On November 24, 1971, a man calling himself Dan Cooper (at the time proof of identity was not required by airlines) paid $18.52 in cash for a one-way ticket from Portland to Seattle on Northwest Orient Airlines Flight 305. Onboard the Boeing jet he had a bourbon and soda, smoked cigarettes and gave a flight attendant a note that said he had a bomb. He showed the attendant a case containing wires and red sticks. The plane’s captain was made aware of the hijacker’s demands: $200,000 in $20 bills, as well as four parachutes.
Getting the money and parachutes ready took a few hours, so the flight circled in the air. After making it to Seattle, 36 passengers and two crew members disembarked in exchange for the ransom. The plane, staffed by four remaining crew members — two pilots, a flight engineer, and a flight attendant — then took off for Mexico City. Cooper demanded the jet fly lower than 10,000 feet, at a speed under 200 knots.
While the crew was in the cockpit, Cooper lowered the stairs at the back of the plane and jumped out shortly after 8:00 p.m. The jet continued to Reno, Nevada. As news of the hijacking spread, a reporting mistake rendered the hijacker’s name as D.B. Cooper instead of Dan Cooper. This misnaming entered the public lexicon.
After the flight, sketch-artist portraits of the hijacker were created. The FBI described Cooper as “white male, 6’1” tall, 170-175 pounds, age-mid-forties, olive complexion, brown eyes, black hair, conventional cut, parted on left.”
FBI agents collected evidence, including the hijacker’s clip-on necktie and eight cigarette butts, though Cooper hadn’t left his ransom note behind. Agents also undertook ground searches and conducted interviews. More than 800 suspects would come to the Bureau’s attention over the first five years of the investigation.
One theory of the case is that Cooper didn’t survive, succumbing either to his jump or the conditions in which he landed. He left the plane during a storm, amid 200 mile-per-hour winds, and might not have been able to deploy his chute. Even if his parachute did open, it was not a type that could be steered. And landing in rough, wooded terrain at night is dangerous, particularly for a man wearing just a suit, loafers, and trench coat.
Law enforcement were in the air following the hijacked flight but didn’t see Cooper’s jump. Some Cooper aficionados have speculated that instead of the flight path the FBI used in its investigation, Cooper actually left the plane while it was on what’s been dubbed a “Western Flight Path,” about seven miles farther west. The manhunt therefore might have focused on the wrong area.
In 1980, a boy camping with his family found $5,800 buried on the banks of Washington’s Columbia River. Serial numbers on the bills linked them to the Cooper case. However, the location of this discovery, near Portland, Oregon, was several miles from Cooper’s suspected jump zone of Ariel, Washington.
The area was searched but no other evidence was located. No bills from Cooper’s ransom have been discovered in circulation.