November 24, 1971. A man carrying only a black briefcase approached the flight counter of Northwest Orient Airlines at Portland International Airport. He identified himself as “Dan Cooper” and purchased a one-way ticket on Flight 305, a 30-minute trip to Seattle. There was nothing distinguishable or interesting about the man except he was dressed in mostly black and wore dark sunglasses.
The man boarded the aircraft, a Boeing 727-100 with the FAA registration N467US, and took seat 18C in the rear of the passenger cabin. He lit a cigarette and ordered a bourbon and soda. Eyewitnesses on board recalled a man in his mid-forties, between 5 feet 10 inches and 6 feet tall. He wore a black lightweight raincoat, loafers, a dark suit, a neatly pressed white collared shirt, a black necktie, and a mother of pearl tie pin.
The plane was approximately one-third full and departed on schedule at 2:50 pm, PST. Shortly after takeoff, Cooper handed a note to Florence Schaffner, the flight attendant situated nearest to him in a jump seat attached to the aft stair door. Florence, assuming the note contained a lonely businessman’s phone number, dropped it unopened into her purse. Cooper leaned toward her and whispered, “Miss, you’d better look at that note. I have a bomb.”
The note was printed in neat, all-capital letters with a felt-tip pen. Florence recalled that it indicated he had a bomb in his briefcase, and he told her to sit beside him. She did as he requested and quietly asked to see the bomb. Cooper cracked open his briefcase long enough for her to glimpse eight red cylinders that looked like TNT attached to wires coated with red insulation, and a large cylindrical battery. After closing the briefcase, he dictated his demands: $200,000 in “negotiable American currency”; four parachutes, a fuel truck standing by in Seattle to refuel the aircraft upon arrival and not to tell the other passengers what was happening. The stewardess conveyed Cooper’s instructions to the pilots in the cockpit and returned to Cooper, he was now wearing dark sunglasses.
The pilot, William Scott, contacted Seattle-Tacoma Airport air traffic control, which in turn informed local and federal authorities. The thirty six other passengers were told that their arrival in Seattle would be delayed because of a “minor mechanical difficulty” and were completely unaware that their plane was currently hijacked by the unknown man. Northwest Orient’s president, Donald Nyrop, authorised payment of the ransom and ordered all employees to cooperate fully with the hijacker. The aircraft circled Puget Sound for approximately two hours to allow Seattle police and the FBI time to assemble Cooper’s parachutes, ransom money and to mobilise emergency personnel.
FBI agents assembled the ransom money from several Seattle-area banks. 10,000 unmarked 20-dollar bills, most with serial numbers beginning with the letter “L” indicating issuance by the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, and most from the 1963A or 1969 series. The FBI made a microfilm photograph of each note to make sure they would be identified later if he tried to use them.
At 5:24 pm Cooper was informed that his demands had been met, and at 5:39 pm the aircraft landed at Seattle-Tacoma Airport. Cooper then instructed the pilot to taxi the jet to an isolated, brightly lit section of the tarmac and close each window shade in the cabin to deter police snipers. Northwest Orient’s Seattle operations manager, Al Lee, approached the aircraft in street clothes to avoid the possibility that Cooper might mistake his airline uniform for that of a police officer, and delivered the knapsack filled with cash and parachutes to Mucklow via the aft stairs. Once the delivery was completed, Cooper permitted all passengers, Schaffner, and senior flight attendant Alice Hancock to leave the plane.
During refueling Cooper outlined his flight plan to the cockpit crew: a southeast course toward Mexico City at the minimum airspeed possible without stalling the aircraft—approximately 100 knots, at a maximum altitude of 10,000 feet. He then ordered that the landing gear was to remain deployed in the takeoff/landing position, the wing flaps be lowered 15 degrees, and the cabin remain unpressurised. Copilot William Rataczak informed Cooper that the aircraft’s range was limited to approximately 1,000 miles (1,600 km) under the specified flight configuration, which meant that a second refuelling would be necessary before entering Mexico. Cooper and the crew discussed options and agreed on Reno, Nevada, as the refuelling stop. Finally, Cooper directed that the plane would take off with the rear exit door open and its staircase extended. Northwest’s home office objected, on grounds that it was unsafe to take off with the aft staircase deployed. Cooper countered that it was indeed safe, but he would not argue the point; he would lower it himself once they were airborne.
An FAA official requested a face-to-face meeting with Cooper aboard the aircraft, which was denied. The refuelling process was delayed because of a vapour lock in the fuel tanker truck’s pumping mechanism, and although Cooper became suspicious, he allowed a replacement tanker truck to continue the refuelling and a third after the second ran dry.
At approximately 7:40 pm, the 727 took off with only Cooper, pilot Scott, flight attendant Mucklow, copilot Rataczak, and flight engineer H. E. Anderson aboard. Two F-106 fighter aircraft scrambled from nearby McChord Air Force Base followed behind the airliner, one above it and one belowto ensure they were out of Cooper’s view. A Lockheed T-33 trainer, diverted from an unrelated Air National Guard mission, also shadowed the 727 before running low on fuel and turning back near the Oregon–California state line.
After takeoff, Cooper told Mucklow to join the rest of the crew in the cockpit and remain there with the door closed. As she complied, Mucklow observed Cooper tying something around his waist. At approximately 8:00 pm, a warning light flashed in the cockpit, indicating that the aft airstair apparatus had been activated. The crew’s offer of assistance via the aircraft’s intercom system was curtly refused. The crew soon noticed a subjective change of air pressure, indicating that the aft door was open.
At approximately 8:13 pm, the aircraft’s tail section sustained a sudden upward movement, significant enough to require trimming to bring the plane back to level flight. just over two hours later, Scott and Rataczak landed the 727, with the aft airstair still deployed, at Reno Airport. FBI agents, state troopers, sheriff’s deputies, and Reno police surrounded the jet, as it had not yet been determined with certainty that Cooper was no longer aboard; but an armed search quickly confirmed that he was gone.
D. B. Cooper had drunk whisky, smoked a cigarette and then jumped out of the plane, via the aft airstairs. He was never seen again. To this day the FBI do not know if he survived or perished.
Did he successfully get away with the money? Comment below…
If you enjoyed this plane themed mystery, you might also enjoy the strange story of Julian Koepke, the girl who fell miles from a plane and survived.