Position: 45°37’26″N 122°40’42″W
The Pacific Northwest has a short, but rich history littered with brigands, murderers, and ne’er-do-wells. Suffice it to say I’m talking about the colonial invaders of the past couple of centuries. The native peoples no doubt have their own tales, but for now I’ll focus on the nutters and maniacs that overwhelmed this corner of the world. Among the more famous exemplars of skulduggery are household names like Ted Bundy, Bill Gates, and Ken Kesey .
Much has been written about all of them, but perhaps the most mythical character is D.B. Cooper. His crime? The hijacking of a Northwest Orient Airlines jet in 1971. It remains the only ‘successful’ hijacking of its kind in the continental United States. His is a myth that so embraces the fantastical weirdness of the Pacific Northwest that it has grown steadily over decades. Today in Vancouver, Washington, there is a themed pub with beers named in honour of his exploits. While a local D.B. Cooper convention looks like it will become an annual event.
Flying the Friendly Skies
If you’re old enough, you’ll recall how different air travel was 50+ years ago. There was none of the high-tech paranoia that you see in airports today. Your friends and family could saunter to the gate with you, smoke a cigarette or two and wave you off as you trucked on downstairs to the tarmac and out to your aircraft. On board, stewardesses [sic] would tuck you in, pour you a stiff one on the rocks, then proffer a Zippo lighter if you needed a drag of nicotine to calm your nerves. Non-smoker? Sit down at the back of the plane and don’t complain about the clouds of particulates swirling around your head.
Without recounting every gory detail of the hijacking, here’s an executive summary:
– On November 24, 1971, a man calling himself Dan Cooper (his name was later mis-reported as D.B. Cooper) boarded a plane from Portland, Oregon, to Seattle using a $20.00 ticket he had purchased just before the flight. Once in the air, Cooper handed the flight attendant a handwritten note. The note stated: “Miss—I have a bomb in my briefcase and want you to sit by me.” Florence Shaffner sat down and asked to see the bomb. Cooper opened his briefcase and showed her what appeared to be dynamite, a large battery and a complex set of wires. He then told Shaffner what he wanted: $200,000 in US currency in a knapsack, and two front and two back parachutes. She went forward and spoke with the flight crew who relayed Cooper’s demands to air traffic control.
– Landing in Seattle, the plane was parked on a partially lit runway away from the main terminal while the Feds ran around fetching cash from local banks. On hearing his demands had been met, Cooper released the other passengers, and eventually Schaffner and another of the three flight attendants. The plane was refueled, and Cooper gave the pilot a new flight plan in the direction of Mexico City. He also told the pilot to keep the plane below 10,000 feet in altitude, and to leave the landing gear down and fly as slowly as possible without stalling, about 100 knots (185km/hr).
– Back in the air, he ordered the remaining flight attendant, Lisa Mucklow, into the cockpit and told her not to come out. At about 20:00hrs a warning light came on in the cockpit indicating the aft staircase had been opened. The pilot asked Cooper over the intercom if he needed help. Cooper replied “No”. No one heard or saw him again. The plane flew on to Reno with the rear staircase down and landed safely.
Welcome to the Monkey House
Historically, Washington and Oregon were part of Canada (kinda). ‘Discovered’ by James Cook, the explorer, the region was in fact already occupied by the Spanish, who seemed keen to get back to the sunshine of California. Eventually Manifest Destiny, embodied as the 49th parallel, split the region between the Yanks and the Brits. Isolated behind the Rocky Mountains and the Cascade Range, folks apparently didn’t get the email that they had become Americans overnight and maintained their peculiarly English sense of humour and taste for decent beer.
It was those two cultural touchstones – a sense of humour and good beer – that I embraced when I started working in Oregon 37 years ago. And if we can agree that an English sense of humour includes an appreciation of the absurd, the enjoyment of word play, and a willingness to ‘have a crack’ at things, then we can begin to understand why this unsolved crime maintains its prodigious grip on the popular imagination.
Leaping out of a jet over the dense pine forests near Mount St. Helens on a dark and stormy night in late November with a million and a half dollars takes some serious ‘nads. And an advanced sense of humour. None of the crew or passengers were harmed. The 727 aircraft remained in service for another 25 years. The cash, with the exception of a few hundred dollars that washed up on the shores of the Columbia River a few years later, never turned up again. Perhaps you find nothing amusing about all that. About the lone outlaw thumbing his nose at the authorities and getting away with it. If you discount the provenance of the money and the inconvenience to the passengers, it was a victimless crime. Kind of like lighting up a blunt in Idaho these days.
The Real Dan Cooper
Digging a little deeper, though, you learn Dan Cooper is the name of a French-Canadian comic book hero; a test pilot whose adventures originated in Tintin magazine in 1954. His exploits are legion and legendary. There was nothing Dan Cooper couldn’t do, including jumping out of an airplane into the unknown. Was the mysterious hijacker living out a comic book fantasy? He certainly knew about parachutes, airplanes, and made a bomb realistic enough to scare the bejeepers out of the flight crew.
By all accounts, D.B. Cooper was polite, pleasant to chat with, and, judging by his actions, an okay guy. Sounds pretty Canadian to me, eh? We will never know, but perhaps the first thing he did after burying his parachute was gather up his belongings and head to the nearest pub to buy a round for the house. That would have been a nice bow to have tied on a rollickingly good afternoon’s crack, eh?
The FBI finally closed the case on NORJACK 45 years after it began investigations. You can read all you want from the Bureau’s archives online here: FBI Vaults, and here: FBI DB Cooper Hijacking.
D.B. Cooper gained new notoriety in the 1990s as the eponymous hero of David Lynch’s seminal TV series, Twin Peaks. Special agent Dale Bartholomew Cooper, played by Kyle McLaughlin, arrives in town to solve the murder of Laura Palmer and changes television forever.
Many have claimed to have been D.B. Cooper, many more have claimed to have known him. But if Cooper’s hijacking was the ultimate practical joke, then it remains a damn good one. Just don’t take it too seriously. After all, if he is somehow still alive, he’d be in his 90s by now. He’d probably enjoy a regular pint of Schaffner Lager at his local pub, the Victor 23 in Vancouver, and chuckle at seeing his name in lights at the local theatre whenever CooperCon rolls around.
Should you need more, you’ll have no problem finding it. Start by clicking here: Google DB Cooper
 In 2022 terms