It is a case that has enthralled and frustrated for decades. A crime so brazen – so daring – it has entered U.S folklore and remains to this day the only successful skyjacking in the nation’s history.
The D.B Cooper case has absolutely everything you need in a rip-roaring crime yarn, which culminated in the hijacker parachuting out of a passenger airliner while in mid-flight along with his $200,000 ransom (around $1.2 million today) – never to be seen or heard from again.
Some say he was killed on the way down, others claim to know his identity, but the D.B Cooper case remains unsolved, nearly fifty years after it took place.
It was 24th November 1971 – the day before thanksgiving. A man in his mid-40s wearing a smart business suit, a crisp white shirt, a black tie and carrying a black briefcase made his way through Portland International Airport to the desk of Northwest Orient Airlines, where he purchased a one-way ticket on an afternoon flight to Seattle. He paid with cash and gave the name Dan Cooper but did nothing at all to arouse the suspicion of airline staff.
Flight 305 was only a third-full, witnesses later recalled. As passengers began boarding the aircraft, one by one they took their seats and settled in for the short thirty-minute flight to Seattle. Dan Cooper installed himself in seat 18C located in the back of the aircraft and ordered a bourbon and soda.
The flight took off on time at 2.50 pm and began climbing into the sky. Close to Dan Cooper, in one of the aircraft’s jump seats, sat flight attendant Florence Schaffner. Shortly after take-off, Cooper handed her a note, but assuming it was just another phone number from an overzealous or lonely passenger, she tossed into her open bag. Cooper watched her do this, then leaned across and whispered,
“Miss, you’d better look at that note. I have a bomb.”
Schaffner reached into her bag and unfolded the piece of paper. The message stated that the man was carrying a bomb in his suitcase and wanted $200,000 in negotiable currency, along with a refuelling truck waiting on the ground in Seattle and four parachutes (2 primary and 2 reserves). Copper asked Schaffner to move and sit in the vacant next to him, which she did, before asking to see the bomb. Cooper inched open the case to reveal eight red cylinders along with wiring coated with red insulation and a large cylindrical battery. Cooper nodded in the direction of the cabin to mean she should pass on the information to the pilots.
The captain that day was William A. Scott, who had served in the United States Army Air Forces during World War II, so no doubt knew a thing or two about dicey situations. He immediately relayed the demands to the Seattle–Tacoma Airport air traffic control, who in turn contacted the local authorities, the FBI and the owners of Northwest Orient Airlines. The speed at which everything happened was quite remarkable. The passengers on the aircraft were told that because of a mechanical delay their arrival into Seattle would be delayed. Northwest Orient’s president, Donald Nyrop agreed to pay the ransom immediately and while the money and parachutes were being organised the aircraft circled the airport for two hours.
Both Schaffner and another flight attendant, Tina Mucklow remembered DB Cooper as calm, polite, and well-spoken – a world away from the manic hijackers that were often depicted in the news and movies. He was, as they recalled, thoughtful and nice throughout the flight, and even paid for his drinks tab after ordering a second bourbon and soda.
While things may have been calm in the air, on the ground events were gathering pace. The money was soon arranged and waiting at Seattle airport, consisting of 10,000 $20 bills. Importantly, most came from the 1963A or 1969 series and all had been photographed using microfilm by the FBI. Cooper had specifically asked for non-military parachutes which initially took some time to source but four were eventually found courtesy of a local skydiving school.
At 5.24 pm, Cooper was informed that all of his demands had been met and he immediately instructed the pilot to land flight 305. After touching down at 5.39 pm, Copper ordered the aircraft to taxi to a distant, but brightly lit part of the airport and that all window shades be lowered, fearing snipers may have been lying in wait.
Al Lee, Northwest Orient’s Seattle operations manager, approached the aircraft in street clothes to make it clear he was not a member of the police and handed the money and parachutes to Mucklow via the rear stairs. Once Cooper had the ransom, he ordered the passengers off the plane and for the aircraft to be refuelled. It’s probably worth adding that as the passengers began disembarking most still had no idea they had been on a hijacked flight.
