The Enduring Mystery of D.B. Cooper

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The 20th Century

Who was D.B. Cooper, and is he still alive? 

Those two questions go hand-in-hand as part of an enduring mystery surrounding the only unsolved hijacking of a U.S. aircraft. It is a case that has remained unsolved since 1971. 

Some elements of the case are well-documented; others are more than a bit unknown, including the real name and ultimate fate of the man in question. 

On Nov. 24, 1971, a man who identified himself as Dan Cooper boarded a flight from Portland, Ore., to Seattle. Several hours later, he was famous, after having made a bomb threat, hijacked a plane, and parachuted out into the unknown. 

It began in Seat 18C, which was occupied by a man wearing a dark suit, sunglasses, a black tie, and a memorable tie pin. While the plane was still on the runway, the man handed a note to a flight attendant, alleging that he had a bomb and demanding $200,000 and four parachutes. The plane flew to Seattle, where airport officials gave the man his money and parachutes, in exchange for release of the 36 other passengers onboard and two members of the flight crew. The pilot and remaining flight crew stayed onboard with the man, who directed that the plane go next to Mexico. 

"Dan Cooper" never made it to Mexico — with the plane, anyway. He opened the plane's back stairs, walked down them, then jumped into the freezing rain at a height of 10,000 feet, trusting his newfound parachutes to get him and his newfound money to safety. He was not heard from again. 

Somewhere in the subsequent flurry of news stories, the man was dubbed D.B. Cooper, and the name stuck. 

What hasn't stuck in the decades since, however, is any sort of positive identification of Cooper, dead or alive. 

No body has been found, although body parts have been found but later dismissed as being Cooper's. Some of the money was found years later, but it wasn't the entire $200,000. (Federal Bureau of Investigation authorities know that they found some of Cooper's money because he was given bills marked with certain serial numbers.) 

No man has come forward, identifying himself as Cooper, although over the years some have made death-bed confessions that haven't been found to be accurate. Newspapers in Oregon and Washington have published the serial numbers of the hijacker's $20 bills and offered rewards for their return, but no one has come forward with any of the bills. 

Some seven years after the hijacking and disappearance, investigators found, not far from where Cooper would have landed had one of his parachutes carried him to safety (in eastern Washington), a set of instructions for opening the back stairs of a Boeing 727, the exact aircraft from which he jumped in 1971. 

The FBI has interviewed hundreds of potential suspects, but none has so far fit the bill. Some have matched certain (but not all) elements of the description (including one man who hijacked a plane in much the same manner as Cooper did, including the outfit he wore, and another man whose widow swore that her husband's handwriting could be found in the margins of a library book about the case).  

The case remains unsolved. 

In the meantime, the mystery of D.B. Cooper endures. His story has been the subject of books, films, and songs. Several restaurants and businesses are named after him in some fashion. The city of Ariel, Wash., the town nearest to where Cooper is thought to have landed had he survived, has an annual Cooper Day celebration. 

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Social Studies for Kids
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David White