“Myths and legends die hard in America. We love them for the extra dimension they provide, the illusion of near-infinite possibility to erase the narrow confines of most men’s reality.”Hunter S. Thompson
On November 24, 1971, a man in his forties bought himself a plane ticket.
I’m guessing you know the rest of this story.
Now, over 49 years since the man who called himself Dan Cooper jumped out of Northwest Airlines Flight 305 and into the pantheon of American folklore, his legacy as a cult figure remains foggy.
For some, D.B. Cooper’s skyjacking represents the ultimate victory for the American ‘little man”. Average in both height and looks, dressed in a cheap suit, and cursed with a hairline in heavy retreat, the non-descript, middle-aged Cooper is an everyday Robin Hood – bundling out of Flight 305 with a new fortune to enjoy his twilight years with.
Cooper was described as being almost pleasant. He never used crass or vulgar language and even paid for the drinks of all the passengers on board prior to their release in the exchange for the ransom money. For Cooper-lovers, his heist wasn’t about ego, bravado, or fragile machismo – it was about ‘sticking it to the man’ and defying corporate greed right under their noses. In an era dominated by unpopular, bumbling bureaucrats, Cooper’s heist was his interpretation of the American Dream. Work hard, come up with a plan, and escape to the countryside with 200 grand.
Two-hundred grand of ”negotiable American currency” as Cooper called it – leading some to conclude that Cooper wasn’t American himself. Once the parachutes and the money were dropped off, Cooper requested the plane take off once again. This time, Mexico City was the destination.
I think one of the reasons why D.B. Cooper has endured in our minds for so long is that he challenged the archetype of what a 1970s aircraft hijacker could be. He wasn’t a long-haired, bandana-wearing Cuban shouting pro-Castro rhetoric, nor was he a frizzy-haired mental patient armed with more bullets than sense. Cooper was, by all accounts, a James Bond-esque type of hijacker who calmly handed a note to flight attendant Tina Mucklow containing his threat to blow the plane up. Aside from his ”no funny business or I’ll do the job” comment later on, his demeanour on Flight 305 remained calm and personable.
Cooper’s loot is almost laughable by today’s standards however $200k was a sizeable bounty in 1971 in certainly would have been enough to provide the hijacker with a comfortable existence considering he was estimated to be in his forties at the time.
Well, that’s if he lived.
This is where the other camp in Cooper case come in.
Facing sub-zero temperatures with a 135mph wind in his face, Cooper launched himself off of Flight 305’s aft airstairs dressed in only a suit and loafers. His reserve parachute was not functional (something he failed to spot prior to jumping) and he failed to request a helmet. None of the money given to him has turned up anywhere in the world (aside from Brian Ingram’s 1980 discovery of $5,200 in Tina Bar) and there was no indication Cooper had any idea where he was when he jumped.
The FBI has always maintained that Cooper’s daring feat was one of stupidity and one that he certainly didn’t survive.
“Diving into the wilderness without a plan, without the right equipment, in such terrible conditions, he probably never even got his chute open’‘Special Agent Larry Carr
Some argue that Cooper’s theft was as pointless as it was stupid. Even if he survived the jump he could not spend any of the money and I am certain Cooper knew this. He was familiar with the Lindbergh baby abduction case – whose perpetrator was caught after investigators tracked both the serial numbers of the ransom bills and then brought in additional handwriting evidence to seal the abductor’s fate. This is why Cooper took back the handwritten note given to Tina Mucklow and why he certainly knew that all of the money he had received was essentially useless.
So why do it? Was Cooper a desperate outlaw with nothing to lose, or was he a bored, directionless man going through the ultimate mid-life crisis? Did he hijack Flight 305 because he felt he had to or did he do so just to prove it could be done and inject some much-needed adrenaline back into his life?
We’ll never know for sure. Aside from a placard and a small percentage of the ransom money, no evidence of Cooper’s fate has materialized anywhere on Earth. Numerous people, from L.D. Cooper to Kenny Christiansen to William J. Smith, have been investigated as suspects but no hard evidence has ever linked any of these men to the crime. Nor has it legitimised any of the deathbed confessions made over the years by men claiming to have been Cooper.
It’s up to you to decide whether D.B. Cooper’s hijacking was an act of heroism or a moronic display of suicide. I prefer to think he did survive the jump. It was 200k. The world would only get darker and aircraft hijackings would only get more barbaric over the years. For me, D.B. Cooper’s crime is just not that big of a deal. He beat the machine at their own game and has infuriated the FBI by doing so. They knew that Cooper got the better of them and whether he died in the jump or not – his heist still represents a victory of some sort.
In 2016, the Cooper case was finally closed and, rightfully so – there are just bigger things to worry about these days. It’s entirely possible D.B. Cooper lived the rest of his life walking around with an expression on his face that was telling of man who knew something we didn’t. It’s also possible that his skeleton still resides in the Hoh Rainforest.
Either way, his name and legacy live on. Isn’t that what the American Dream is really about?