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Parachuting into Legend: D.B. Cooper

Published by Steve Campion. Category: History

Forty years ago tomorrow, a Boeing 727 lifted off from Portland and launched a mysterious man into legend.  Did he get away with extortion and hijacking?  Did he die in the attempt?  The story of D. B. Cooper has kept people wondering for four decades.

When a boy found verified Cooper cash along the Columbia River in 1980, the unsolved crime was back in the news.  Whenever evidence was disclosed or a suspect was suggested in the media (as happened earlier this year when a woman threw attention to her deceased uncle), the leading theories circulated again.

Articles and books have been written about the D.B. Cooper case over the years.  Many of them contain much more information than we can provide in the space here.  But on this 40th anniversary, we’re presenting a list of facts about those crucial five or six hours — the only time period anyone has any authentic record of the man.  If you’ve never heard the story, we hope this list might motivate you to learn more.

One fact you should know from the start concerns the name. D.B. Cooper was not his name.  It wasn’t even his alias.  The hijacker boarded the airplane as Dan Cooper.  One of the first reporters on the story phoned in D.B. Cooper after a minor communication mix-up.  The wire services picked it up and the media parroted it thereafter.  They never let it go.  Even today we know the hijacker by a mistaken name rendered while relaying his alias.

38 FACTS ABOUT D. B. COOPER

  • On the afternoon of Nov. 24, 1971 — the day before Thanksgiving — a man paid cash for a one-way plane fare at a ticket counter at Portland International Airport.  It cost him $20 ($18.52 plus tax).
  • He bought the ticket under the name Dan Cooper.
  • He was described as a white male, mid-40s, about 175 pounds, with dark brown or black hair and olive skin.
  • He boarded the Northwest Orient Airlines plane with a black briefcase.
  • This was Flight 305, leaving at 2:50 p.m. with 37 passengers (including Cooper), from Portland to Seattle on a Boeing 727-100 (#N467US).
  • He took a seat in the back (row 18 starboard side), set his case in the window seat, lit a cigarette, and ordered a bourbon and 7-Up.
  • Seconds before takeoff, he handed an envelope to flight attendant Florence Schaffner.
  • Thinking it was a love note of no consequence, she tucked it in her purse.  He saw that and told her to read it.
  • The note, hand-written in thick, black upper case letters, indicated that he had a bomb and was hijacking the plane.
  • Schaffner asked to see the bomb.  Cooper opened his briefcase slightly revealing several red sticks about 8 inches long.  There were wires and what looked like a large battery.
  • Cooper donned a pair of sunglasses which he would wear from that moment on.
  • He told Schaffner that he wanted $200,000 in unmarked $20 bills, four parachutes, and a truck ready to refuel the plane once they landed in Seattle.
  • Schaffner reported this to the pilot as Cooper instructed.
  • Pilot William Scott and Copilot Bill Rataczak radioed their airline’s operations headquarters in Minnesota.
  • Local and federal authorities were notified and mobilized almost immediately.
  • Although the Portland to Seattle flight was typically a short half-hour hop, the plane circled Puget Sound for two hours as people on the ground readied everything that Cooper had demanded.
  • Witnesses said Cooper kept his cool during this time, appeared relaxed, and remained calmly talkative.
  • The airline authorized the ransom money, which was collected from several Seattle banks and photographed. (Imagine trying to gather 10,000 twenties!  I’ve read they weighed 21 pounds, by the way.)
  • Four parachutes were collected from a commercial skydiving school.  By accident, one was a non-functioning classroom demonstration chute.
  • The 727 landed at Sea-Tac at 5:45 p.m, after all the money and parachutes were at the airport.
  • Cooper had the plane taxi to a specific well-lit place and demanded the cabin lights be turned off.
  • Al Lee, an airline manager, delivered the money and parachutes to the plane.
  • Cooper released the passengers and two flight attendants (including Schaffner).
  • The airline refueled the plane.
  • Cooper gave the crew a curious new flight plan:  They were to fly to Mexico City at low altitude (10,000 feet) and at very slow speed with the landing gear down, wing flaps at 15 degrees, and an non-pressurized cabin.  These flight conditions would burn fuel quickly and everyone agreed they would refuel in Reno, Nevada.
  • The plane left Sea-Tac again at 7:40 p.m.  Onboard were Cooper, the pilot, copilot, flight engineer and one flight attendant.  All were told to stay in the cockpit.
  • Tina Mucklow, the flight attendant, last saw Cooper as she closed the first class curtain.  He was tying the money bag around his waist.
  • McChord Air Force Base in Tacoma sent two F-106 fighter planes into the sky to follow the 727.
  • At 8:00 p.m., the crew detected activation of the stairs in the rear of the plane and noted that the cabin pressure had dropped.  The exterior temperature was minus 7.
  • Cooper was last heard speaking shortly after this event.
  • At 8:13 p.m., the crew felt a bounce at the rear of the plane.
  • 10:15 p.m., the plane landed in Reno with its still-open stairs scraping on the runway, where law enforcement searched the plane and confirmed Cooper and the money were gone.  Left behind were two of the parachutes (the bad one was missing), a clip-on tie, a tie clip, dozens of fingerprints, and DNA samples (taken from the evidence in later years).
  • If Cooper jumped at 8:13, he would have landed in southwest Washington a few miles east of Woodland, either north or south of the Lewis River.
  • In 1980, 8-year-old Brian Ingram found three rubber-banded bundles of badly preserved cash buried in the riverbank sand along the Columbia River downstream from Vancouver.
  • The FBI confirmed that the cash ($5,800) was from the hijacking.
  • Cooper has never been found or identified.  The FBI case remains open and a bureau-sanctioned group Citizen Sleuths continues the investigation.
  • One of the most tantalizing theories in recent years identified D.B. Cooper as Kenneth Christiansen.  Christiansen lived in a house (now a print shop, shown at right) on the Old Sumner-Buckley Highway in Bonney Lake from 1972 until his death in 1994.
  • Christiansen’s brother Lyle first suggested him.  Skipp Porteous, a detective Lyle hired, published the theory in 2010.  Kenneth Christiansen had been a trained Army paratrooper and worked many years for Northwest Orient.  Many personal and physical characteristics, idiosyncrasies, and material, anecdotal, and circumstantial evidence add weight to the theory.

SOURCES:  I’ve read many articles about the case over the years.  These facts are from a combination of my notes, the public FBI files, and Skyjack: The Hunt for D.B. Cooper, a recent book by Geoffrey Gray.

IMAGES:  (top) The “wanted” poster circulated by the FBI, (center) the sketch made from eyewitness descriptions, (bottom) photo of suspect’s former Bonney Lake home by Steve Campion.

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