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In Search of DB Cooper

Hijacked Northwest Orient Flight 305


Posted October 2023

Dan Cooper Composite Sketch
Composite Sketch

FBI Norjak
NORJAK (Northwest Hijacking)
Dan Cooper

During Northwest Orient Airlines Flight 305, from Portland, OR to Seattle, WA on November 24, 1971, a man handed a stewardess a note, claiming he had a bomb in his briefcase and she should sit down. After showing her an attache case filled with wires, he dictated a note demanding four parachutes and $200,000 in twenty-dollar bills, which she gave to the captain. They landed in Seattle, where he let the 36 passengers go after receiving the money and parachutes. He directed the crew to fly to Mexico City.

However, partway through the flight, Cooper opened the aft door and jumped out of the back of the plane with a parachute and the ransom money. The plane then landed in Reno, NV, where it was surrounded and searched by FBI agents and police. Two unused parachutes were still onboard, a black-tie was recovered, and dozens of latent fingerprints were uncovered. Agents interviewed crew and passengers to create a composite sketch of Cooper, described as 5'10"-11", 170-180 pounds, in his mid-40s. They released the money's serial numbers, but there were no matches.

FBI agents tracked down leads and interviewed thousands of persons of interest. In 1980, a boy found a rotting bundle of twenty-dollar bills that matched the serial numbers. Current speculation is that Cooper, who was not an expert skydiver and jumped in dangerous conditions in improper clothing, did not survive his jump. There would have been no way to coordinate with an accomplice on the ground, and one of the two parachutes he jumped with was a dummy training chute.

Since July 12, 2016, the FBI is no longer actively investigating NORJAK (Northwest Hijacking). "DB" was a mistake made by a local reporter and repeated by wire services, though "D Cooper" survives in the public memory. After Cooper's and copycat hijackings, the FAA required that planes prevent the aft stairs from lowering inflight and mandated peepholes in cockpit doors to make passengers safer.

Dan Cooper Plane Ticket
Dan Cooper Plane Ticket

On November 24, 1971, a man approached the counter of Northwest Orient Airlines in Portland, OR, and used cash to buy this one-way ticket to Seattle, WA. The hijacker bought the ticket under the name Dan Cooper, but his real identity has never been discovered.

Dan Cooper Northwest Orient Airlines

Dan Cooper Plane's Flight Path

Dan Cooper Recovered Currency
Recovered Currency
In 1980, a boy playing near the Columbia River found the rotting remains of a bundle full of twenty-dollar bills ($5,800 in all) that matched the ransom money serial numbers.

D. B. Cooper

WikipediaD. B. Cooper is a media epithet for an unidentified man who hijacked Northwest Orient Airlines Flight 305, a Boeing 727 aircraft, in United States airspace on November 24, 1971. During the flight from Portland, Oregon, to Seattle, Washington, the hijacker told a flight attendant he was armed with a bomb, demanded $200,000 in ransom (equivalent to $1,400,000 in 2022), and requested four parachutes upon landing in Seattle.

After releasing the passengers in Seattle, the hijacker instructed the flight crew to refuel the aircraft and begin a second flight to Mexico City, with a refueling stop in Reno, Nevada. About 30 minutes after taking off from Seattle, the hijacker opened the aircraft's aft door, deployed the staircase, and parachuted into the night over southwestern Washington. The hijacker has never been found or conclusively identified.

In 1980, a small portion of the ransom money was found along the banks of the Columbia River. The discovery of the money renewed public interest in the mystery, but yielded no additional information about the hijacker's identity or fate, and the remaining money was never recovered. The hijacker identified himself as Dan Cooper, but a reporter confused his name with another suspect and the hijacker subsequently became known as "D. B. Cooper".

For 45 years after the hijacking, the Federal Bureau of Investigation maintained an active investigation and built an extensive case file, but ultimately did not reach any definitive conclusions.

The crime remains the only unsolved case of air piracy in the history of commercial aviation.

The FBI speculates Cooper did not survive his jump, for several reasons:

  • The inclement weather on the night of the hijacking
  • Cooper's lack of proper skydiving equipment
  • The heavily wooded area into which he jumped
  • His apparent lack of detailed knowledge of his landing area
  • The disappearance of the remaining ransom money, suggesting it was never spent

In July 2016, the FBI officially suspended active investigation of the NORJAK (Northwest hijacking) case, although reporters, enthusiasts, professional investigators, and amateur sleuths continue to pursue numerous theories for Cooper's identity, success, and fate.

