Skip to content, or skip to search.

Skip to content, or skip to search.

Unmasking D.B. Cooper

The Northwest airliner at the Seattle airport in the midst of the hijacking.  

Florence Schaffner was 23, cute, perky, the sexy stewardess. Working on planes, she’d been approached by so many men that she’d taken to wearing a wig onboard to disguise herself. She dropped the man’s note in a purse, thinking, Just another guy hitting on me. But the man was insistent. “Miss. You’d better look at that note. I have a bomb.” She looked at the man’s eyes. She saw that he was serious.

She read the note. It was printed in felt pen, all capital letters, elegantly formed. “I have a bomb in my briefcase. I want you to sit beside me,” it read. She did as he requested, then asked to see the bomb. She saw a tangle of wires, a battery, and six red sticks. Then he dictated some instructions: “I want $200,000 by 5:00 p.m. In cash. Put in a knapsack. I want two back parachutes and two front parachutes. When we land, I want a fuel truck ready to refuel. No funny stuff or I’ll do the job.” He let her get up to take them to the captain. When she got back, the man was wearing dark sunglasses.

Schaffner’s mind was reeling. She imagined her parents back in Arkansas watching the evening news. She imagined the plane exploding. She imagined this man taking her hard by the wrist and raping her right there. She took deep breaths. Inhale, exhale, repeat. Surprisingly, the man was able to calm her down. He was not a so-called sky pirate, which she’d read about in the papers, or a hardened criminal. He was not a political dissident with a wish to reroute the plane to Cuba, like many of the hijackers until then. He was polite. Well spoken. A gentlemen. At one point, he offered to pay for his drinks with a $20 bill and insisted the stewardess keep the rest ($18) as change. He also seemed like a local, glancing out the window and saying, “Looks like Tacoma down there.”

The plane landed on the Sea-Tac tarmac, greased up by the squalls of the rainstorm. It was late, two hours late, because FBI agents needed time to collect Cooper’s ransom and to station their sharpshooters. Inside the cabin, Cooper ordered all passengers be released. The airline staff then carried his ransom—$200,000 in $20 bills (the bundle weighed 21 pounds) and parachutes—onto the plane as it refueled. The gentleman hijacker was getting anxious. “It shouldn’t take this long,” he said, and told the captain to get the plane back in the air. Where to?

“Mexico City,” he said, and delivered more specific flight instructions: Keep the plane under 10,000 feet, with wing flaps at fifteen degrees, which would put the plane’s speed under 200 knots. He strapped the loads of cash to himself and slipped on two chutes—one in front, one in back—and moved deeper into the vessel, toward the aft stairs, which were used to let passengers disembark from the rear of the plane. The 727 was the only model equipped with such stairs. He lowered them. The seal of the cabin broke, and there was engine noise in his ears and the cold, black, wet windy night outside. He climbed down the stairs and hovered on a plank over southwest Washington. The plane was too high to see anything below. The cloud ceiling that night was 5,000 feet, and some of the most rugged terrain in this country was beneath it: forests of pine and hemlock and spruce, canyons with cougars and bears and lakes and white-water rapids, all spilling out into the Pacific. And then, as the ballad goes,

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?

They did look for him. The Feds scoured the forests the next day, and for days after in a dense fog, praying for a parachute tear, a $20 bill, a body. One team of treasure hunters chartered a submarine and descended hundreds of feet into a lake. In Washington, D.C., at the headquarters of J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI, agents coordinated a profiling campaign. The name, they soon found, was a fake. But Dan Cooper had already been immortalized as D.B. Cooper. The error happened when a reporter got the wrong first name from a police source and it hit the wires. So what if it was wrong? It sounded good, mythic. It made it seem like Cooper’s jump meant something, and it did. “You know, it’s funny,” said one local resident at the time. “Folks are actually pulling for this man. That’s all anybody wants to talk about. I hear it all day long. ‘Hope he made it, he deserves it, hope he gets away with every nickel.’ Like he’s some kind of Robin Hood character.” He was also anonymous. “He was John Doe. He wasn’t some wild radical ... He was you or me or your neighbor.”