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The still unsolved mystery of DB Cooper: Gutsy hijacker gets $200,000 before parachuting from plane (1971)

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Sketches of D.B. Cooper

The News-Palladium Benton Harbor, Michigan November 26 1971

DB Cooper: Hijacker parachutes from Reno-bound jet

A 1971 artist’s sketch released by the FBI shows the skyjacker known as Dan Cooper and D.B. Cooper, made from the recollections of passengers and crew of a Northwest Orient Airlines jet he hijacked between Portland and Seattle, Nov. 24, 1971, Thanksgiving eve. FBI spokeswoman Ayn Sandalo Dietrich tells The Seattle Times that a law enforcement member directed investigators to a person who might have helpful information on Cooper.

Plane hijacker “Dan Cooper” escapes with $200,000 ransom

A courteous middle-aged man disappeared, apparently by parachute, with a $200,000 ransom Wednesday night while a jetliner he hijacked was en route from Seattle to Reno.

As the plane reached Reno on a flight from Seattle, pilot William Scott was monitored reporting to the airport tower by radio that the hijacker “took leave of us somewhere between here and Seattle,” becoming the first man to escape from a hijacked jetliner by parachute.

Dan Cooper plane ticket 1971
Dan Cooper Northwest Orient airline ticket courtesy of the Washington State Historical Society

FBI agent Harold Campbell said that two of the four chutes the hijacker had been given in addition to the ransom were missing when the plane reached Reno and there was “no way he could have gotten off in Reno.”

The man, described by Scott as “very courteous,” flashed what he said was a bomb in making good his hijack, but Campbell declared it was not known if it was actually explosive.

A search was underway, Campbell said, between Seattle, Washington, and Reno, Nevada, especially in the wilderness areas of Oregon.

Campbell declined to comment on reports that the hijacker was an experienced parachutist, possibly a firefighting smoke jumper.

The man was tentatively identified as a “DB Cooper.” Passengers reported he was “swarthy” and “very relaxed.”

They also said he chatted amiably with a stewardess before handing her a note saying he was taking over the plane.

FBI searches Reno for signs of DB Cooper

The mystery of D.B. Cooper plane jet

FBI agents with dogs unsuccessfully scoured the area around the Reno airport after the landing, moving through a residential community and a sagebrush wilderness.

The Northwest Airlines 727 jetliner with 43 aboard was hijacked on a flight from Portland, Oregon, to Seattle.

A stewardess saw “two red cylinders and wires” which the hijacker claimed was the bomb, the FBI said.

All the passengers and two stewardesses were permitted to disembark the plane at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport after he was given the money, the biggest ransom ever paid a hijacker. Northwest Airlines said the money was collected from Seattle area banks. Cooper was also given four parachutes, delivered by McChord Air Force Base near Seattle.

The Air Force sent aloft a jet fighter, a jet trainer, and a cargo plane with parachutists aboard to trail the airliner as it flew south. An Air Force spokesman said the pursuing planes may not have been able to see the hijacker jump from the jet because it was too low and too dark.

The hijacking began between Portland, Oregon, and Seattle, Washington, when the hijacker handed a stewardess a note asking $200,000 ransom money.

The plane – Northwest Orient flight 305

Flight 305, originally took off from Washington, D.C., and made stops at Minneapolis, Minn.; Great Falls, Mont.; Missoula, Mont.; Spokane, Wash., and Portland.

The plane circled Seattle-Tacoma International Airport for nearly two hours while Northwest Airlines officials obtained the money and personnel cleared a section of the field.

The man told the pilot that everyone would be killed if his demands were not met. The passengers described the man as “very relaxed” before the hijack which sent off so smoothly most people didn’t know what had happened until the plane landed.

The plane took off from Seattle 8:37 p.m. Pacific Standard Time with a new load of fuel and flew slowly, about 180 knots per hour and at a low altitude on a flight plan that was to land him in Reno for refueling 3-1/2 hours later.

The jetliner landed in Reno after passing over Spokane, Wash., Portland, Red Bluff. Calif., and Sacramento, Calif. Just before leaving the Seattle airport the Federal Aviation Administration told the pilot he could fly with no restrictions on altitude or direction.

Assistant US Attorney Larry Finegold, one of the passengers that disembarked in Seattle, told newsmen that the crew informed those aboard “there were some minor difficulties.”

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“Then we saw they were dumping gas, and I thought there was some landing gear problem. After we landed, I saw this gas truck drive up, and I thought to myself, ‘Why don’t they get us off first?'”

He said he then saw a money bag being handed over “and I realized there had been a hijack.”

Another passenger, Mrs. Richard Simmons, Seattle, said the stewardesses “kept wishing us a happy Thanksgiving, and the crew kept us ignorant to avoid panic.