DB COOPERAirport Security
Cooper's hijacking - and several imitators in the following year - led rapidly to major changes for commercial aviation and stricter airport security measures.
  • Metal detectors were installed
  • Baggage inspection became mandatory
  • Passengers who paid cash for tickets on the day of departure were selected for additional scrutiny
  • Boeing 727s were retrofitted with eponymous "Cooper vanes", specifically designed to prevent the aft staircase from being lowered in-flight.

By 1973, aircraft hijacking incidents had decreased, as the new security measures successfully dissuaded would-be hijackers whose only motive was money.

The Hijacking
On Thanksgiving Eve, November 24, 1971, a man carrying a black attache case approached the flight counter of Northwest Orient Airlines at Portland International Airport. Using cash, the man bought a one-way ticket on Flight 305, a thirty-minute trip north to "Sea-Tac" (Seattle–Tacoma International Airport). On his ticket, the man listed his name as "Dan Cooper". Eyewitnesses described Cooper as a white male in his mid-40s, with dark hair and brown eyes, wearing a black or brown business suit, a white shirt, a thin black tie, a black raincoat, and brown shoes. Carrying a briefcase and a brown paper bag, Cooper boarded Flight 305, a Boeing 727-100 (FAA registration N467US). Cooper took seat 18-E in the last row, and ordered a drink: bourbon and 7-Up.

With a crew of six and 37 passengers aboard, Flight 305 left Portland on-schedule at 2:50 pm PST. Shortly after takeoff, Cooper handed a note to flight attendant Florence Schaffner, sitting in the jump seat directly behind Cooper. Assuming the note was a lonely businessman's phone number, Schaffner dropped the note unopened into her purse. Cooper then leaned toward her and whispered, "Miss, you'd better look at that note. I have a bomb."

Schaffner opened the note. In neat, all-capital letters printed with a felt-tip pen, Cooper had written, "Miss-I have a bomb in my briefcase and want you to sit by me." Schaffner returned the note to Cooper, sat down as he requested, and quietly asked to see the bomb. He opened his briefcase, and she saw two rows of four red cylinders, which she assumed was dynamite. Attached to the cylinders were a wire and a large, cylindrical battery.

Cooper closed the briefcase, and told Schaffner his demands. She wrote a note with Cooper's demands, brought it to the cockpit, and informed the flight crew of the situation. Captain William A. Scott directed her to remain in the cockpit for the remainder of the flight and take notes of events as they unfolded. He then contacted Northwest flight operations in Minnesota, and relayed the hijacker's demands: " requests $200,000 in a knapsack by 5:00 pm. He wants two front parachutes, two back parachutes. He wants the money in negotiable American currency." By requesting two sets of parachutes, Cooper implied that he planned to take a hostage with him, thereby discouraging authorities from supplying non-functional equipment.

With Schaffner in the cockpit, flight attendant Tina Mucklow sat next to Cooper to act as a liaison between him and the flight crew in the cockpit. He then made additional demands: upon landing in Seattle, the fuel trucks must meet the plane and all passengers must remain seated while she brought the money aboard. He said he would release the passengers after he had the money. The last items brought aboard would be the four parachutes.

Captain Scott informed Seattle–Tacoma Airport air traffic control (ATC) of the situation, who contacted local police and the FBI. The passengers were told their arrival in Seattle would be delayed because of a "minor mechanical difficulty". Donald Nyrop, the president of Northwest Orient, authorized payment of the ransom and ordered all employees to cooperate with the hijacker and comply with his demands. For approximately two hours, Flight 305 circled Puget Sound to give Seattle police and the FBI sufficient time to assemble Cooper's ransom money and parachutes, and to mobilize emergency personnel.

During the flight from Portland to Seattle, Cooper demanded that Mucklow remain by his side at all times. She later said that he appeared familiar with the local terrain; while looking out the window, he remarked, "Looks like Tacoma down there", as the aircraft flew above it. He also correctly noted McChord Air Force Base was only a 20-minute drive from Sea-Tac Airport. She later described the hijacker's demeanor: " was not nervous. He seemed rather nice and he was not cruel or nasty."