During this period, he gave instructions to the crew who would be staying with the aircraft. He planned to fly south to Mexico City, but it also came with several odd requests; the landing gear would remain down at all time, the wing flaps should be lowered to 15 degrees, and the cabin remain unpressurized at all times. Co-pilot William J. Rataczak informed Cooper that under those conditions the aircraft would need a secondary refuelling stop before reaching Mexico City and they agreed that Reno in Nevada would be that stop.
At 7.40 pm, flight 305 once again took off, but now with only five people on board; Cooper, Captain Scott, flight attendant Mucklow, co-pilot Rataczak, and flight engineer Harold E. Anderson. Shortly after take-off, Copper ordered Mucklow to move down into the cockpit and remain inside with the door locked. She did so, but still caught sight of Cooper ‘tying something around his waist’.
What came next is unclear, but when the aircraft landed in Reno at 10.15 pm, Cooper was no longer on board. With the four in the cockpit, they had no way of knowing exactly when Cooper had ejected, but at 8.00 pm a warning light had told them that the aft stairs had been deployed and at 8.13 pm the tail section of the plane was shaken by an unknown event – it’s here that D.B Cooper is thought to have parachuted out of flight 305 and into a fierce rainstorm that had enveloped the area.
The Investigation Begins
What came next became one of the longest-running FBI investigations in U.S history, amounting to a largely fruitless 45 years of ifs, buts and maybes. In 2016, the case was officially closed with the FBI admitting it needed to focus its attention on more pressing matters.
By that point, an astonishing 60 volumes of case files along with a 28-part packet full of evidence had been compiled – but this was very much a case of quantity over quality. This has gone down in U.S history as one of the most studied crimes ever, with everyone from the FBI, local law enforcement, journalists, authors, private investigators and filmmakers running the rule of this intriguing case. But despite all of it, the mystery continues.
Shortly after flight 305 landed in Reno and it was determined that D.B Cooper was no longer on the plane, the FBI began mapping out the potential drop zone, which was easier said than done. After the plane had taken off from Seattle, it had been shadowed by two fighter jets but neither pilot recalled seeing anything ejected from the back of flight 305.
When the crew onboard were interviewed they were able to give a rough position of where the plane was when they felt a shake come from the tail section, but even then pinpointing where a parachutist would land was incredibly difficult. Investigators needed to take into account wind speed at the time, the speed of the aircraft and how long Dan Cooper fell before pulling his parachute – if he had managed to do so at all.
The FBI carried out a recreation using a 91 kg (200-pound) sledge which they pushed out of the back of a Boeing 727 travelling on the same route with the same configurations. They found that it created the same shake in the tail section, which led them to work under the assumption that 8.13 pm had indeed been the moment Dan Cooper jumped from the aircraft.
The initial search grid focused on an area close to Mt St Helens, near to the small community of Ariel in Washington State. Clark and Cowlitz counties became the focal point and an extensive ground search soon got underway. Now, let me just say, if you were going to choose an area to disappear in the United States, it might well be here. The land is rugged, mountainous and can be foreboding – but also the perfect place to vanish.
Not only did the authorities not find Dan Cooper, but they failed to find any evidence whatsoever that he had even been in the area. Over the next six months, several large-scale coordinated searches involving soldiers, Air Force personnel, national guardsmen, civilian volunteers as well as the FBI and local authorities combed the area. Boats and a submarine scoured nearby Lake Merwin and aircraft tracked back and forth along the flight path in the hope of spotting something. But nothing was found – not a shred of evidence. It was as if Dan Cooper had simply disappeared.
With the massive search proving increasingly frustrating, the FBI had to make do with the scant evidence that they did have. The eye witness statements from both flight attendants were almost identical, Copper was described as; mid-40s, 1.78 metres (5 feet 10 inches) tall, 82 kg (180 pounds), with close-set piercing brown eyes and swarthy skin. Sketches done by the FBI were quickly circulated and appeared on TV and in newspapers across the country.
As far as physical evidence goes, it was fairly thin. 66 unidentified fingerprints had been found on the aircraft, which hardly narrowed things down. But the FBI also recovered Cooper’s black clip-on tie, his tie clip, two of the four parachutes and eight filter-tipped Raleigh cigarette butts left by Cooper. Inexplicably, the cigarette butts managed to disappear shortly after the investigation began. Officially it was down to a human error, but that’s one hell of a human error.
