Sunday, 4 January 2009

D.B. Cooper: The One That Got Away

I have a bomb in my briefcase. I will use it if necessary. I want you to sit next to me. You are being hijacked.

Wednesday 24th November 1971 was just another day for Florence Schaffner, an air hostess on Flight 305 from Portland, Oregon to Seattle, Washington. It was the day before Thanksgiving and perhaps her thoughts were turning to the festivities that were soon to come as she sat in her jump seat. She probably didn't realise that the passenger in seat 18c wasn't coming on to her as she pocketed the note he gave her. Just another chancer passing her his phone number. Her level of shock must of been pretty high when the guy turned round to her and said:

"Miss, you'd better look at that note. I have a bomb."

As well as telling her the plane was being hijacked the note also carried demands that when the plane landed in Seattle he was to be brought 2 sets of parachutes, $200 000 in $20 dollar notes (unmarked of course) and threatened to blow up the plane if these demands were not met exactly.

The pilot William Scott was told by the FBI after a quick response by the emergency services to cooperate with the hijacker and he asked Schaffner to confirm whether this guy had a bomb. She returned to the cockpit with confirmation having seen inside the briefcase and brought the request from the hijacker that they were not to land until the parachutes and money was ready on the ground.

The FBI gathered the money, making microfilm copies so they could track them down should they be used, and managed to find some parachutes at a local skydiving school. The plane landed and whilst the negotiations commenced, our hijacker generously requested food be brought for the crew. After the goods were delivered to the plane he quickly released all the passengers and stewardess Schaffner but kept all 3 of the flight crew and one other stewardess on the plane.

Once he was satisfied with all the arrangements he ordered the pilot to fly to Mexico City at an unusually low altitude and speed. He ordered the last stewardess to go to the cockpit and stay there and as she left she saw him putting on a harness. Moments later the cockpit instruments recorded the door being open and when they attempted to ask if he need any assistance the crew were rebuffed with a loud "No!!"

Somewhere over the southern part of the state of Washington he lowered the aft stairs and jumped... never to be seen again.

He'd used the name Dan Cooper when booking the seats, but thanks to a misprint in a press article he will always be known as D.B. Cooper to most people. And the fact that his was the first ever unsolved airplane hijacking and that no one had ever seen him since has caused this case to be one of great interest.

The FBI and US Army made one of the largest ground searches in history across Washington state and the FBI began a sweep of the country looking for the banknotes they had given Cooper. They found nothing. Nada. Zip.

In 1978 a hunter in the area found the placard from the plane giving instructions on how to open the aft stairs.

In 1980 a boy on a picnic with his family found $5880 on a riverbank which belonged to Cooper's haul and after careful study it was found they'd probably washed up there sometime after 1974 from one of the rivers in Cooper's landing zone.

Given that the notes have never been found in circulation and that part of his stash washed up in a river it seems unlikely that Dan Cooper survived his jump. But until his remains are found, speculation over his ultimate fate will continue.

Further Reading

D. B. Cooper: Portrait of an American Hijacker (UK Amazon, US Amazon)

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