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The Mystery Surrounding D.B. Cooper

Introduction

That the legend of the man known as D.B. Cooper persists in American culture is both surprising and explicable.  On one level, Cooper’s hijacking of a plane, with the subsequent ransom delivered and his parachuted escape, occurred 43 years ago, in 1971.  In no uncertain terms, a great deal more has occurred since to fuel public and governmental inquiry.  Then, there is a strangely non-sensational quality to the entire Cooper affair, at variance with the drama, tensions, and even violence usually associated with other such incidents. In simple terms, Cooper’s agenda appears to have succeeded, and in a remarkably calm way.  It is therefore reasonable to assume the episode would fade in the nation’s consciousness, certainly after so much time has passed.

These same aspects, however, also go to the endurance of the legend and continued efforts to ascertain the reality of the crime’s aftermath.  Time itself takes on a different quality when a crime remains unsolved; rather than weaken interest, it gives the crime the air of mystery, so interest in the Cooper case is more likely enhanced by the passing of the years.   Added to this is the irrefutable public fascination with the “outlaw,” particularly when the outlaw is not guilty of actually harming others.  The glamorous robber has been a fixture in the public imagination since Robin Hood, and Cooper conforms to the role, notwithstanding his lack of Robin Hood-like altruism.  Simply, he endures because he is the man who smoothly planned and executed a theft of money, as it is likely he still commands admiration due to the skill the operation evinced.  Most importantly, to date no D.B. Cooper has been identified by the authorities, so the mysterious criminal is elevated to the status of ghostly legend.

The reasons for the mystique, however, do not alter the fact that the legend has survived because the actual reality of much of it remains unknown.  A variety of issues surrounds the Cooper affair, and the most effective means of comprehending the true nature of it, from start to finish, is the path of logic.  In the following, that process will be employed to illustrate, if not explain, the most likely scenarios and provide the most rational explanations for what D.B. Cooper actually did, what became of him, and how the nation reacted then and since.

Scenario

It is ironic, but the first thing a logical approach notes in regard to the case is that a great deal is established fact.  On November 24th, 1971, a man who presented himself as “Dan Cooper” bought a ticket for a Northwest Airlines flight 305  from Portland, Oregon, to Seattle.  Various descriptions differ in small ways, but the generally accepted appraisal is that Cooper was a white man of early middle age, dressed in a clean dark suit and carrying a black briefcase.  There was nothing whatsoever remarkable about his appearance or demeanor.  Shortly after take-off, and after ordering a drink and having a cigarette, Cooper passed a note to the flight attendant. It expressed that he was carrying a bomb, and requested she sit by him.  Briefly, the attendant related Cooper’s demands to the pilot, and arrangements commenced to have $200,000 and four parachutes waiting upon touchdown in Seattle.  On the landing field, the plane was refueled, the ransom provided, and Cooper flew off accompanied by only a minimal flight crew, directed by him to fly to Mexico City.  After requesting to be left alone in the passenger cabin, Cooper then opened the plane’s back stairs and parachuted out over the Pacific Northwest (Thomas).  Two FBI planes covertly accompanying Cooper’s flight, along with assorted governmental and police authorities, confirmed upon the plane’s landing that Cooper had clearly taken this mode of escape.