While the plane circled Seattle, Mucklow chatted with Cooper and asked why he picked Northwest Airlines to hijack. He laughed and replied, "It's not because I have a grudge against your airlines, it's just because I have a grudge," then explained that this flight simply suited his needs. He asked where she was from; she answered that she was originally from Pennsylvania, but was living in Minneapolis at the time. Cooper responded that Minnesota was "very nice country." She asked where he was from, but he became upset and refused to answer. He asked if she smoked and offered her a cigarette. She replied that she had quit, but accepted the cigarette.

FBI records note Cooper briefly spoke to an unidentified passenger while the plane maintained its holding pattern over Seattle. In his interview with FBI agents, passenger George Labissoniere said he visited the restroom directly behind Cooper on several occasions. After one visit, Labissoniere said the path to his seat was blocked by a passenger wearing a cowboy hat, questioning Mucklow about the supposed mechanical issue delaying them. Labissoniere said Cooper was initially amused by the interaction, then became irritated and told the man to return to his seat, but "the cowboy" ignored Cooper and continued to question her. Labissoniere claimed he eventually persuaded "the cowboy" to return to his seat.

Mucklow's version of the interaction differed from Labissoniere's. She said a passenger approached her, and asked for a sports magazine to read because he was bored. She and the passenger moved to an area directly behind Cooper, where the passenger and she looked for magazines. The passenger took a copy of The New Yorker and returned to his seat. When Mucklow returned to sit with Cooper, he said, "If that is a sky marshal, I don't want any more of that." Despite his brief interaction with Cooper, "the cowboy" was not interviewed by the FBI and was never identified.

The $200,000 ransom was received from Seattle First National Bank in a bag weighing approximately nineteen pounds. The money-10,000 unmarked $20 bills, most of which had serial numbers beginning with "L" (indicating issuance by the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco)-was photographed on microfilm by the FBI. Seattle police obtained the two front (reserve) parachutes from a local skydiving school and the two back (main) parachutes from a local stunt pilot.

Passengers Released
Around 5:24 PST, Captain Scott was informed the parachutes had been delivered to the airport, and notified Cooper they would be landing soon. At 5:46 PST, Flight 305 landed at Seattle-Tacoma Airport. With Cooper's permission Scott parked the aircraft on a partially-lit runway, away from the main terminal. Cooper demanded that only one representative of the airline approach the plane with the parachutes and money, and the only entrance and exit would be through the aircraft's front door via the mobile air stairs. Northwest Orient's Seattle operations manager, Al Lee, was designated to be the courier. To avoid the possibility that Cooper might mistake Lee's airline uniform for that of a law enforcement officer, he changed into civilian clothes for the task. With the passengers remaining seated, a ground crew attached the mobile staircase. Per Cooper's directive, Mucklow exited the aircraft through the front door, and retrieved the ransom money. When she returned, she carried the money bag past the seated passengers to Cooper in the last row.

Cooper then agreed to release the passengers. As they debarked, Cooper inspected the money. In an attempt to break the tension, Mucklow jokingly asked Cooper if she could have some of the money. Cooper readily agreed, and handed her a packet of bills, but she immediately returned the money and explained accepting gratuities was against company policy. She said Cooper had tried to tip her and the other two flight attendants earlier in the flight with money from his own pocket, but they had each declined, citing the policy.

With the passengers safely debarked, only Cooper and the six crew members remained on board. In accordance with Cooper's demands, Mucklow made three trips outside the aircraft to retrieve the parachutes, which she brought to him in the rear of the plane. While Mucklow brought aboard the parachutes, Schaffner asked Cooper if she could retrieve her purse, stored in a compartment behind his seat. Cooper agreed and told her, "I won't bite you." Flight attendant Alice Hancock then asked Cooper if the flight attendants could leave, to which Cooper replied, "Whatever you girls would like," so Hancock and Schaffner debarked. When Mucklow brought the final parachute to Cooper, she gave him printed instructions for using the parachutes, but Cooper said he didn't need them.

