Dan Cooper is the pseudonym of an unknown man who hijacked a Boeing 727 aircraft in United States airspace between Seattle and Portland on November 24, 1971. The man bought his airline ticket using the pseudonym Dan Cooper but became known in conventional lore as D. B. Cooper because of a media miscommunication. He extorted over $200,000 in ransom (equivalent to $1,290,000 in 2020) and parachuted to an unknown fate. Despite an extensive search and long FBI investigation, the perpetrator has never been identified or located. It remains the only unsolved case of hijacking in aviation history.
On November 24, 1971 (it was Thanksgiving eve), a man carrying a black attaché case arrived at the flight counter of Northwest Orient Airlines in Portland International Airport. He recognized himself as “Dan Cooper” and used cash to buy a one-way ticket on Flight 305, a 40-minute trip north to Seattle.
Cooper boarded the flight and took seat 18C in the rear of the traveler cabin. Cooper was a silent man who seemed to be in his mid-40s, wearing a business suit with a white shirt and a black tie. He ordered a drink—bourbon with soda—while the flight was about to take off.
Flight 305, nearly one-third full, left Portland on schedule at 2:50 p.m. PST. Shortly after hitting the runway, Cooper handed a note to Florence Schaffner, the flight attendant adjacent to him in a jump seat attached to the nearby aft stair door. Schaffner, assuming the letter carried a lonely businessman’s phone number, dropped it into her purse without opening it. Cooper casually leaned toward her and murmured, “Miss, you’d better look at that note. I am carrying a bomb.”
The letter was printed in elegant, all-capital letters.
The letter’s exact wording is unknown because Cooper later took the message away, but Schaffner recollected that the note said that Cooper is carrying a giant bomb in his briefcase. After Schaffner read the letter, Cooper told her to sit beside him unsuspiciously. Schaffner did as described, then quietly asked to check out the bomb. Cooper opened his briefcase long enough for her to glimpse eight red cylinders (“four on top of four”) attached to wires coated with a large cylindrical battery and red insulation. After securing the briefcase, he said his demands: $200,000 in “negotiable American currency”; four parachutes (two reserves and two primaries); and a white fuel truck standing by in Seattle to refuel the aircraft. Schaffner conveyed Cooper’s directions to the pilots in the cockpit; when she came back, Cooper was donning dark sunglasses.
The pilot, William A. Scott, who formerly served for the United States Army Air Forces during World War II, spoke to Tacoma–Seattle Airport air traffic control, which informed federal and local authorities. The 35 other passengers were provided false information that their landing in Seattle would be delayed because of trivial mechanical difficulty. Northwest Orient’s president, Donald Nyrop, approved the ransom’s payment and ordered all employees to assist fully with the hijacker’s demands.
The aircraft circled Puget Sound for approximately two hours to allow the FBI and Seattle police sufficient time to assemble Cooper’s parachutes and mobilize emergency personnel and ransom money.
Flight attendant Tina Mucklow recalled that Cooper seemed familiar with the local territory; at one point, he said, “Looks like Tacoma down there,” as the aircraft cruised above it. He also rightly mentioned that McChord Air Force Base was only a 20-minute drive (during those days) from Tecoma-Seattle Airport. Schaffner described him as polite, calm, and well-spoken, not at all like the stereotypes (hardened, enraged criminals or “take-me-to-Cuba” political rebels commonly associated with air hijacking during those days.
“He wasn’t nervous,” Mucklow told investigators. “He seemed rather nice. He was never nasty or cruel. He was calm and thoughtful all the time.”
He ordered a second drink with soda, paid his drink tab (and tried to give Mucklow the change), and offered to ask for meals for the flight crew during the stop in Seattle.
FBI agents collected the ransom money from many Seattle-area banks – 10,000 unmarked 20-dollar bills, most with numbers (serial numbers) starting with the letter “L” showing issuance by the FRB (Federal Reserve Bank) of San Francisco, and most from the 1969 series or 1963A – and made a microfilm photograph of each of them.
Cooper rejected McChord AFB personnel’s military-issue parachutes. He demanded civilian parachutes with manually operated ripcords. Seattle police received them from a local skydiving school.
At 5:24 p.m. Pacific time, Cooper was confirmed that all his demands had been met, and at 5:39 p.m., the aircraft landed at Tacoma-Seattle Airport.
It was over an hour post-sunset, and Cooper demanded Scott to taxi the jet to a brightly lit, isolated section of the apron and completely close each window shade in the cabin to prevent snipers. Northwest Orient’s Seattle operations manager, Al Lee, moved towards the aircraft in street clothes to shun the likelihood that Cooper might mistake his airline uniform for a police officer. He gave the parachutes and cash-filled knapsack to Mucklow via the aft stairs. Once the delivery was finished, Cooper ordered all passengers, senior flight attendant Alice Hancock and Schaffner, to immediately leave the plane.
During refueling, Cooper described his flight plan to the cockpit crew: a southeast course toward Mexico City at the lowest airspeed possible without stalling the aircraft—approximately 185 km/h; 115 mph (100 knots)—at a maximum 3,000 m (10,000-foot) altitude. He further stipulated that the landing gear remains deployed in the landing/takeoff position, the wing flaps are lowered nearly 15 degrees, and the cabin remains completely unpressurized.
Copilot William J. Rataczak, born on June 30, 1939, who previously served for the United States Air Force during the Vietnam War Korean Vietnam War, notified Cooper that the aircraft’s range was limited to around 1,600 km (1, 000 miles) under the specified flight configuration, which meant that a second refueling would be required before entering Mexico. Cooper and the crew presented options and agreed on Reno, Nevada, as the final refueling stop. Cooper asked the pilot to take off with the plane’s rear exit door open, and its staircase extended. Northwest’s home office objected because it was unsafe to take off with the aft staircase deployed. Cooper countered that it was safe, but he would not dispute the point; he would lower it once they were airborne.
At nearly 7:40 p.m., the Boeing 727 took off with only five people on board: Cooper, pilot Scott, copilot Rataczak, flight attendant Mucklow, and flight engineer Harold E. Anderson. Two fully-loaded F-106 fighter aircraft were scrambled from McChord Air Force Base and accompanied behind the airliner, one above it and one below, entirely out of Cooper’s view.
A Lockheed T-33 trainer, redirected from an unrelated Air National Guard mission, also watched the 727 before running low on fuel and turning back near the California–Oregon state line. Overall there were nearly five planes in total flying around the hijacked plane.
After takeoff, Cooper ordered Mucklow to join the rest of the cockpit crew and stay there with the door closed. As she complied, Mucklow saw Cooper tying something around his waist. At approximately 8:00 p.m., a warning light flashed in the cockpit, indicating that the aft airstair machinery had been activated. The crew’s offer of assistance via the aircraft’s intercom system was refused. The team soon noticed a massive change of air pressure, indicating that somebody opened the aft door.
At around 8:13 p.m., the aircraft’s tail section bore a sudden upward movement, notable enough to need trimming to bring the plane back to level flight. At about 10:15 p.m., the aircraft’s aft airstair was still deployed when Rataczak and Scott landed the 727 at Reno Airport. FBI agents, sheriff’s deputies, state troopers, and Reno police surrounded the jet, as it had not yet been determined with the assurance that Cooper was no longer aboard. A throughout armed search confirmed his absence.
He was gone, and no one still knows where he is.