By: James Barret (History ’17)
For my final paper in ‘HIST 344: America’s Most Wanted’ taught by Professor Greenberg (a course that all history majors should take), I will be writing about D.B Cooper’s infamous hijacking of Northwest Airlines flight 305 and extortion of $200,000. Although the Cooper case has many different elements, one that I will likely not be able to address in my paper due to the parameters of the assignment is the aftermath of the hijacking. The way I see it, the general public’s fascination with Cooper comes down to two major questions: Who was this man? And perhaps more importantly, did he survive his skydive into a cold rainy night somewhere in the woods north of Portland, Oregon? I will certainly work to answer these questions, or at the very least put together a guess in the final paper. But a third question has been bugging me lately and it is much more abstract. What exactly does the world gain from a story like Cooper’s? And furthermore, what would happen if there became definitive proof as to who this man was and what happened to him? Similar questions have been asked before, specifically by The New York Times Geoffrey Gray. Gray and I reach similar conclusions but differ slightly, I see Cooper as interesting because all the options are still on the table. Gray believes that Cooper enthusiasts will lose their drive if they know what all went down.
The Cooper case is incredibly detailed. Even seemingly insignificant details might provide ideas into what really happened. The problem is though, that not many people can agree on which details to emphasize. The fact is that Cooper’s case remains unsolved by the F.B.I. For those unfamiliar with the Cooper tale, the brief summary is that Cooper purchased a ticket to Seattle, Washington from Portland, Oregon on November 24, 1971. After the plane took off he handed a note to a flight attendant named Florence Shaffner. Shaffner, thinking Cooper had just handed her his phone number, ignored the note. Cooper then insisted that she look at the note. Cooper had written that he had a bomb in his briefcase and that she should take a seat and listen to his demands. When the plane landed in Seattle, Cooper demanded $200,000 in $20 bills and four parachutes. After the F.B.I met Cooper’s demands, he let the passengers off the plane and then gave the pilots very specific stipulations for flying to Mexico. He wanted the plane to fly at a very low altitude and just fast enough to avoid stalling the engine. Interestingly, the Boeing 727 aircraft had back loading stairs which Cooper lowered and jumped from at some point during the flight. Presumably, Cooper had strapped the $200,000 to his body and leaped, somewhere north of Portland.
What happened next is anyone’s guess and that is not just a figure of speech. Many have speculated as to what happened to Cooper and that is where the fun of this case begins. It is also where the chaos begins as well. Cooper, in many ways, ushered in an era of air piracy that took place during the 1970s. With that said, however, the Cooper case is a modern mystery that continues to draw interest from large groups of people. Even though most people think they want to know exactly what happened, it seems to me that not knowing is part of the fun. If Cooper had died after jumping from the plane, that would render all speculation meaningless. If Cooper survived the jump and it came out that he had simply made his way to a stashed getaway car and gone on living his life, (which I think is by far the coolest scenario) there would still be some part of me that longed to not know how. Right now, all scenarios are still in play and that is the coolest thing about this case.
Anyone interested in learning more I encourage you to visit Citizen Sleuth’s website or listen to Generation Why’s Podcast.