A problem with the refueling process caused a delay, so a second truck and then a third were brought to the aircraft to complete the refueling. During the delay, Mucklow said Cooper complained the money was delivered in a cloth bag instead of a knapsack as he had directed, and he now had to improvise a new way to transport the money. Using a pocketknife, Cooper cut the canopy from one of the reserve parachutes, and stuffed some of the money into the empty parachute bag.

An FAA official requested a face-to-face meeting with Cooper aboard the aircraft, but Cooper denied the request. Cooper became impatient, saying, "This shouldn't take so long", and, "Let's get this show on the road." He then gave the cockpit crew his flight plan and directives: a southeast course toward Mexico City at the minimum airspeed possible without stalling the aircraft-approximately 100 knots (185 km/h; 115 mph)-at a maximum 10,000-foot (3,000 m) altitude. Cooper also specified the landing gear must remain deployed, the wing flaps must be lowered 15 degrees, and the cabin must remain unpressurized.

First Officer William J. Rataczak informed Cooper that this configuration limited the aircraft's range to about 1,000 miles (1,600 km), so a second refueling would be necessary before entering Mexico. Cooper and the crew discussed options, and agreed on Reno–Tahoe International Airport as the refueling stop. Cooper further directed the aircraft take off with the rear exit door open and its airstair extended. Northwest's home office objected that this was unsafe. Cooper countered saying, "It can be done, do it," but did not argue the point and said he would lower the staircase once they were airborne. He demanded Mucklow remain aboard to assist the operation.

Back in the Air

Around 7:40 pm, Flight 305 took off, with only Cooper, Mucklow, Captain Scott, First Officer Rataczak, and Flight Engineer Harold E. Anderson aboard. Two F-106 fighters from McChord Air Force Base and a Lockheed T-33 trainer-diverted from an unrelated Air National Guard mission-followed the 727. All three jets maintained "S" flight patterns to stay behind the slow-moving 727 and out of Cooper's view.

After takeoff, Cooper told Mucklow to lower the aft staircase. She told him and the flight crew she feared being sucked out of the aircraft. The flight crew suggested she come to the cockpit and retrieve an emergency rope with which she could tie herself to a seat. Cooper rejected the suggestion, stating he did not want her going up front or the flight crew coming back to the cabin. She continued to express her fear to him, and asked him to cut some cord from one of the parachutes to create a safety line for her. He said he would lower the stairs himself, instructed her to go to the cockpit, close the curtain partition between the Coach and First Class sections, and not return.

Before she left, Mucklow begged Cooper, "Please, please take the bomb with you." Cooper responded he would either disarm it or take it with him. As she walked to the cockpit and turned to close the curtain partition, she saw Cooper standing in the aisle tying what appeared to be the money bag around his waist. From takeoff to when Mucklow entered the cockpit, four to five minutes had elapsed. For the rest of the flight to Reno, Mucklow remained in the cockpit, and was the last person to see the hijacker.

Around 8:00 pm, a cockpit warning light flashed, indicating the aft staircase had been deployed. The pilot used the cabin intercom to ask Cooper if he needed assistance, but Cooper's last message was a one-word reply: "No." The crew's ears popped from the drop in cabin air pressure from the stairs being opened. At approximately 8:13 p.m., the aircraft's tail section suddenly pitched upward, forcing the pilots to trim and return the aircraft to level flight. In his interview with the FBI, Co-pilot Bill Rataczak said the sudden upward pitch occurred while the flight was near the suburbs north of Portland.

With the aft cabin door open and the staircase deployed, the flight crew remained in the cockpit, unsure if Cooper was still aboard. Mucklow used the cabin intercom to inform Cooper they were approaching Reno, and he needed to raise the stairs so the plane could land safely. She repeated her requests as the pilots made the final approach to land, but neither Mucklow nor the flight crew received a reply from the hijacker.

Northwest Airlines Flight 305 Crew At 11:02 pm, with the aft staircase still deployed, Flight 305 landed at Reno–Tahoe International Airport.

FBI agents, state troopers, sheriff's deputies, and Reno police established a perimeter around the aircraft, but fearing the hijacker and the bomb were still aboard, did not approach the plane. Captain Scott searched the cabin, confirmed Cooper was no longer aboard, and after a 30-minute search, an FBI bomb squad declared the cabin safe.

Other Wikipedia Citings