50 Years Ago D.B. Cooper Hijacked And Escaped A Boeing 727

Today, aviation security has advanced to a point where hijackings are an extremely rare occurrence. While they were never commonplace, they did happen more often in the mid to late 20th century, before further preventative measures were brought in. One of the most famous hijackings took place 50 years ago today, involving a Northwest Orient Boeing 727.

Northwest Orient Boeing 727
Half a century has passed since D.B. Cooper’s famous hijack. Photo: Jon Proctor via Wikimedia Commons

The flight in question

Northwest Orient Airlines was the name under which former US giant Northwest Airlines operated until 1986. On November 24th, 1971, the carrier’s flight 305 served the short hop between Portland and Seattle. This was a key corridor for US airlines in the 1970s, as it remains today. Indeed, by the middle of the decade, seven carriers were serving the route.

Operated by a Boeing 727, Northwest Orient Airlines flight 305 departed punctually at 14:50 local time. Sitting in what is believed to have been seat 18C was a smartly dressed man thought to have been in his mid-40s. Using the name Dan Cooper, he had bought his ticket for the flight using cash at Northwest Orient’s ticket desk in Portland that very afternoon.

Flight 305 was only around a third full that day, with 36 passengers (including the briefcase-carrying Cooper) and six crew members onboard. After departure, Cooper handed a note to one of these crew members that significantly altered the nature of the flight.

Portland Seattle Map
Northwest later merged with Delta, which flies from Portland to Seattle today. Image: RadarBox.com

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Extensive demands

Despite initially assuming the exchange to be little more than an attempt to give her his phone number, flight attendant Florence Schaffner found that Cooper’s note mentioned a bomb. Taking a seat beside Cooper, he showed her a device in his briefcase consisting of cylinders, wires, and a battery. Convinced by its legitimacy, Schaffner continued reading.

Cooper’s note, which he later reclaimed, contained a list of demands. He wanted the aircraft to be met with a truck to refuel it in Seattle, along with $200,000 ($1.366 million today), and two primary and two reserve parachutes. While Schaffner passed these on to the crew, Cooper donned sunglasses, which featured in several artists’ impressions of him.

Northwest Orient Boeing 727
Northwest Orient’s Boeing 727s had distinctive red tails. Photo: Aero Icarus via Flickr

A delayed arrival

Complying with his demands in an attempt not to escalate what was a tense situation, Northwest Orient set about collecting the things Cooper needed. The flight circled for two hours to allow this to take place, informing passengers that the delayed landing was the result of a technical issue. Meanwhile, Cooper stayed calm, ordering another drink.

By 17:24 local time, the crew was able to confirm to Cooper that had demands had been met. 15 minutes later, the flight touched down in darkness at Seattle-Tacoma Airport. Having taxied to an isolated but well-lit part of the airfield, Northwest Orient’s Operations Manager at the time, Al Lee, was able to come onboard to deliver the money and parachutes. He passed them to the crew via the rear airstair, which opens as seen in the photograph below.

Boeing 727 Rear Stairs
The 727 had a rear set of stairs beneath its tail. Photo: Piergiuliano Chesi via Wikimedia Commons

Cooper then allowed the flight’s other 35 passengers to leave the aircraft, having reached their destination several hours late. He also granted two members of the cabin crew to disembark in Seattle. The 727 was on the ground for around two hours, during which time Cooper instructed the pilots to fly slowly towards Mexico City at 10,000 feet.

Into the night

Despite delays to the refueling process that required a second truck to help out, the aircraft was able to take off again at 19:40 local time. The flaps and landing gear remained down, with the cabin unpressurized, as per Cooper’s demands. The crew set a course for Reno, Nevada, as these aspects rendered the 727 unable to make it to Mexico City in one go.

DB Cooper Sketch Getty
A police sketch of DB Cooper, whose whereabouts remain unknown to this day. Photo: Getty Images

Two Convair T-106 ‘Delta Dart’ interceptors and a single Lockheed T-33 ‘Shooting Star’ trailed the aircraft as it flew south. They stayed out of Cooper’s view so as to not arouse suspicion and risk escalating the tense situation. 20 minutes into the flight, a warning light in the cockpit indicated that the plane’s rear door had been opened, dropping the rear stairs. Furthermore, the change of pressure in the cabin also indicated that the door was open.

Cooper had implied that he would take this course of action while on the ground in Seattle, after asking if the plane could take off with the stairs deployed. Using the intercom, the crew asked Cooper if he required assistance. His refusal of such help via the cabin crew phone was his final communication. Shortly afterward, he parachuted off the rear stairs into the night sky. This may have occurred at 20:13, when the plan’s tail suddenly jolted upwards.

Cooper Vane
The FAA mandated the use of ‘Cooper Vanes’ on Boeing 727s after the hijack. These prevent the rear stairs from lowering inflight. Photo: Tank67 via Wikimedia Commons

Still an unsolved case today

The aircraft continued to Reno, where it touched down at around 22:15 local time. There, a sweep of the aircraft by local police and FBI agents confirmed that Cooper was no longer onboard. This prompted an investigation into his disappearance, which remains unsolved today. The hijacker became known as D.B Cooper, rather than the Dan Cooper moniker that he bought his ticket under, after a publishing error regarding an early suspect.

Despite recovering dozens of fingerprints from the airliner, and simulating where Cooper might have landed by pushing a sled out of an aircraft under similar conditions, authorities have never been able to locate Cooper. A potential breakthrough occurred in 1980, when the holidaying Ingram family found bank notes whose serial numbers matched those given to Cooper by the Columbia River in Washington State. However, his fate remains unknown.

DB Cooper Money
A sample of the ransom money thought to have been given to DB Cooper. Photo: Getty Images

Cooper’s fate following his leap from the 727 remains one of aviation history’s greatest mysteries. However, the fate of the aircraft involved is more concrete. Registered as N467US, ATDB.aero shows that it joined Piedmont Airlines in 1978. After six years there, it transferred to Key Air in 1984, before its scrapping in Greenwood, Mississippi in 1995.

What do you make of this piece of history? Do you have any theories as to the fate of D.B. Cooper? Let us know your thoughts in the comments.

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