Fall 1994, Volume 11.3
John P. O'Grady
The Wilderness World of D. B. Cooper
John P. O'Grady (Ph.D., University of California, Davis) teaches in the English Department at Boise State University. He is the author of Pilgrims to the Wild (University of Utah Press, 1993).
D. B. Cooper, where are you now?
We're looking for you high and low.
With your pleasant smile
And your dropout style,
D. B. Cooper, where did you go?
—D. B. Cooper, Where are You?
In the Pacific Standard mid-afternoon of November 24, 1971, Northwest Airlines Flight 305 was about to embark in rain from the Portland of Oregon to Seattle, Washington, last leg of a long and prosaic milk run begun that morning in the nation's capital. Outside, this close to the ground, the weather was a factor. Taking the middle seat in the last row on the right side of the plane was a "nondescript middle-aged man" in a business suit. He carried a briefcase and he gave his name as "Dan Cooper," afterwards misidentified by the press as "D. B. Cooper"—testimony perhaps to his overall slipperiness. Even his alias was elusive.
After settling in like any other passenger, he placed his briefcase on the unoccupied aisle-seat beside him. Soon after takeoff he handed the flight attendant—in those days called "stewardess"—a folded piece of high quality bond paper. Unceremoniously, she stuffed it into her pocket. "I thought he was trying to hustle me," she would later report. He shook his head, gestured her to read. He moved his briefcase to the unoccupied window seat beside him. Digging deep into her pocket past sudden dread, she retrieved the folded piece of high quality bond paper. She unfolded it. It was a typed note in plain prose: "Miss—I have a bomb here, and I would like you to sit by me."
She sat by this nondescript middle-aged man in a business suit. She looked at him. He was wearing dark glasses. He had a briefcase. She looked out the window, saw sky above the clouds; up here, the weather was not a factor. The man opened his briefcase on the unoccupied window-seat beside him. Next, he showed the stewardess his bomb: a large battery connected by a maze of copper wire to eight long cylinders of what looked like dynamite. He closed the briefcase. He spoke: "Would you please return that note to me?" His voice was gentle; he was polite. She handed the wavering note typed on high quality bond paper to him. He slipped it unwavering into the inside pocket of his suit jacket. It was a fine weave of wool. What now? Soft as clouds, he said: "Take dictation, a note for the pilot." What choice but to turn scribe, embrace complicity? She had to provide her own paper, but she was about to become co-author of what must rank among history's best-paid pieces of writing. Words flowed from his mouth. Words flowed through her hand. Shaky penmanship would suggest an uneasy collaboration:
I want $200,000 by 5:00 p.m. In cash, in twenty-dollar bills. I want two back parachutes and two front parachutes. Make them sport parachutes. When we land, I want a fuel truck ready to refuel. No funny stuff, or I'll do the job.
She had no interest in funny stuff. She did her job, delivered the note to the pilot. When she returned to her seat, the nondescript middle-aged man said thank you. Later this note in the stewardess's hand would prove to be the only surviving text of D. B. Cooper.
What followed in the gathering gloom of that grim and chill November evening was circling, three hours of it, over Sea-Tac Airport, the time it took for Northwest Airlines to come up with the two hundred thousand dollars—in stacks of twenties—but not time enough for the FBI to come up with an effective response to this man wearing a suit. All agreed: this was a novelty in the annals of skyjacking. Law enforcement was at a loss—they had been drawn beyond the pale. Nobody had a map. Here they were without protocol. Before this, no hijacker had ever asked for a parachute. Before this, no hijacker had ever demonstrated such precision, such cordiality, such grace in executing his escape. Before this, no hijacker had ever commandeered a plane for so pure a motive as D. B. Cooper's. He was not commonplace. He was not violent, rude, or slovenly. He had no complex political motives. He simply wanted the money. Bold, bright, and clean, this was the clarity of greed! Something everyone could understand. Among the workaday, his was a technique that would be envied, even publicly admired. Which is why he became a folk hero. In after years, a Portland librarian was known to confess: "I've thought about ways to get a lot of money like he did, but I would never really do it, so I'm glad for him." Not uncommon either was the sentiment of a betweeded professor of literature who said, for the record: "Anyone who has the guts to parachute out of a jet in the middle of a dark and stormy night has my admiration. I hope he got away with the money and I hope he's not dead."
