actually, Cooper was assigned to that seat. The flight was from Portland to Seattle, usually it was a quickie.

Another aspect of air travel during this time was the attractive stewardess. If a guy said he'd scored with a stewardess his friends and/or doctor could be sure she was probably a knockout. Given the situation, they didn't find it unusual for guys to slip them notes containing contact information, possibly in addition to offers of sexual intercourse. Which is why the stewardess Cooper gave his note to didn't even bother looking at it as she went about her business. It would have probably stayed in her hand until the next encounter with a garbage can, if Cooper hadn't made eye contact and said the secret word: Bomb. Of course, other words were spoken including; "I", "briefcase", "in", "my", "have" and "a". She could see a I'm not interested in fucking you, unless you don't do what I say look in his eyes that told her he was serious and probably also meant the F word in a non-sexual context. That is if he'd been saying it outloud, as opposed to what she read in his eyes.

This was what age, weight, sex and beauty standards discrimination made stewardess look like during Cooper's caper.

He moved over to the window, and she sat down to listen as the hijacker explained he wanted 200 grand from the airline. He finished by cautioning her that any noncompliance would result in the plane, and all aboard, arriving at their final destination much sooner than planned. Not interested in his proposed change of plans, the stewardess skidaddled on up to the cockpit, where she relayed Cooper's note and demands to el capitan. These also included four parachutes, two main chutes in backpacks and two reserves worn as chestpacks. Cooper's last request was that the plane not land until the money and chutes were ready, which took a few hours to get.

Seen him anywhere? He sorta looks like this guy:

It was actually harder to find parachutes than it was securing the money, seems Cooper was picky and didn't want a stupid military chute. He was under the impression that parachutes should be near an airport. He was more or less correct, except he picked a bad day to be jumping. What was so special about November 24, 1971? Hmmm, was that a Thursday? No, but the 25th was. Which meant here in the US it was the day before Thanksgiving. But you know, maybe people in the Pacific Northwest states celebrated the day before, the day Black Friday comes after by skydiving?

They didn't, but even if they did Cooper's timing was bad for a second reason. According to the US Naval Observatory, sunset was 4:25 pm in Seattle on that Thanksgiving Eve and usually people avoid skydiving at night. Luckily they were able to get a local jump school to donate four parachutes, with a twist. One of the chest packs had been sewn shut, long ago, to be used for practice. Hey, beggers can't be choosers and Cooper didn't seem to mind anyway. As it turned out he wore this as his reserve chute, on the jump. If the main parachute failed to deploy, Cooper may not have figured out why the backup on his chest wouldn't open. (We assume if he didn't notice when making his choice, seeing the stitches in full on darkness as he plunged to Earth seems unlikely.) But we're getting ahead of ourselves.

The 727 landed at SeaTac, and after ordering it to be parked far away from where they usually unloaded their precious cargo of human cattle, Cooper let off the passengers. The pilots plus another stewardess were told to remain aboard, since he kinda needed them to fly the plane and open the door. He also ordered the lights dimmed, lest his quest for money be terminated prematurely by a sniper.

Cooper also provided some rather detailed instructions to the flight crew about what he wanted. The plane was to:

  • Head for Mexico City.
  • Stay around 10,000 feet.
  • Fly with landing gear down and flaps extended 15 degrees.
  • Not be pressurized.
  • Keep speeds under 200 mph.
  • Take off with the ventral airstairs lowered.

Pictured: Boeing 727-100 on the ground with towable passenger stairs at the forward door. Near the back one can see its ventral airstairs deployed. That's what Cooper jumped from and what he also wanted open DURING takeoff.

These are all things a Boeing 727 has no problem doing, well except for taking off with the airstairs down or flying to Mexico City from Seattle with landing gear and flaps deployed the whole way. The airstairs couldn't be down on takeoff because they can sorta touch the ground so they'd be bouncing on the runway until being slamed closed when takeoff rotation occured. Since they weren't designed to be rubbed and smacked around like that, the captain was concerned they might be torn off. It took a bit of time to convince Cooper to leave the stairs up for takeoff, but eventually he understood damaging the airstairs was counterproductive to his goal.