“We thought we were on our way to Vancouver after the plane passed over Seattle, and I thought, ‘Oh, my gosh, either we’re being hijacked, or we got on the wrong plane.'”

Search for hijacker DB Cooper - 1971


DB Cooper money - cash - FBI
Some of the stolen $20 bills found by a boy in 1980. Photo courtesy FBI.

UPDATE: Hijacker DB Cooper remains elusive: Jumped with $200,000 5 years ago (1976)

PORTLAND. Ore. (UPI) – The FBI thinks America’s Thanksgiving eve skyjacker is dead.

But if alive, “DB Cooper,” who bailed out of a Boeing 727 five years ago with $200,000 in $20 bills, can still be prosecuted, FBI Agent Ralph Himmelsbach said in an interview.

Despite reports Cooper would be free from criminal prosecution this Thanksgiving, Himmelsbach said there is no statute of limitations for him or his possible accomplices.

There is no statute of limitations in capital crimes, and air piracy or aerial hijack was a crime punishable by death in November 1971 and still is, Himmelsbach, who has been working on the case for five years, said.

DB Cooper - hijacked Northwest Orient Airlines Boeing 727
The hijacked Northwest Orient Airlines Boeing 727 plane being refueled

And, Himmelsbach said, if Cooper had any associates and he was killed, their crime would be a capital one.

Himmelsbach said he believes Cooper was an amateur, because he left the two best parachutes in the plane he commandeered, and used the shrouds of the third vest to tie the 10,000 bills to his belt.

“He wore a pilot’s seat pack parachute with a 28-foot canopy,” the agent said. “He also took with him a chest pack parachute used for training. It was unusable. The panels were sewn together.”

Although Cooper left no fingerprints in the plane, he did leave a couple of personal items, which the FBI is not disclosing because they could help identify the hijacker.

Himmelsbach said Cooper could not have known where he was when he jumped, and furthermore, he was not dressed properly.

DB Cooper parachute bag - FBI
One of the parachute bags provided to DB Cooper, left behind on the plane. (FBI)

“It was a stormy night, with freezing rain at his altitude and winds gusting from 25 to 6 knots at Portland International Airport, maybe stronger along the Lewis River in southwest Washington where he bailed out. He was dressed in a business suit and Oxford type street shoes. He had no hat or goggles.”

Parachute experts have told the FBI that Cooper would have lost his shoes immediately upon opening the door of the plane, which was traveling at nearly 200 miles per hour. The experts have said Cooper would also have been blinded by the wind.

“With that 28-foot canopy, he would have descended 26 miles an hour vertically. Add a 30 to 55 mph wind, and he would have hit at a speed of 50 to 70 miles an hour. The experts say it is inconceivable that he could have escaped serious injury or instant death — even assuming his parachute opened.”

Shortly after the hijacking, the FBI conducted a dummy run of the incident.

The area was the subject of an intensive search that uncovered the body of a murdered girl and some parachute canopies attached to weather balloons. But there was no sign of Cooper or his white chute.


An FBI case update from 2016

Update on Investigation of 1971 Hijacking by D.B. Cooper

Following one of the longest and most exhaustive investigations in our history, on July 8, 2016, the FBI redirected resources allocated to the D.B. Cooper case in order to focus on other investigative priorities.

During the course of the 45-year NORJAK investigation, the FBI exhaustively reviewed all credible leads, coordinated between multiple field offices to conduct searches, collected all available evidence, and interviewed all identified witnesses.

Over the years, the FBI has applied numerous new and innovative investigative techniques, as well as examined countless items at the FBI Laboratory. Evidence obtained during the course of the investigation will now be preserved for historical purposes at FBI Headquarters in Washington, D.C.

The mystery surrounding the hijacking of a Northwest Orient Airlines flight in November 1971 by a still-unknown individual resulted in significant international attention and a decades-long manhunt.

DB Cooper parachute - FBI

Although the FBI appreciated the immense number of tips provided by members of the public, none to date have resulted in a definitive identification of the hijacker. The tips have conveyed plausible theories, descriptive information about individuals potentially matching the hijacker, and anecdotes — to include accounts of sudden, unexplained wealth.

In order to solve a case, the FBI must prove culpability beyond a reasonable doubt, and, unfortunately, none of the well-meaning tips or applications of new investigative technology have yielded the necessary proof.

Every time the FBI assesses additional tips for the NORJAK case, investigative resources and manpower are diverted from programs that more urgently need attention.

Although the FBI will no longer actively investigate this case, should specific physical evidence emerge—related specifically to the parachutes or the money taken by the hijacker—individuals with those materials are asked to contact their local FBI field office.

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