Friday, June 29, 2012

The Man Who Disappeared From a Plane

Thanksgiving Eve, 1971. It was late afternoon at the Portland International Airport, and the rain outside was pouring. A thin, olive-skinned man wearing a suit and a raincoat calmly walked up to the Northwest Orient Airlines desk and purchased tickets for a one-way flight to Seattle for $20. This was the start of what would end up as the only successful plane hijacking in United States history.

Sketch of Dan Cooper. No trace of him
has ever been found after he jumped from
the hijacked plane. 
After purchasing his ticket, the man, Dan Cooper, sat in the airport for nearly an hour, until his 4:35pm flight boarded. He got onboard with his only carryon, a black briefcase, and took a seat in the back of the plane. Once the nearly empty plane was in the air,  he put on a pair of sunglasses and ordered himself a glass of whiskey. Just before the drink came he lit up a cigarette. When the flight attendant arrived with his drink, he handed her a note.

The flight attendant, a young woman named Florence Schaffner, took the note and dropped it in her purse without reading it and turned to walk away. Cooper grabbed her hand and whispered that she needed to read the note, because he had a bomb.

Hands shaking, she took the note out and read it. Written in all capital letters, it said:
The flight attendant did as Cooper requested. She asked to see the bomb. He opened his briefcase and showed her the jumble of wires and red cylinders. Then, he told her his demands. He wanted $200,000, four parachutes, and a refueling truck standing by in Seattle to refuel the plane. If they did as they were told, no one would get hurt, and he'd let all the passengers go when they touched ground in Washington.

The pilot notified the Seattle-Tacoma Airport which then contacted the FBI. While the plane circled the airport for two hours so the authorities could gather the money, Cooper, sat calmly with Florence Schaffner, pointing out different landmarks around the Seattle area. He was never angry, violent, or rude. In all ways, he seemed like he was on any normal, run-of-the-mill flight. He even ordered another drink and paid the tab.

On the ground, the passengers were released and the money and parachutes loaded up. The plane was refueled and took off with Cooper, the pilot, co-pilot and engineer still onboard. He had also dimmed the lights inside the plane, so he couldn't be shot. Two f-106 fight jets were scrambled to follow the plane. They flew above and below the aircraft, so Cooper couldn't see them.

He told the remaining flight crew to fly toward Mexico City, at the lowest possible altitude. He instructed them to lower the landing gear, so they could get even lower. The speed of the plane dropped. Just after 8pm, the airstairs in the rear of the pane were lowered. Then, at 8:13pm, as the plane was flying over the Lewis River and the lower Cascade mountains, Dan Cooper, with his briefcase, a parachute strapped on, and the other three chutes with him, jumped off the plane...and disappeared.

The wanted poster for DB Cooper
Neither of the planes saw Cooper jump. Over the next few weeks, 300 soldiers, the largest manhunt in U.S. history, searched the area and turned up no evidence. Nothing was ever found and all potential leads turned up false. (It was at this time that Dan Cooper was misidentified in the press as DB Cooper.) The man and the money had simply vanished.

In 1972, U.S. Attorney John Mitchell released the serial numbers to the bills given to Cooper. Only counterfeited bills surfaced. In 1980, an 8-year-old boy found three stacks of cash, bound by a rubber band, on the shores of the Columbia River. They were severally disintegrated. The FBI confirmed the serial numbers matched those given to Cooper in 1971. No other money was found.

To this day, the rest of the money has never turned up anywhere in the world and the serial numbers are available online. The identity and whereabouts of Dan Cooper are also still unknown.