Immediately afterward, massive manhunts were conducted, to no avail.  FBI efforts were unstinting for years, and over 1,000 suspects have been seriously investigated over the years following the crime.  A boy discovered $5,800 in S20 bills while walking by the Columbia River in 1980; as the money provided to Cooper had been photographed and selected by serial codes, there was no doubt that the money found was part of the ransom paid to Cooper.  Consequently,  intense speculation was generated as to Cooper’s having survived his fall (Durante).  More recently, a woman claiming to be Cooper’s niece has apparently offered the FBI evidence linking her uncle to the incident.  Marla Cooper claims that the identity of the man has been her family’s oppressive secret since, when she was eight years old, the hijacking took place.  She has testified that this uncle, Lynne Doyle Cooper, came to her family’s home for Thanksgiving that year, badly injured. This was the day after the crime, and Cooper asserts that her uncle attributed his injuries to a car crash.  She also claims that her parents realized what L.D. Cooper had done and resolved to keep silent, as she has provided the FBI with a guitar strap with her uncle’s fingerprints.  Marla Cooper further asserts that neither she nor her family had contact with Cooper after this time; that she believes he had children and died in 1999; and that her only motive in coming forward now is her realization that her childhood memories are applicable to the case.  The FBI, meanwhile, is still investigating, having found no fingerprints on the guitar strap (Thomas).  Despite this media flurry of 2011 and press focus on Marla Cooper, then, the D.B. Cooper case appears to remain as unsolved, and as mysterious, as ever.

Analysis

As noted, logic demands that certain elements be noted as established realities.  Names and speculation aside, a man did indeed buy that ticket for Flight 305 and systematically engage in a hijacking and ransom scheme.  That the man has never been apprehended in no way eviscerates these realities.  Consequently, in logically assessing the case and determining the most probable outcome regarding Cooper’s survival, it is necessary to gain as exact as possible an idea of the man himself, and thus his actual agenda.  Conjecture must play a part here, but nothing beyond reasonable assumptions will be entertained.

As so little evidence relates to the aftermath of the crime, a great deal exists regarding Cooper, insofar as physicality and behavior are concerned.  It is documented that he was, again, a middle-aged white man dressed well.  Nothing in any reports indicates anything other than a courteous and calm behavior manifested by him.  For instance, upon first passing the note to the flight attendant, she disregarded it as likely only a telephone number or invitation to go out.  Upon seeing this reaction, Cooper said, “Miss, you should read the note I gave you. I have a bomb in my briefcase” (Olson  14).  Given the tension any person planning a hijacking would be undergoing at such a time, that Cooper maintained his composure – and his manners – indicates an extraordinary degree of self-possession.  Furthermore, and even more remarkably, this same demeanor was in place throughout the entire episode.  No report has Cooper flaring up, or irrationally reacting to the phases of the process he himself had set in motion.  When the authorities attempted to stall Cooper’s agenda on the Seattle landing field by claiming that it was too cold to refuel, Cooper did demand that they proceed (Beck).  Even impatience here, however, is explicable and reasonable, as a man of Cooper’s evident intelligence foresaw the nature of the tactic.  Interestingly, even a passenger returning to the plane to retrieve a forgotten item, after all passengers were evacuated, did not create a change in Cooper’s demeanor (Beck).  Such an occurrence would likely excite a hijacker dangerously, yet Cooper maintained his equanimity.

More to the point, there is no threat of violence beyond, of course, the reference to the bomb in the briefcase; Cooper never emphasized his agenda by referring to killing innocent people or made it known to the passengers that he had a bomb, which indicates that he rationally did not foresee the event of exploding it as likely.  All of this goes to refuting one possibility, that of Cooper’s having desired to commit suicide.  Simply, if this was a man with a death wish, he went to remarkable extremes to complicate a suicide agenda unnecessarily.  All of Cooper’s actions, in fact, systematically go to defying any possibility of a self-inflicted death.  Assuming a man seeks to kill himself on a plane, this presupposes that the necessary bomb would also kill many others, altering the desire for suicide into another ambition entirely.  Then, following the basic logic, such a man equipped with a bomb for this purpose would not take the steps of informing others of it, employing it as an instrument in extortion and, most importantly, permit the extortion scheme to proceed to the degree that the flight lands.  To then argue that the real suicide intent was planned for the second flight begs the question of why the first was necessary at all.  Certainly, a man with the implacable desire to die while in the air could arrange a non-passenger flight.

