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D.B. Cooper's FBI sketch. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

D.B. Cooper's FBI sketch. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.


This NOT Just In: D.B. Cooper

Feliks Banel

On November 24, 1971, a man who is referred to as D.B. Cooper hijacked a Boeing 727 on a flight between Portland, Oregon and Seattle. He extorted $200,000 in ransom, and parachuted from the plane. A look back at the hijacking which has become legendary in the Pacific Northwest and the rest of America.


A few crumbling twenty–dollar bills, an airline boarding pass, a pink parachute, a black clip–on necktie from J.C. Penney: This is all that remains of a legend, and it fits neatly into a cardboard box at the FBI office in Seattle.

It was early afternoon on Thanksgiving eve, 1971. A man paid $18.52 in cash for an airline ticket to Seattle.

Walter Cronkite: "When he got on a plane in Portland, Oregon last night, he was just another passenger who gave his name as D.A. Cooper."

The passenger had actually given his first name as "Dan," but Uncle Walter called him "D.A." In the beginning, nobody got the name right. The legend hadn't quite stuck yet. The man, whoever he really was, is best remembered now as the hijacker D.B. Cooper.

As the Boeing 727 headed north toward Seattle, Cooper passed a note to a stewardess. In this clip from the CBS Evening News, Bill Kurtis describes what happened next:

Kurtis: "Thirty–six passengers got off the jetliner in Seattle last night. Left aboard: four crew members and the hijacker, dressed in a business suit, demanding $200,000 and carrying a plain brief case which he told the crew held explosives."

On the ground at Sea–Tac Airport, Cooper was given the money, along with four parachutes, in exchange for releasing the passengers. The jet was refueled, and around 7:30 p.m., the Sea–Tac tower cleared if for takeoff. It climbed into the November darkness, and headed south toward Mexico.

Kurtis: "The crew, here being debriefed by the FBI, was told to fly low over Oregon's flatlands with the flaps down. The speed dropped to 200 miles per hour."

As they flew south, Cooper ordered the crew to stay in the cockpit. The jet began to run low on fuel and then landed in Reno, Nevada. Back in the main cabin, Cooper, the $200,000 and one of the parachutes were nowhere to be found. All that was left was Cooper's clip–on necktie.

Kurtis: "Snow covers the mountains in Northern California and Nevada; a hostile terrain for any parachute drop, especially at night. Police believe he left the 727 in the flatlands of Oregon or Washington, but they are still looking in four states."

Law enforcement ultimately focused the search on southwest Washington, but they failed to turn up any clues. Meanwhile, Cooper became something of a folk hero, like a modern day Robin Hood to some people. A tavern in the search area began throwing an anniversary party each year. Then, Hollywood made a movie. The film was called "The Pursuit Of D.B. Cooper."

Treat Williams played the hijacker as a former Green Beret with a checkered past and "daddy issues."

Movie Audio:

Dad: "I'm not impressed, you know. You're still an outlaw."

D.B.: "Aw, so I'm an outlaw. Say it a couple times it don't mean much. Outlaw, outlaw, outlaw! But I'm a very successful outlaw."

The FBI thinks Cooper died while making the jump. It was a cold night, Cooper was underdressed and none of the bills he was given have ever made it into circulation.

In 1980, kids playing along the Columbia River found $6,000 of the money buried in a sandbar. Chances are it washed downstream from where Cooper — or his body — hit the ground back in 1971.

Four decades later, the FBI still gets calls from people who claim to be Cooper or claim to know the hijacker's true identity. The bureau has investigated nearly a thousand of these possible D.B. Coopers over the years, but none has quite fit the profile. And, in spite of their popularity with the legendary hijacker, clip–on neckties have not made a comeback either.

I'm Feliks Banel for This NOT Just In.

© Copyright 2011, KUOW

Music: "D.B. Cooper, Where Are You?" by Tom Bresh.

Funding for This NOT Just In provided by the KUOW Program Venture Fund. Contributors include Paul and Laurie Ahearn and Puget Sound Energy.