DB Cooper and the $200,000 plane hijacking still unsolved 50 years later

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(FILES) This undated file of a sketch courtesy of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) shows D.B. Cooper. On the eve of Thanksgiving, 1971, a nondescript, 40-something man who called himself Dan Cooper approached the airport counter and bought a one-way ticket from Portland to Seattle. Within hours, he strapped $200,000 in ransom to himself -- today worth about $1.3 million --  and parachuted off the plane, never to be found. Fifty years after his leap into the unknown, the case of D.B. Cooper -- an alias spawned by the media -- remains the only unsolved plane hijacking in the history of the United States. - RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE - MANDATORY CREDIT
An FBI sketch of plane hijacker DB Cooper. (AFP)

This article is part of Yahoo's 'On This Day' series

Eight-year-old Brian Ingram was just trying to build a campfire.

But while combing through the sand at Tena Bar, along the Columbia River in the US state of Washington, he unearthed the biggest clue in a mystery that has baffled investigators for half a century.

While raking along the river bank on a family holiday in February 1980, he found three packets, bundled by rubber bands.

Inside was $5,800 in $20 bills, a small slice of a ransom from one of the most daring heists in history.

Nine years previously, before Ingram had been born, that money had been in the hands of an elusive figure at the heart of the only plane hijacking that has never been solved.

Some of the stolen $20 bills taken by a hijacker calling himself D.B Cooper and found in Oregon, U.S., by a young boy in 1980, are displayed in an undated FBI picture.    FBI/Handout via Reuters THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. IT IS DISTRIBUTED, EXACTLY AS RECEIVED BY REUTERS, AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS. FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS
These disintegrated $20 bills taken by hijacker DB Cooper were found nine years after the heist by an eight-year-old boy. (Reuters)

On 24 November 1971, 50 years ago today, a man who came to be known as DB Cooper did the unthinkable, executing an air heist by making his escape from a moving plane at 10,000ft, with $200,000 and a parachute for company.

But did he actually escape?

That question has been left open for five decades. Cooper’s remains were never found, nor the remainder of the cash, bar the chunk Brian Ingram pulled out of the sand nine years after the hijacking. Cooper was never identified, although the FBI — and conspiracy theorists — came up with a long list of candidates.

In the middle of the mystery is a mistake. 

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The man who carried out the hijacking had used the alias “Dan Cooper” when purchasing his $20 airline ticket for Northwest Orient Airlines Flight 305, from Portland International Airport in Oregon to Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, a 30-minute trip on a Boeing 727.

When police and the FBI tried to track him down in the days after the heist, they found an Oregon man named DB Cooper, but quickly ruled him out as a suspect. However, a reporter mistakenly reported that 'DB Cooper' was the alias used by the hijacker and the name stuck. 

Cooper, carrying a black attaché case and wearing a business suit with a black tie and white shirt, boarded his flight the day before Thanksgiving, settling down into seat 18C and ordering a bourbon and soda. He did not look like the stereotypical plane hijacker.

And he didn’t act like one either.

Flight attendant Flo Schaffner, one of the crew members of the hijacked Northwest Airlines flight 305, tells reporters that she initially thought the hijacker was trying to hustle her when he gave her a note stating
Flight attendant Florence Schaffner, was given a note by DB Cooper which said he had a bomb. (Getty)
(Original Caption) Crew if Hijacked Jet Discuss Hijacker. Minneapolis: Crew members of a Northwest Airlines 727 jet hijacked November 24th tell newsmen November 26th they have no idea when the hijacker, tentatively identified as D.B. Cooper, parachuted from the plane, with his $200,000 ransom, on a flight from Seattle to Reno. Stewardess Tina Mucklow (right), 22, described the hijacker as
Northwest Orient Airlines flight attendant Tina Mucklow, right, alongside Captain Bill Scott, centre, and First Officer Bill Rataczak, left, said hijacker DB Cooper 'seemed rather nice'. (Getty)

Just after take-off at 2.50pm, Cooper handed a note to flight attendant Florence Schaffner. It was the early 1970s, so she assumed he had simply given her his phone number, and dropped it unopened into her purse.

At this point, Cooper leaned over and whispered: “Miss, you’d better look at that note. I have a bomb.”

The exact content of the note is unknown, as Cooper took it back later, but the contents of his briefcase made its own statement: when Schaffner looked inside, she saw eight red cylinders attached to wires and a large cylindrical battery.

Cooper demanded that after the plane touched down in Seattle, he be given $200,000 in cash and four parachutes. He also asked for a fuel truck to be standing by on arrival.

Schaffner relayed the demands to the cockpit — when she returned, Cooper was wearing dark sunglasses.

Artist sketches released by the FBI of a man calling himself D.B. Cooper, who vanished in 1971 with $200,000 in stolen cash after hijacking a commercial airliner over Oregon, U.S.  FBI/Handout via Reuters   THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. IT IS DISTRIBUTED, EXACTLY AS RECEIVED BY REUTERS, AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS. FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS
Artist sketches released by the FBI of hijacker DB Cooper. (Reuters)

Northwest Orient’s president, Donald Nyrop, ordered that the ransom be paid, and the aircraft circled for two hours to allow the police and FBI to come up with the cash and parachutes.