Apparently none or few of the passengers aboard Flight 305 on that dark and stormy night knew what was going on. The pilot informed them that the plane had developed mechanical problems, that they were circling "in order to burn up excess fuel before landing"—ordinarily most disconcerting news, but apparently not to these fated passengers, who were remarkably content in their circling, in their calm burning of "excess fuel" in the unsettled night sky over Seattle, Washington. It seems that even without complimentary drinks, they were set at ease by their captain's voice; something in its immanent authority they found soothing. Everything was under control. They could sit back and enjoy their circling. Reported one of the passengers later: "He could make you feel good even if you were walking toward a guillotine."
At last the plane came back to earth, touched down at Sea-Tac in early evening and steady rain. The money and parachutes were delivered, the thirty-five passengers and two of the three stewardesses were released. D. B. Cooper could not afford release of the pilot and co-pilot: Somebody had to fly the plane. Nor could he afford release of the stewardess: Somebody had to be the hostage. When his inspection of the chutes revealed standard military issue, D. B. Cooper became noticeably peeved. He had ordered sport parachutes, the sort that enabled extended free falls from high in the sky. These workhouse military chutes would not do. With an artist's rancor, he sent them back, along with the name of a sky-diving shop where the proper type of chute could be obtained. All of this delayed things. Beyond the tarmac, however, officials who did not necessarily like each other nodded gravely. In retrospect, all agreed that, except for the parachutes, the events were well scripted.
While everybody waited for the proper chutes to arrive, the nondescript middle-aged man in a business suit kept his middle seat in the last row on the right side of the plane. His briefcase remained on the unoccupied window-seat beside him. He instructed the remaining stewardess to sit in the aisle-seat beside him. The money was in a heavy canvas bag stenciled with the words SEATTLE FIRST NATIONAL; it rested nearby in the aisle itself. D. B. Cooper had taken off his dark glasses; his eyes were said to be blue. The stewardess looked out the window, now dark; she could see drops of rain streaking down on the outside of the glass. D. B. Cooper moved this hand to the inside pocket of his suit jacket, removed another folded piece of high quality bond paper, gave it to the stewardess. In his soft cloud voice he said, "Please take this forward to the flight crew, have them read it, then return it to me."
She cooperated, delivered the dispatch to its intended audience. It was a typed note with no mistakes. It directed the crew to fly the plane to Mexico City. "Fine," the pilot said in his unwavering voice, "but tell that guy this plane can't go that far in one jump—we'll need to make two interim fuel stops." The pilot had no typewriter—his was an oral transmission. The stewardess hastened back with the pilot's message. D. B. Cooper listened politely to her news. She then returned the typed note. "Fine," said the unruffled man, now folding the used note with care, now returning it to the inside pocket of his suit jacket, now withdrawing another folded piece of paper. This time is wasn't high quality bond. "Please deliver this to the pilot," he said. It was standard issue government form, typed and meticulously filled out: a Federal Aviation flight-plan. "Then return it to me," he added.
When this latest curiosity reached the forward cabin, the flight crew puzzled over its precision. Follow flight path Victor 23 south, toward Reno. Quizzical looks were exchanged. D. B. Cooper's route purposely avoided the wild wooly wags of the Cascade mountains; temperatures there would be well below freezing, snow would be falling. In the lowlands there would be rain. What kind of hijacker was this, both experienced in the diving of sky and possessed of extraordinary skills in navigation?
