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Retrospect: November 24, 1971: The Mysterious Case of D.B. Cooper

Caption: NOAA/NWS Daily Weather Map for 7:00 a.m. EST, November 24, 1971. An area of low pressure, centered near the Gulf of Alaska begins to move onshore in the Pacific Northwest, bringing heavy rain to coastal areas at the time the man known as D.B. Cooper jumped out of an airplane he hijacked with $200,000 in ransom into the wilderness below.

Caption: NOAA/NWS Daily Weather Map for 7:00 a.m. EST, November 24, 1971. An area of low pressure, centered near the Gulf of Alaska begins to move onshore in the Pacific Northwest, bringing heavy rain to coastal areas at the time the man known as D.B. Cooper jumped out of an airplane he hijacked with $200,000 in ransom into the wilderness below.

On the rainy afternoon of November 24, 1971—the day before Thanksgiving—a man in his mid-40s with brown eyes, wearing dark clothes and a raincoat, and carrying an attaché case walked up to the Northwest Orient ticket counter at the airport in Portland, Oregon, and purchased a one-way ticket under the name of “Dan Cooper” for Flight 305 to Seattle. After boarding the plane and ordering a drink, he handed a note to one of the flight attendants. “I have a bomb,” it said. Then he asked her to sit next to him.

His demands were simple, if not well thought-out: $200,000 in unmarked U.S. bills (any denomination), four parachutes (two chest-pack and two backpack chutes), and meals for the flight crew. He also insisted that the plane be refueled after landing in Seattle. Authorities scrambled to comply with his requests, with the president of Northwest Airlines authorizing the $200,000 ransom. While on the tarmac in Seattle, the hijacker, who would become known to the world as D. B. Cooper (the middle initial “B” was mistakenly added by a reporter in Portland who misheard the name given to him by a local FBI agent), let the other passengers and most of the cabin crew go, but insisted that flight attendant Tina Mucklow remain on board with him. He said he wanted to go to Mexico City.

Caption: A sketch created by the FBI of fugitive D.B. Cooper.

Caption: A sketch created by the FBI of fugitive D.B. Cooper.

About half an hour after taking off from Seattle, somewhere over southwest Washington, Cooper lowered the aft stairs of the plane, strapped a parachute to himself, along with the $200,000, and jumped into the dark, cold, rain-pelted night, never to be seen or heard from again. Around the time Cooper jumped from plane, at an altitude of 10,000 feet, the pilots of Flight 305 radioed that the outside air temperature was −7°C (19.4°F).

The legend of D. B. Cooper has inspired books, films, TV show plots, comic strips, and songs, including singer-songwriter Chuck Brodsky's 2006 “The Ballad of D. B. Cooper,” which includes the following verse:

Out a little service doorway

In the rear of the plane

Cooper jumped into the darkness

Into the freezing rain

They say that with the windchill

It was 69 below

Not much chance that he'd survive

But if he did where did he go?

While Cooper may have known where he was going, he chose a period of particularly inclement weather to perform his stunt. A series of storms was affecting the Pacific Northwest coast with rain during the last week of November 1971 and brought heavy snowfall to the mountains. Precipitation totals of eight to nine inches were reported along the Oregon coast, with four to five inches in the Willamette Valley and seven to 10 inches along the Cascade Range. The heaviest amounts—three to four inches over a 24-hour period—came on November 26, as authorities were forced to call off their search due to rain and fog. Snowfall totals from the storm included 53.5 inches at the headquarters of Crater Lake National Park and 56.6 inches at Santiam Pass in central Oregon. The heavy rains caused many streams and rivers to overflow their banks.

“The guy either had to be crazy, or brilliant and have mad skills,” said Tom Kaye, a paleontologist with the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture in Seattle. Kaye recently teamed up with the FBI and other private citizens in an effort to shed new light on the case.

Was Cooper crazy, or did he have a method to his madness—one that perhaps incorporated the weather? An article that appeared in the June 16, 1972, issue of Life magazine reported that Cooper jumped “two days before the heavy clouds cleared enough to permit a helicopter search of the steep lava foothills and farmlands.” Despite their efforts, searchers found nothing “and heavy snows soon sealed the woods off.”

As Geoffrey Gray, author of Skyjack: The Hunt for D. B. Cooper, puts it, “The weather had been so terrible—rain, fog, snow—that agents and local law enforcement could not search the flight path on foot.”

So far, the only tangible evidence found after Cooper's stunning feat was $5,800 of his ransom money, which was discovered in 1980 by eight-year-old Brian Ingram, while picnicking with his parents along the north shore of the Columbia River, about 40 miles south of where authorities assumed Cooper landed. “We are out here making a campfire, my father and I, and that's when we discovered the three packets of $20 bills, later to be proven as ransom money of D. B. Cooper,” Ingram recalled as an adult. Ingram has joined Kaye and others in hopes of solving the mystery. So far, they haven't.

The FBI announced in August 2011 that it had been pursuing a “promising lead” in the case for more than a year. The lead came from an Oklahoma woman named Marla Cooper, who claimed that her uncle, Lynn Doyle Cooper, who died in 1999, was the hijacker known as D. B. Cooper. He's one of more than 1,000 suspects the FBI has investigated over the past four decades.

FBI Special Agent Larry Carr, who took over the D. B. Cooper case in 2007, said that contrary to what some theories suggest, Cooper was likely not an expert skydiver. “No experienced parachutist would have jumped in the pitch-black night, in the rain, with a 200-mile-an-hour wind in his face, wearing loafers and a trench coat. It was simply too risky,” he said. Carr has also suggested that it's highly unlikely that Cooper survived the jump that cold, rainy night 40 years ago, after what remains the only unsolved hijacking case in U.S. history. “But he came from somewhere and from someone. And that is what we want to know.”

Contributing Editor SEAN POTTER is a New York-based Certified Consulting Meteorologist (CCM), Certified Broadcast Meteorologist (CBM), and science writer with an interest in weather history.

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