The FBI sent out the serial numbers of the ransom bills to banks, casinos and other places that one might try to launder a large quantity of money in the area, but not a single bill ever turned up – well, never in a bank or casino that is.
THE WILDERNESS YEARS
As 1971 became 1972 and then 70s became the 80s the investigation progressed at a painfully slow pace, with few promising leads. One of the earliest was a set of instructions for lowering the aft stairs of a Boeing 727 was found about 21 km (13 miles) east of Castle Rock, Washington in 1978, which had presumably come from flight 305.
But on 10th February 1980, the most significant find of the entire investigation occurred. Not by the FBI or the legions of private investigators now dedicating their time to the search, but an inquisitive eight-year-old child. Young Brian Ingram was on holiday with his family on the Columbia River roughly 32 km (20 miles) southwest of Ariel and was raking the riverbank intending to build a campfire when he spotted something poking through the sand. Digging down he pulled out three plastic bags – and we can only imagine the shock on the young boy’s face when he saw what was inside.
Brian Ingram had found three packets containing some of the ransom money given to Dan Cooper. Two came complete with one hundred bills in each, while the third had only 90. The bills were in various states of disintegration but were still rolled in the same way they had been during the hijacking.
But actually, the find did next to nothing to help the investigation. In 1986 it was agreed that the bills would be shared between Ingram and the insurance company that had dealt with the incident, with the FBI retaining 14 examples. In 2008, Ingram sold 15 of the bills for $37,000.
As the case moved into the 21st Century, the FBI announced that they had managed to recover a scrap of DNA from the tie – but alas, according to the bureau, no firm conclusions could be drawn from it. They also revealed that of the two primary parachutes, Cooper had chosen the older one rather than the superior alternative. But also that one of the reserve parachutes had been a dud to be used in classroom training, and it was this reserve that Cooper took with him, despite it clearly saying on the parachute that it couldn’t be used.
The theory that Cooper successfully parachuted out of flight 305 has fluctuated over time. In the early stages of the investigation, it was believed he may have been ex-military or had some kind of parachute training. But as time went on, this theory began to look increasingly flimsy.
Not only had he chosen the parachutes badly, but he had also failed to request a helmet. This would have been a difficult jump in ideal conditions, but the weather that night verged on the extreme. Even with the flaps down, the aircraft was most likely travelling around 276km/h (172 mph) at an altitude of roughly 3,000 metres (10,000 feet). Jumping out in those conditions without a helmet, wearing smart clothes and a light coat and into wind temperatures in the region of −9 °C (15 °F), isn’t impossible to survive – but it also isn’t exactly likely. Many remain adamant that Dan Cooper died sometime on the way down.
But to compound, the mystery, a series of letters were sent shortly after the hijacking to various newspapers, signed, D.B Cooper. The FBI assumed that some, if not all of the letters had been hoaxes, but it certainly added some extra spice to the investigation. The first read,
“Attention! Thanks for the hospitality. Was in a rut.”
“The composite drawing on Page 3 as suspected by the FBI does not represent the truth. I enjoyed the Grey Cup game. Am leaving Vancouver. Thanks for the hospitality.”
The tone continued for another four letters, though the final two were only made public after a request by investigators in 2016 – and more on those letters shortly.
WHO WAS DAN COOPER?
The question of who Dan Cooper is, or was, is one that led the FBI to examine close to 1,000 suspects over the 45-year investigation. The overwhelming majority were quickly discounted, but here are a few which held the attention for longer. And I’ll leave it to you to decide.
The first name to come up has stuck. When the authorities found that a local man with the name Dan B Cooper had a minor police record they thought it might have been all a little too easy – and it was. Dan B Cooper was quickly scratched from the investigation, but several reporters jumped the gun and reported the name D.B Cooper as a potential suspect, which has managed to stay in the public consciousness ever since.