At one point, a rain-lashed official in a trenchcoat walked up to the door of the plane. He was from the Federal Aviation Administration, but he was very wet. He requested permission to board, apparently an attempt to reason with the skyjacker. The hard things are glorious. Permission refused. D. B. Cooper now suggested to the pilot, via another specimen of that now disturbing high quality bond paper: "Let's get this show on the road. Return this note to me." It was a moving communication. The proper chutes suddenly arrived. The note was returned. The show once again took to the air.
Onward to Reno. Not long into the dark sky, D. B. Cooper's hand returned to the inside pocket of his suit jacket. The stewardess shuddered. D. B. Cooper withdrew another of his high quality works: an appendix to the well composed flight plan. This one read: "Maintain an altitude of 10,000 feet, lower the flaps to fifteen degrees, hold the airspeed to 170 knots. Return this note to me." The stewardess brought it to the flight cabin. More quizzical looks. The pilot frowned. These operating conditions were just about the minimum for keeping a 727 aloft—and at 10,000 feet in this part of the country there were mountains out there to worry about. But D. B. Cooper knew what he was doing. The flight path he had chosen kept them over the lowlands, over the open fields scored by Interstate 5.
Bewilderment now moved aft with the stewardess. She returned this last note to D. B. Cooper; he folded it and returned it to the inside pocket of his suit jacket. Then he reasonably requested her to help him open the exit door leading to the aft cabin stairwell. No typed letter, no high quality bond paper. They were past all written words. Now it was strict performance, direct action. D. B. Cooper picked up his briefcase from the unoccupied window-seat beside him. He had the stewardess lead the short walk to the aft of the cabin. The 727 is the only commercial jetliner that has a door beneath the tail. Ordinarily it is not a good idea to open it in flight. But given the drastically reduced speed and altitude, a reasonably safe parachute jump might be made. Besides, this man claimed to have a bomb, spoke words that seemed like clouds with mountains hiding in them. Even without a typed letter on high quality bond paper, the stewardess complied. She showed him how to open the door. Then he ushered her forward to the cockpit and locked her in with the flight crew. That was the last anybody saw of D.B. Cooper.
A little after 8 p.m., perhaps somewhere over Lake Merwin on the dammed Lewis River in southwestern Washington, a light flashed on the instrument panel in the cockpit of Northwest Flight 305, indicating that the rear exit door had indeed been opened. Dropped the cabin pressure to that of the summit of Mount Hood. Dropped the temperature to seven below. Dropped too, it would seem, D. B. Cooper, suited for business, with two parachutes, a briefcase, and a heavy green burden. Unseen into the wild dark.
Of the three or five military jets bird-dogging the truant 727, none sighted any chute openings. The weather was inclement; sullen clouds continued to roll in from the Pacific; at 10,000 feet there was no visibility. When, on the far side of California's Sierra Nevada, Flight 305 punched through the clouds and landed at the Reno airport, D. B. Cooper was nowhere to be found. He must have jumped. A four-state manhunt was launched. APBs were flashed from Nevada to Washington, nearly the entire length of the Cascade Range. But efforts were concentrated in 150 square miles of thickly resistant forest near the Washington towns of Longview and Ariel, just north of Portland. Here, authorities reckoned, was where he jumped. Here, authorities discovered, the forest was uncooperatively dense, the terrain amply crenulated, sufficient not only to hinder an effective search but to present a serious hazard to the cavalier skyjumper who descended into this thicket bereft of visibility, bereft of warmth. D. B. Cooper, on the threshold of his leap, was not known to have had ample protection from the elements. A business suit, a briefcase, a heavy canvas bag: Anything could have happened. Said one member of the posse after a week of unsuccessful searching: "We're either looking for a parachute or a hole in the ground."
More than two decades have passed. No parachute, no hole. But ballads have been composed, films have been made, books have been written, imposters have come forward. The pilot and the co-pilot of Northwest Flight 305 have since retired. The stewardess long ago quit her job and became a nun. D. B. Cooper is still being sought.
His remains the only unsolved skyjacking in U.S. history. The weather may have been a factor.