Later, Schaffner would describe the hijacker as calm and polite, while another flight attendant, Tina Mucklow, said: “He wasn’t nervous. He seemed rather nice. He was never cruel or nasty. He was thoughtful and calm all the time.”

Read more: How a thief jumped out of a plane and vanished into thin air

Cooper ordered a second bourbon and soda and paid his drinks bill, and even tried to give Mucklow the change. When she asked him his motives, he replied: “I don’t have a grudge against your airline, Miss, I just have a grudge.”

In Seattle, Cooper took possession of 10,000 unmarked $20 bills and civilian parachutes with manually operated ripcords, procured at short notice from a local skydiving school. 

(Original Caption) Seattle: Northwest Airlines 727, hijacked on a flight from Portland, Oregon to Seattle, sits on the ground here 11/24. before being refueled and continuing on to Reno, Nevada. The hijacker received $200,000 here before allowing the 35 passengers and 2 stewardesses off the plane. He also demanded and received parachutes. When the plane landed in Reno, the hijacker was gone. This photo was made by Seattle Times photographer Bruce McKim with a 500 mm lens and a 4 minute exposure.
The Northwest Orient Airlines 727 on the ground at Seattle during its hijacking by DB Cooper. (Getty)

After the handover, he allowed all of the other 35 passengers, as well as Schaffner and a senior flight attendant, to get off the plane.

Cooper demanded that the plane be flown towards Mexico City at the minimum speed possible at a maximum of 10,000 ft altitude, with Reno, Nevada, agreed as a refuelling stop. 

The plane took off from Seattle at 7.40pm, and was accompanied by two US fighter jets, one behind the commercial plane and one above, out of view.

After takeoff, Cooper lifted his briefcase and told Mucklow to show him how to open the door to the staircase at the back of the plane. She saw him tying something, possibly the bag of money, around his waist.

(Original Caption) Vancouver, Washington: Brian Ingram, 8, uses his hand to show how he smoothed put the sand on February 10, 1980, when he found three bundles of decomposed $20 dollar bills for photographer, February 15. Brian's father turned the money over to the FBI and when it was checked out, it was found to be identical to the money that was paid to hijacker, D.B. Cooper, on November 24, 1971. The area where Brian is digging is approximately the same as to where he found the money.
Brian Ingram, eight, found three bundles of $20 bills from the DB Cooper hijacking on a river bank while trying to build a campfire during a family holiday in 1980. (Getty)

At about 8pm, a warning light came on in the cockpit to indicate the rear airstair had been activated. The pilots asked Cooper over the intercom if he needed assistance. His simple reply of “No” was the last they heard of him. It is believed he jumped out of the plane.

Investigators would later calculate that Cooper had jumped into darkness in the middle of a heavy rainstorm somewhere over Washington state.

A huge search operation got underway on foot and by helicopter. Cooper was never found, nor was any of the equipment he used to leap from the aircraft.

The only evidence he left on the plane was a black clip-on tie, a tie clip and eight cigarette butts.

Seven years later, in November 1978, a deer hunter found a printed instruction card for lowering the rear stairs of a Boeing 727 near Castle Rock, Washington, under what would have been Flight 305’s flight path.

Cowlitz County Deputy sheriff Bob Nix points to area on map 1/18 where a hunter found plastic placard that he's holding in his hand. Authorities have identified the placard as positively coming from a Boeing 727 jetliner. And they feel that it's the first 'new clue,' in the 'D.B. Cooper' hijacking of seven years ago. Cooper, escaped by parachuting from the jet with $200,000.
Cowlitz County Deputy sheriff Bob Nix points to an area on on a map where a hunter found a plastic placard that fell from a Boeing 727 jetliner. (Getty)

Two years later, Brian Ingram's inadvertent find while building a campfire made him a national celebrity. He was eventually allowed to hold on to some of the money, and sold 15 of his bills at auction in 2008 for about $37,000, 120 times their face value.

As for Cooper’s true identity, the FBI processed more than 1,000 potential suspects.

Of those, there were a few standouts.

In an almost identical heist, Richard McCoy Jr, an army veteran who served in Vietnam, hijacked a United Airlines 727 on 7 April 1972 after it left Denver, Colorado, jumping out and escaping with $500,000 in cash. 

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He was arrested two days later and killed two years later in an FBI shootout following a prison escape.

McCoy didn’t match Cooper’s description, however, and was in Las Vegas on the day of the 1971 hijacking.

Sheridan Peterson, who died earlier this year, was another name linked to DB Cooper. He served in the US Marine Corps and worked for Boeing in Seattle. 

Although he liked to hint in the media that he was Cooper, Peterson told the FBI he was in Nepal at the time of the hijacking.

In July 2016, the FBI announced it was suspending its active investigation of the DB Cooper case.

His fate, and his identity, remain a mystery.

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