Once airborne the flaps, landing gear, and airstairs being down were going to ruin any concept of efficient flight. There's actually a term, dirty, used to describe this configuration because it increases drag. Which makes the engines have to work harder and thus also increases fuel consumption. To get an idea what this means just attach a parachute to your car, it won't go as fast but will guzzle fuel like it is. Cooper hadn't factored that into his planning, so he was forced to agree to a refueling stop in Reno. Since the flight paths to Reno and Mexico City diverge pretty soon after takeoff, Cooper must not have planned on a specific drop zone. Otherwise he agreed to ignore it instead of saying something like, "Look I'm not staying for the whole flight, just head for Mexico City and once I leave, which will be well before you run out of gas, go wherever you want!"

There was a minor hitch in refueling, vapor in the fuel line and things got a little dicey when Cooper noticed it was taking too long. Also during this time, a guy from the FAA came out and asked for some face time with Dan. He wanted to tell Cooper just what kind of punishment an air pirate could look forward to from Uncle Sam. We guess in a half assed attempt to maybe talk him out of the planned extortion or just take Cooper down. Either way Mr. FAA was told to fuck off and $200,000 in 20s, because he didn't specify a particular denomination, arrived. The four parachutes were also delivered and the plane took off not long after with four people aboard. (The pilot, copilot, engineer, a stewardess and you know who.)

Air Pirate

However the FBI wasn't just going to let him get away...

Slow, Dirty Ride and an Airstairway from Heaven

... but realized that they were almost totally impotent when bad guys took to the air. This must have really tweaked Hoover's self ima,

Do you mean J. Edgar Hoover? He couldn't have been in charge in 1971 during...

Cooper's caper? You bet your ass, it was actually his last year at the Bureau though. He retired from life, and by default the FBI, in May 1972. Now please shut up, this isn't a Q&A and we need italics for dialogue in a minute.

And for this caption: Here he is, well before retirement, interrupted in a moment of satisfied contemplation by the distant yet piercing laugh of some spiteful kid. Traces of the smile he wore just a moment before continued to fade as he realized this was mocking laughter from the future, about a crime that took place before the laughing brat was born, yet was still in Hoover's future.

Powerless as Hoover's boys were in the air, the United States Air Force was anything but impotent there. Their bands play songs which focus on the fact that the Air Force is all about the air and McChord Air Force Base was just outside Seattle. They were in what seemed to be a fortunate situation because during 1971, we were still in the Cold War. It was feared that Soviet bombers might show up at any given moment, dolling out hot, nuclear death. Waiting to meet them were men of the USAF's Air Defense Command (ADC), whose job it was to defend American airspace. ADC interceptors were ready day or night at designated bases to bring down any intruding commie bombers. That night two pilots from McChord AFB got a new mission, one their aircraft were literally not built for at all.

Emblem of the Air Defense Command, patch from the 318th Fighter Interceptor Squadron, and because a guantlet wielding lightning with an olive branch in the sky looks cool: The Strategic Air Command, better known as SAC, shield.

We imagine a transcript of the phone call between the two agencies to get things started went something like this:

Unknown to most people, inside Air Force buildings, color was completely filtered out of all light until 1981.

Regardless of the actual conversation, our USAF was able to get two F-106 Delta Darts into the air pretty quickly, mostly because of that Cold War thing we mentioned earlier. However the same reason they were so available made them the worst choice. Why? Well we're pretty sure this was not the situation envisioned by Convair when they were designing the F-106, the same way a Ferrari isn't made to be useful as a tractor trailer. You see, this baby was an interceptor, which meant it was supposed to fly high and fast to catch incoming bombers as far from their targets as possible.

Remember we mentioned Cooper wanted a speed around 200 miles per hour? He didn't know it, but flying slow had other effects besides making it easier for him to jump. For the F-106, 200 mph was a speed appropriate just after takeoff or moments before landing. That's because its delta wing configuration totally ruled for flight at or above mach 1, but also made the F-106 almost unflyable at 200 mph.

Pilots of the 318th Fighter Interceptor Squadron flew the F-106 in 1971. Here, one unleashes an unarmed AIR-2 Genie during a test. The Genie was a nuclear tipped air to air rocket with inertial guidance. Which meant it was guided by inertia, otherwise known as where the engine takes it, usually straight ahead.

A better choice might have been a C-130, C-141, or even a C-5. Hell, not only were those planes actually made to airdrop people, so flying slow was no problem, they also could've been carrying guys to catch Cooper after he jumped. The problem was that we didn't have cargo planes on the same kind of ready status as the F-106s, so by the time one got in the air Cooper would have been long gone. It didn't matter though: What with it being night time, in rain, with passing clouds and Cooper wanting all cabin lights turned off, they probably couldn't have seen him anyway.

