A few days ago, some kids playing in the woods near where their father was grading a road in Washington state found a buried parachute sticking up out of the ground. The FBI is testing it to see if it adds another clue-- or makes even more mysterious-- one of the greatest puzzles of our time-- who was D.B. Cooper, and what happened to him?
If you are over 45 or so, you probably know what I'm talking about. For those of you under that age, or those of you my age who've forgotten the details, I'll fill you in.
On November 24, 1971, a guy on a Northwest Orient Airlines flight flying from Portland, Oregon to Seattle, Washington, announced that he had a bomb and was hijacking the airplane, a Boeing 727-100. You can read the details of it in Wikipedia's article about it. The picture at the top of the post is an FBI composite picture of the hijacker that has become iconic.
My favorite part is when he handed the folded note to the flight attendant and she assumed he was trying to give her his phone number. He had to tell her "Miss, you'd better look at that note. I have a bomb."
The polite hijacker, who was erroneously dubbed "DB Cooper," requested $200,000 in $20 bills and four parachutes-- two regular, two reserve. This last request was brilliant-- it held the possibility that he might bring a passenger or crew member with him, making the obvious thing to do-- sabotage his parachute-- impossible.
While the airplane circled Puget Sound, the money and parachutes were gathered, the latter from a jump school. The FBI quickly microfilmed the sequential $20 bills-- this was to be important later.
After the airplane landed at Seattle's Sea-Tac airport, he got his money and parachutes and released the passengers. He ordered the crew to fly toward Mexico, but to keep the cabin unpressurized, and to fly under 10,000 feet. At some point, he went to the back of the airplane, lowered a staircase in back-- something that only that model airplane, the Boeing 727-100, had, and he had obviously known about-- and jumped into the stormy night, never to be seen again.
"Cooper's" legendary status was almost instantaneous. The police composite picture appeared on t-shirts and cartoons. Talk-show hosts joked about him. When airplane crew members told the press that he had been courteous and calm, smoking cigarettes, sipping bourbon and waters while this all unfolded, it only added to the legend.
"Cooper" had jumped out at night in a horrendous storm. It was estimated that he jumped out of the airplane into 200 mph winds. The Air Force F-106's tailing the 727 missed him in the wind and dark. Because the plane was buffetted by the heavy winds, the crew was not certain where "Cooper" had left the plane. The FBI publicly stated that it was unlikely that the hijacker had survived the jump.
There was an 18 day search of the projected area of "Cooper's" jump zone, and nothing was found. The next spring, in April, 1972, 400 troops from nearby Ft. Lewis conducted a search of the area, again to no avail. None of the 10,000 $20 bills showed up in circulation, despite a $1000 reward offered for finding even one of the bills. The $25,000 reward offered by Northwest Airlines for the hijacker's capture went unclaimed. It appeared that the trail had gone cold, and the mystery would be unsolved.
Seven years after the hijacking, however, the first of several clues appeared.
In late 1978, a hunter found a placard giving the instructions on how to lower the 727's stairway in the presumed area of "Cooper's" jump, presumably from the hijacked airplane.
On February 10, 1980, an eight-year-old boy named Brian Ingram, who was on a picnic with his family, found a rubber-banded bundle of 294 decaying $20 bills on the banks of the Columbia River-- $5,880. They were bills from the hijacking.
This in itself was mysterious. The rubber bands holding the bills together would have rapidly deteriorated in the river. It was theorized that the money had been dislodged by a 1974 dredging operation by the Army Corps of Engineers on the river.
The recent discovery of the parachute adds to the mystery. If it was "Cooper's" parachute, it holds out two possibilities. One, that he survived the jump-- with or without the money-- buried his chute and got away. The other is that he did not survive the jump, and that someone found his body, the parachute-- and perhaps some of the money-- and buried he and the chute.
Since the hijacking, technology has advanced. "Cooper" left enough of his DNA on the things he left behind on the airplane for investigators to get his DNA profile. If investigators can pin down a suspect ("Cooper" would be in his eighties these days if he were alive), they may be able to eventually solve the mystery. My money is on one or two clues coming from unexpected places.
But what about "Cooper?" Whether he survived the jump, whether he lived or died, he got something more than the $200,000 ransom he attempted to collect, something that many have tried for and failed to achieve and something he almost certainly never intended; he achieved immortality as a pop icon and a lasting legend. Viva D.B. Cooper!