Today in History: The Day of the Only Unsolved Plane Hijacking in U.S. History

Today in History: The Day of the Only Unsolved Plane Hijacking in U.S. History

 M.C. Millman

Today marks the 51st anniversary of the plane hijacking by an unidentified bandit in 1971.

On the afternoon of November 24, 1971, a man with the alias Dan Cooper used cash to buy a one-way plane ticket. He boarded a Northwest Orient Airlines flight from Portland bound for Seattle. 

The FBI described Cooper as "a quiet man who appeared to be in his mid-40s, wearing a business suit with a black tie and white shirt". Everything seemed normal, and the man ordered a bourbon and soda drink while waiting for the flight to take off. 

Shortly after, at around 3 p.m., Cooper put his plan in motion. He calmly gave the stewardess a note saying he had a bomb in his briefcase. He requested that she sit with him.

Stunned, the stewardess did as Cooper told her. Cooper opened an attaché case, showing the stewardess a glimpse of a mass of wires and red-colored sticks. He demanded that she write down what he told her and go to the plane's captain. 

The note requested four parachutes and $200,000 in twenty-dollar bills once the plane reached Seattle Tacoma Airport. The $200,000 ransom Cooper received has the same buying power as around $1,457,271 today, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

As reported by the FBI, after landing in Seattle, the hijacker released the 36 passengers after authorities provided the ransom and parachutes. Cooper kept two pilots, a flight engineer, and a flight attendant on the plane and ordered the plane to set course for Mexico City. 

According to Cooper's instructions, Britannica reports that the plane flew under 10,000 feet at a speed slower than 200 knots. Around 8:00 p.m., while between Seattle and Reno, Nevada, Cooper lowered the rear steps and jumped. The more precise area he jumped is widely believed to be near Ariel, Washington. He then disappeared into the night.

As soon as the FBI learned of the crime in-flight, they opened an extensive investigation called NORJAK, for Northwest Hijacking. The FBI interviewed hundreds of people, tracked national leads, and scoured the aircraft for evidence. The FBI found Cooper's black J.C. Penney tie, which he removed before jumping. The tie later provided the FBI with a DNA sample.

By the fifth anniversary of the hijacking, the FBI considered more than 800 suspects, eliminating all but 24 from consideration.

According to multiple sources, a reporter mistakenly called the hijacker D.B.Cooper, and the name stuck after others repeated the error. The FBI also commented on the title, saying, "We did question a man with the initials "D.B." but he wasn't the hijacker." 

The FBI volunteered one possible answer to this mystery: Cooper didn't survive his jump from the plane. This solution is plausible because the parachute Cooper used couldn't be steered, he had jumped into a wooded area at night, and his clothing and footwear were unsuitable for a rough landing. As an added boost to this theory, an eight-year-old boy found a rotting package of damaged twenties with the same serial numbers as the ransom on the Columbia River. This was the only cash ever found from the hijacking and the only physical evidence in the mystery after Cooper jumped from the plane. 

The FBI issued an update on July 12, 2016, stating that the organization "has directed resources allocated to the D.B. Cooper case to focus on other investigative priorities".

Photo Credit: Flickr

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