American Creative Nonfiction Crime

The Twist in the Tale

November 24th 1971 was just like any other Wednesday at the Portland Oregon Airport. Not particularly busy on domestic flights, so Dan Cooper had little wait time in buying his one way ticket to Seattle Washington. Dan Cooper was never planning to return. His identity documents were later proven to be fake. Security is a tad tighter today.

 In 1971 he did not have to concern himself with CCTV cameras. Even so he had timed his arrival to the last minute before the announcement to board his flight.  A busy period for staff, he had correctly calculated they would be too busy to take much notice of individual passengers.

All the Airport staff on duty that day, and Flight crew , were later to describe Cooper as a well-dressed clean shaven man wearing sunglasses, his appearance suggesting his age was around the mid 40’s. His suit colour varied with many of the descriptions. This non-descript appearance is no doubt the reason the Flight attendant did not see anything suspicious when he sat next to her during the take off.

This was to change very quickly when Cooper handed her a note and told her to read it.  No further verbal conversation took place. The note indicated he had a bomb in his briefcase which he showed to the Attendant. It also stated he would blow up the plane unless he received $200,000 and several parachutes when they landed in Seattle.

The Pilot radioed the demands to the Air Traffic Control Tower. All Cooper’s demands were met, the money and the parachutes were loaded onto the plane. All the other passengers were allowed to leave as were the Flight Attendants. The flight crew remained on the plane.

Cooper’s instructions to the pilot were to fly under 10,000 feet and set a course to Mexico City. The wing flaps were to be set at 15degrees a sure indication Cooper was familiar with the aircraft. Further proof came when he told the pilot to unlock the door to the rear stairway. This particular type of aircraft was the only commercial plane that has a rear stairway you could jump from. During the night flight the plane had a distinct jump in height indicating considerable weight had been jettisoned and in a flash Cooper had gone. No more instructions were heard and on landing in Reno Nevada it was obvious Cooper, the parachutes and the money had all disappeared.

The investigating team, reporters from all over the USA and a public, eager to be part of this brilliantly executed crime, had gathered on the tarmac to greet the arrival of the aircraft.

This brazen hijack became a case for the FBI. The tools they had to work with involved an evaluation of who Dan Cooper may be.

A typo by a journalist in the early stages of reporting the crime is the impetus for Dan becoming DB. This has stuck throughout the 52 years since the crime.

Comparing DB with a French fictional detective hero by the same name focused the FBI for some time. One theory advanced was that DB did the crime just to prove it could be done. Support for this theory is that none of the numbered banknotes have ever surfaced with the exception of $5,800 being washed up on the banks of the Columbia River in 1980.

Perhaps Dan has a peculiar sense of humour and it took his fancy to stir up the mystery after a nine year hiatus.

This points us in a direction that actually supports rather than decries the ‘just because he could’ scenario.

 Being familiar with aircraft, or at the very least with the type of aircraft he had absconded from, is undeniable. Flying lower than 10,000 feet stymied the use of radar to track a plane in flight in 1971. Insinuating he would be using several parachutes for the money and obviously for himself also indicated Cooper’s was familiar with their usage. One theory was advanced which sent the FBI checking through US Army Paratrooper’s personnel files. It proved to be nothing more than speculation. It proved fruitless.

Search after search along the flight pattern between Seattle and towards Mexico City failed to find any trace of the money, or DB Cooper’s body until nine years later in 1980. $5,800 of the numbered bank notes are washed up onto the bank of the Columbia River. This waterway would have been flown over by Cooper’s plane on his flight, so authorities had divers search the area. Unsuccessfully.

Quite often the most obvious solution to a crime is the answer.

Even Blind Freddy would have realised the banknotes would be marked, so someone with the smarts of DB Cooper would have foreseen this and taken action to prevent it, that is unless he had no plans to actually spend the money.

Jumping out of the aircraft at night with no real sense of where he was or where he could land does not make sense. However his smoke and mirror tricks worked, setting the scene first by being seen with a parachute on his back then jettisoning the extra parachutes to enforce the fact he had jumped. The plane reacted to a much lighter load. The rear stairs were down. Another visual fact which, together with the parachutes and money missing, combine to further enforce the belief DB Cooper had jumped.  In a flash he was gone into the night in their minds.

However, they got it wrong, he did not jump.

No. DB Cooper was still on the plane, not quite in plain sight, but close. He had calculated that the plane would be overrun with officials and reporters from the time it came to a stop. Another person appearing from the toilet cubicle would not raise questions and he became one of the throng who had pushed and shoved their way onto the plane. The dapper DB Cooper was now dressed in a suit of a different colour, the same suit inside out indicating he had thought of every detail. Due to the bulging pockets of banknotes he also looked a far more portly figure. He slowly made his way off the aircraft to the arrivals lounge, and caught a transfer to the Overseas Terminal. Paris awaits.

 What was the worst that could happen?

 If he got caught he would plead diminished responsibility, it was a joke. He was prepared to serve a short sentence if, and it is a big if, France would grant extradition of a comic book hero. Anyway the statute of limitations on hijacking expires after 12 years. DB had obviously decided it would be more interesting to leave the crime as one of the great mysteries.

His briefcase contained $5800 and the fake bomb when he threw it out of the plane. He left the case undone, hoping the notes would extend the mystery. That certainly worked.

December 24, 2023 05:09

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