Richard Floyd McCoy, Jr
On 7th April 1972, Richard Floyd McCoy Jr boarded flight 855 from Denver to San Francisco. Shortly after takeoff, he brandished a ransom demand for $500,000 ($3.1 million today) along with a threat to blow up the plane with a bomb he was carrying (which turned out to be a paperweight). After the ransom was paid in San Francisco, he ordered the aircraft back into the air and bailed out over Utah.
Two days later he was apprehended and sentenced to 45 years in prison. Two years after he escaped and was killed in a shootout with FBI agents. The similarities between the two cases were stark and immediately led some to ask if this had been Dan Cooper. His picture certainly looks similar and McCoy’s family claimed that the necktie found onboard flight 305 looked like one McCoy owned. However, the FBI concluded that he had been in Las Vegas on the day of the first hijacking and his own hijacking may have simply been a copycat crime.
WALTER R RECA
Shortly before he died in 2014, Walter R Reca reportedly confessed to being Dan Copper to his friend Carl Laurin, who revealed the revelations in 2018 along with a four-part documentary. Laurin had three hours worth of testimony from Reca who had gone into meticulous detail about the case. Through this testimony, Laurin was able to pinpoint a landing zone – close to Cle Elum in Washington. Reca also paid particular attention to a man who had helped him that night he supposedly hijacked flight 305, who he described as “a cowboy driving a dump truck”.
Ok, now rewind to the night of the hijacking. JEFF OSIADACZ, a Cle Elum resident was driving his dump truck through the driving rain when he spotted a man trudging along the side of the road. Soon after, he stopped in a diner and shortly after the man, who he described as looking like a drowned rat, walked through the door. He reportedly asked Osiadacz where exactly he was and whether he would be able to give directions to a friend if he called on the diner’s payphone. Osiadacz agreed, spoke with the man’s friend and directed him to the diner. Shortly after he left and thought little of the interaction he had had.
Decades later, after hearing Reca’s revelations, Laurin somehow managed to find the cowboy from Cle Elum. Even after all this time, Osiadacz’s memory was clear of that night and took only a quick look at a photo of Reca before saying with clear certainty, that’s him.
This is one suspect that refuses to go quietly. Rackstraw, a retired pilot and ex-convict, came to the attention of investigators in 1978. He had spent time fighting in Vietnam and had ample parachute experience. It also emerged that he had served within classified units with plenty of practice with coded messaging. His appearance seemed to match that of Cooper, but after both flight attendances studied his image, they both concluded it couldn’t have been him and his name was effectively scratched from the list in 1978.
However, things took another turn in 2016 when private investigators successfully obtained the fifth and sixth letters reportedly written by Cooper. The fifth started with,
“Sirs, I knew from the start that I wouldn’t be caught. I didn’t rob Northwest Orient because I thought it would be romantic, heroic or any of the other euphemisms that seem to attach to situations of high risks. I’m no modern-day Robin Hood. Unfortunately, I do have only 14 months to live”.
And here’s where things get interesting. The investigators believe that the fifth and sixth letters are written in code and have the numbers 717171684 embedded in them – which they deciphered as “I’m LT Robert W. Rackstraw”. They claim that the last letter includes the coded statement, “I’m LT Robert W. Rackstraw, D.B. Cooper is not my real name. I want out of the system and saw a way by hijacking one jet plane.”
And to really blow up the whole investigations, the private investigators made some extraordinary claims that the FBI has known all along who Dan Cooper was, but chose to cover it all up because, and I quote from an article that appeared in the Rolling Stones, “he was involved in numerous classified units during the war and may have worked for the CIA”
Robert Rackstraw died in 2019 aged 76 rejecting these claims until the very end.
THE MYSTERY GOES ON
This is a tale that has obsessed the minds of many for decades now. Is it the enthralling mystery of it all? The sheer gazump of attempting something like that? Or the fact that those who interacted with Cooper all remarked just how pleasant he seemed?
Criminals tend to get a bad rap, almost always rightly so, but Dan Cooper is a figure that has bewitched many. The audacity to jump out of a moving plane, at night and in freezing rain, while clinging to $200,000 is a story that many remain enamoured with and it’s one of those strange crimes that you almost want to root for the criminal. But without a clear end in sight and a jumbled mess of conflicting evidence, this is a mystery that is set to continue for some time to come.