Fifty years ago this evening, a mysterious individual who later came to be known as D.B. Cooper became a part of American folklore by way of a brazen skyjacking that remains unsolved to this day. The iconic case began on November 24th, 1971 when a largely nondescript man wearing dark sunglasses and wielding a briefcase boarded a normally routine flight from Seattle to Portland. Once in the air, he slipped a flight attendant a note stating that he had a bomb and, after showing her what appeared to be the explosive device, informed her that he wanted $200,000 in cash as well as four parachutes. What followed next was a daring caper that has continued to baffle researchers for decades.
The hijacked flight subsequently landed at a nearby airport where the other passengers, unaware of the drama unfolding around them, were evacuated and the money was delivered to the airliner by authorities looking to resolve the matter as peacefully as possible. The plane then took off once again en route for Mexico City, per the man’s instruction, with only him and the crew remaining aboard. Shortly thereafter, he walked to the back of the aircraft and opened a staircase that descended from the rear of the plane. Grabbing the $200,000 and strapping on a parachute that had been provided by police, he jumped from the plane and vanished into history.
The FBI immediately launched an exhaustive investigation into the case and set out searching for the skyjacker, who had actually gone by the name ‘Dan Cooper’ when he boarded the plane. However, the man was soon dubbed ‘D.B. Cooper’ due to an error in an initial media report that wound up being picked up by the wire services and, in turn, stuck to the suspect ever since. The wild nature of the crime, specifically the skyjacker bailing from the plane in mid-air, generated headlines around the world. However, the widespread attention and the best efforts by the authorities proved fruitless when it came to determining the identity of the mysterious man.
Perhaps the biggest break in the case occurred around five years later when a young boy stumbled upon a bundle of money from the skyjacking on a remote beach near Vancouver, Washington. Although the discovery provided some insights into what might have become of the man after he jumped from the plane, it did not answer the big questions surrounding the story, specifically who was D.B. Cooper and did he survive his harrowing leap? Over the ensuing decades, the FBI continued trying to crack the case until finally announcing in 2016 that they were suspending their active investigation, but were willing to look at any new potential evidence that may come up in the future, as happened the following year.
In addition to the official law enforcement investigation, the D.B. Cooper case has also become a cottage industry for armchair researchers, who have fastidiously pored over the details of the event and put forward all manner of potential suspects. Recent years have seen a resurgence of interest in the quintessential American mystery with a variety of books, documentaries, and TV specials devoted to trying to unmask the man at the center of the strange story, yet he remains a cipher. One enlightening development from this proverbial Cooper renaissance is that some of the key witnesses from the flight have come forward to share their first-hand experiences from the skyjacking.