Shortly after takeoff, a thin, olive-skinned man motioned for the flight attendant from the back of the plane. When she approached, the man slipped her a note and whispered, “Read that.” The flight attendant, thinking the man just wanted a date, stuck the piece of paper in her pocket and began to walk off. The man stopped her.
“Miss, I have a bomb.”
In the roughly three hours that followed, the man — calling himself Dan Cooper — pulled off the first and only successful major skyjacking in the United States.
On Sunday, the case will have baffled FBI agents for 25 years. Authorities still don’t know where Cooper came from or where he went with $200,000 ransom after he leaped from the plane with a parachute somewhere over Cowlitz or Clark counties.
Cooper was described as calm, calculating and cordial throughout the ordeal. He didn’t hurt anybody, and he beat the best crime fighters this country could muster. For his deed, Cooper has been immortalized by some as a folk hero. Otto Larsen, a University of Washington sociologist who studied the case, described the public’s admiration for Cooper this way:
It was “an awesome feat in the battle of man against the machine — one man overcoming, technology, the corporation, the establishment, the system. Thus, the hijacker comes off as a kind of curious Robin Hood, taking from the rich — or at least the big and complex. It doesn’t matter whether he gives it to the poor.”
Ralph Himmelsbach, the FBI agent who chased Cooper until retirement in 1980, said in previous interviews Cooper probably was an outcast who died with his money in the wilderness of the Pacific Northwest.
“(Cooper) was very likely an ex-con who was going to make one last, desperate go for the big one,” Himmelsbach said. “If he made it, fine. If not, he probably felt he had very little to lose.”
Himmelsbach said Cooper’s finale probably wasn’t glorious or romantic. He said Cooper likely was injured in the parachute jump and died.
It was a dark and rainy Thanksgiving Eve, Nov. 24, 1971, when a man calling himself Dan Cooper appeared at the Northwest Orient Airlines ticket counter at Portland International Airport. He paid cash for a 4:35 p.m. flight to Seattle, then waited 50 minutes to board the plane. He took a seat near the back.
Moments after takeoff, he handed the attendant the note that warned the crew he had a bomb.
He even gave the flight attendant a peek inside his briefcase, which contained a tangle of wires and red sticks that appeared to be explosives.
He told her he wanted $200,000, four parachutes and “no funny stuff.” He threatened to destroy the plane if not flown to safety. About 5:40 p.m., the plane landed at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, where it was refueled and other passengers were evacuated.
Cooper’s demands were met by authorities. He then ordered the plane to fly toward Mexico via Reno at no more than 10,000 feet. He wanted the wing flaps partially down and landing gear lowered, keeping the plane at a speed safe for jumping.
After takeoff from Seattle, Cooper ordered the one remaining attendant into the cockpit. He lowered the rear stairway about 8 p.m. At 8:13 p.m., as the plane flew over the Lewis River and Southwest Washington, the plane’s gauges recorded a slight bump in pressure. The FBI figured that was when Cooper jumped.
Cooper, the money and two parachutes were missing when the plane landed in Reno.
One of the missing parachutes was a training model that was inoperable and sewn shut. The other was a sport parachute that could have dropped undetected by the three Air Force planes following the skyjacker’s flight. FBI agents who inspected the plane also found a skinny black tie, a tie tack, cigarette butts and a few unidentified fingerprints.
Authorities leaked to the press that they were questioning a Portland man named Daniel B. Cooper, who went by his initials. But that D.B. Cooper was cleared, and the infamous D.B. Cooper was created by headlines.
Heavy rain hampered the ensuing air-ground search of Southwest Washington, which had its headquarters in Woodland City Hall. Authorities combed the area for 18 days with planes, helicopters and more than 300 soldiers. No trace of Cooper was found.
In 1980, an 8-year-old Vancouver boy uncovered a stack of the ransom money in the sand at Tena Bar on the Columbia River, five miles downriver from downtown Vancouver.
That led to more speculation and searches but still no Cooper. FBI agent Himmelsbach later acknowledged that more money had been spent looking for Cooper than the hijacker made off with in ransom.
“We have to accept the possibility that we may never know (any more about Cooper),” Himmelsbach said. “I guess we can live with that, if we have to.”
TEST YOUR D.B. I.Q.
1. What was the slogan on T-shirts created by local entrepreneurs after D.B. Cooper’s skyjacking?
2. What national weekly magazine at the last minute killed a cover story with a supposedly authentic Cooper interview?
3. Cooper was particularly familiar with what part of Washington?
4. In 1980, a Cooper copycat tried to skyjack a Boeing 727 at Sea-Tac International Airport. How did that case end up?
5. What did the 8-year-old Vancouver boy get in return for the $5,800 of Cooper’s money he found on the banks of the Columbia River?
6. In 1981, Hollywood produced a movie called “The Pursuit of D.B. Cooper.” Name two of the stars.
You’ll find the answers below.
* Last seen: Nov. 24, 1971, wearing wrap-around sunglasses, a black suit, white shirt and dark raincoat.
* Age: About 45
* Hair: Dark brown or black
* Eyes: Brown
* Skin complexion: Olive
* Build: Athletic
* Height: About 6 feet tall
* Weight: About 170 pounds
* Smoked: Filter-tip cigarettes
* Drank: Whiskey
* Deameanor: Calm, yet at times obscene and demanding
D.B. I.Q. ANSWERS
1. “D.B. Cooper, Where Are You?”
3. Tacoma. During a conversation with the flight attendant, Cooper said he could recognize Tacoma from the air and asked that his parachutes be brought from Tacoma’s McChord Air Force Base.
4. A flight attendant slipped the man a couple of Valiums. He later reduced his demands from $100,000 and two parachutes to a rental car and three cheeseburgers.
5. The boy, Brian Ingram, received a $2,760 reward, including 15 of the original Cooper bills. His mother said he bought a motorcycle and VCR with it. The rest was deposited in a bank for college.
6. Robert Duvall, Kathryn Harrold, Treat Williams and Ed Flanders.