Between 7:34 and 7:42 FBI transcripts show that Cooper had a hard time getting the airstairs deployed, he'd also sent the stewardess up to the cockpit. Maybe Cooper hadn't counted on the 200 mph wind essentially blowing them closed, but eventually he got the stairs deployed. Then, he waited. Minutes ticked by, ten, twenty and as half an hour approached as the pilots tried communicating via intercom/interphone with Cooper. He ignored them until about 8:05 when the hijacker said everything was ok.

Finally at 8:12 the pilot noticed that his aircraft began to oscillate towards a slightly nose up attitude. In other words, as Cooper descended the stairs his weight caused the tail to drop a tad, which also meant the nose pointed up too. Kinda like what happens when someone jumps off the rear bumper of a car or pickup truck. The moment he finally lept was probably when the pilot noticed the nose rise.

What Happened to Cooper?

Franz Reichelt's demise illustrates one possible end to D.B. Cooper's heist.

Let's start out with what we know: He was successful in leaving the aircraft because he wasn't aboard when it landed. Nor were the money or two of the parachutes, and like we said before, one of the missing chutes was sewn closed. He took almost everything he brought aboard with him, even the ransom note, but left behind his tie and the mother of pearl tie tag attached to it. Also taken were cords from one of the left behind chutes, the stewardess caught a glimpse of Cooper using them to secure the money bag to himself.

We also know that $5,880 in twenty dollar bills, with matching serial numbers, were located on a riverbank near Vancouver (Washington, not BC) in 1980. Meaning that the bag either came open or Cooper put it there on purpose. Further we know that these are the only bills with serial numbers given to Cooper which have been accounted for.

Finally, we know that the parachute aspect of this caper can actually be done. Another guy named Richard McCoy pulled it off a few months later. Actually he jumped with $500,000, managed to survive and made it home, but failed to evade the FBI. They had his ass in less than two days, because like Cooper, he made mistakes. McCoy's mistakes involved not getting caught, Cooper's were about stuff that could easily have killed him.

We assume Cooper planned on leaving the country, but don't know for sure so we had to give him a B+.

People, and the feds, thought McCoy WAS Cooper when he was captured. That didn't last long as it was soon established McCoy was both in Utah when Cooper struck and completely unlike him in several ways. Almost everything Cooper seemed to understand about successfully committing the crime itself, McCoy showed himself to be totally incompetent.

He started turning heads before the actual hijack by choosing "flashy" clothes, something Cooper did not do on his flight. Then after everyone had taken their seats, and before the door was closed for pushback, a ticket agent came aboard with an envelope a passenger had left behind. McCoy claimed the envelope, his demands were inside, and then immediately occupied a bathroom. He was in there long enough that a stewardess had to ask him to come out so they could take off. When he came out, some folks noticed he'd donned a wig and mustache, which is like putting on a disguise while waiting in line to see a bank teller you plan on robbing.

Besides wanting $500,000, McCoy also chose a different way to get the attention of a stewardess, he pulled out a grenade and started messing with the pin. All in all he managed to look like a total jackass until he started giving instructions for where to go. McCoy would jump at night too, but the weather was much better and he told the pilot to fly over a series of towns the last being Provo, Utah. When he jumped, he knew exactly where he was, and also this wasn't his first jump. He had been a skydiver for years, unlike Cooper, he brought proper gear for skydiving, like coveralls, goggles and boots.

Once on the ground McCoy transformed back into a total idiot. He showed up at a roadside burger stand with his jump gear, ordered a milkshake, then paid $5 to a 16 year old for a ride into Provo. McCoy had also been sure to mention to several people that he could've pulled off the Cooper heist, but would have asked for half a million bucks. Between people telling the feds about his boast and the driver who took McCoy into town, it didn't take long to catch up with this master criminal.

Not suspicious at all: Hey, could I get a ride into town? There's a cool five bucks in it for you...

As stupid as McCoy turned out to be in committing the crime itself, Cooper was equally clueless about what was actually involved in skydiving. For example, if he planned on jumping at a point on the route from Seattle to Mexico City, that went out the window when he agreed to head for Reno. Then there was the layer of clouds 5000 feet below, totally obscuring any lights on the ground he may or may not have set up in addition to his choice of a reserve parachute which happened to be sewn shut.

When Cooper entered the airstream we can pretty much guarantee things did not go as he expected. We know this because he'd evidently planned on having shoes when he landed, otherwise he'd of done the hijacking barefoot, so apparently he expected them to still be on his feet at touchdown. That part of his plan was probably ripped from his feet seconds after he jumped. Since loafers don't have laces they along with the sunglasses, and anything else not tied to him were stripped from his body by a brutal blast of below freezing air. Air going about 200 mph that maybe even took his socks and opened the moneybag too. Granted he started slowing down to terminal velocity once he was no longer on the airplane, that's still over 125 mph, which is pretty damn unbearable. Anyone who's ever ridden in an open air vehicle, like a Jeep, going 50 mph in a temperature less than 50 degrees without a coat sort of knows what Cooper went through. The same way anyone who's burned themselves cooking knows what it's like to be engulfed in flames.

Together, they could probably have made this thing work, each posessing knowledge crucial to success. It would almost have been the real life version of a Pet Shop Boys song from the 80s. You know, if they were British and had actually known each other. Also the song implies one guy being the brains while the other guy had brawn, in this case it would've been two brainy guys with special knowledge. So maybe they really had nothing in common at all, anyway, here's the video...

On the other hand both this song and Cooper were all about making money through crime, so there's that.

What do we think happened? He had nothing to protect his hands from the bitter cold, hell if he grabbed the handrails he might've left skin stuck to them. He also lacked eye protection beyond a pair of wrap around sunglasses which were most likely snatched right off as soon as he jumped. We tend to imagine his frozen fingers probably had trouble finding and operating the ripcord. Combined with his exposed face and feet, things would have been very painful and then numb in a hurry. Also his solution for keeping the money attached to himself appears to have been at least partially ineffective, maybe he spent a lot of the time trying to get the bag secured. Death probably met him when he hit the deck. Even if he finally got a chute deployed, he would have had a really hard time getting around with frostbitten feet, hands, and frozen eyes somewhere in the wilderness.

Come to think of it, Cooper's fate is less like Tony Soprano eating, and more like that Russian commando guy Paulie and Christopher probably killed. Probably.

Three More Copycats

Cooper and McCoy weren't the only ones who gave this caper a try, life is tough and there was money to be had! 31 year old Stanley Speck figured he could do better than the two men who'd already tried this stunt. He was wrong, so very wrong in a hilariously awesome way. While attempting to hijack a Pacific Southwest Airlines 727, he actually left the airplane. The pilot said he needed navigational charts, and Speck opted to take care of that for him. Which is kind of a big no-no when you're holding the plane hostage. After all once you leave, the same pilot could have just closed the door, activated thrust reversers, and gotten the hell out of there.

Luckily Speck wasn't abandoned by his hostages, nope, he was taken down by a couple of feds dressed up as aircraft technicians.

So what the hell could be funnier than that? Not much on this subject, but how about a dipshit who hijacked the wrong kind of airplane? Cooper, McCoy, and even Speck managed to pick an airplane with ventral airstairs. The ventral airstairs extend down near the back of the airplane, giving one an obstruction free way off of said plane. It's not that other planes didn't have them, at least three* others did or would. All other airstairs deploy from under the side doors which makes them useless for these purposes, unless one doesn't mind taking a wing to the face.

56 year old Major Burton Davenport kinda sounded like a commando, by his name alone. Hell, it has ring kind of like Bruce Willis' character from The Fifth Element, Major Korben Dallas. Plus his first name appears to be Burton.

We know a cool guy with the same last name.

Well in the movie Major was a rank and in real life his first name was Major. Unlike many of us, Davenport's first name was the kind that should be hidden in an initial. We'd of gone by Burton Davenport, but each to his own we suppose. Besides an unfortunate name, this guy also caught the Cooper Wave and hijacked a Continental Airlines 707 heading to Hawaii. He was a total moron for considering either a jump over the ocean and the complications that would bring, or he was gonna bail out over an island. Davenport was talked out of it after an hour.

Last, and possibly least, was what Ricardo Chavez-Ortiz tried accomplishing on a Frontier plane. Like Davenport, he chose a plane without ventral airstairs but he picked a 737. Unlike any of the others, he was a 37 year old with psychiatric problems, and didn't want money. He wanted equality for all minorities, which was indeed something worth a plane load of people, and a noble goal. The problem was the airline, and more specifically, their lack of any control over how people treat each other.

After a few interviews with some Spanish language media, he just gave up.

*They were/are the Douglas DC-9, BAC One-Eleven, and in 1980 the Yak-42.