There is also the inescapable reality of the demands themselves.  The ordering of parachutes contradicts suicidal impulses regarding air travel, certainly.  Then, the funds demanded in cash further eviscerate any motive for suicide; hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash, and on one’s person, are somewhat extraneous elements when the individual’s death is the object.  In virtually everything regarding the activity and behavior of Cooper, then, the only logical determination is that this was a rational man who had carefully set out a complex plan to commandeer a plane, extort money, and escape with that money.  Equally important here is that no other motive is suggested by Cooper’s actions or instructions.  It is interesting to note how this sole purpose of robbery, and robbery that, again, leaves no one harmed, has likely enhanced the mythic status of Cooper.

In regard to what actually happened to Cooper, there is extensive room for speculation.  Not unexpectedly, thinking that he escaped to enjoy the stolen money alternated, and alternates today, with convictions that he must have died in the fall.  Logic here must look at all the identified circumstances, piecing together a reasonable conclusion as it can.  When this is done, the result is that Cooper’s having survived the parachuting, and then having successfully escaped detection, seems to be the most probable reality.

To begin with, there is the known fact that Cooper was clearly versed in flight mechanics.  While a man with military or commercial aviation experience would have the knowledge Cooper utilized, it is equally true that any man of reasonable intelligence, planning such an enterprise, could have done the necessary research.  What matters in this question of survival, then, is only that Cooper had a real understanding of what he required from the escape plane and in all logistic matters.  He knew what types of parachutes to demand.  He knew that the Northwest flight would need refueling.  More tellingly, he dictated altitude levels and speed to the second craft’s crew, along with demands that the landing gear remain down and the flaps stay at 15 degrees.  Much has been made of Cooper’s knowing what non-civilians could not know, that it was possible for a Boeing 727 to fly with its aft stairs down, as Cooper also directed (Beck).  However, and again pursuing only a logical course, the source of Cooper’s knowledge is irrelevant.  What matters is that he clearly knew precisely what he needed in order to enable as safe an escape as possible.

This evident foresight on the part of Cooper logically indicates further knowledge in parachuting.  Certainly, he comprehended how essential it was that the plane’s speed and altitude best facilitate his jump, and this type of awareness would necessarily encompass knowledge of the weather conditions at the projected time.  As Cooper dictated the basic flight plane to the crew of the second plane, he clearly knew over what terrain they would be flying, as he surely was aware of the windy weather conditions.  That he elected to jump over the Cascades indicates, in fact, that wind was precisely what he desired.  Any man who so carefully plans such an episode is likely to know, as Cooper suspected on the Seattle field, that every effort would be made to apprehend him.  Similarly, such a man would not be likely to risk his entire effort on a skill with which he was unfamiliar, such as parachuting, and that the terrain and weather were unfavorable more strongly supports that Cooper had experience in jumping.  All of this reinforces the logical assumption that Cooper survived the fall, and successfully escaped.

This assumption is further reinforced by the facts of the initial investigation.  The immediate search for Cooper was hindered by several factors.  To begin with, as noted, the jump was made during stormy weather over the Cascades.  As Cooper probably anticipated, the winds would have greatly affected the trajectory of the leap, one already difficult to isolate because of the plane’s velocity.  A 28 square mile range was searched in the days following the hijacking, engaged in by FBI agents and sheriff’s deputies.  Helicopters and foot patrols were employed, and boats were used to investigate Lake Merwin, within the search perimeters (Olson  33).  A range of 28 miles, however, is not particularly expansive given all the variables noted, and this does not take into account the strong possibility of Cooper’s having directional skill in parachuting.  Based on the known components of Cooper’s demands and the actual circumstances, the matter of his having survived becomes one of a logical negative; namely, there is no reason to assume a man parachuting in these admittedly unusual circumstances would die as a result.

Other Issues

It is very interesting that so much of the Cooper mystique relies on what has never been discovered, in terms of both the man and the money.  The discovery of the $5,800 in 1980, definitely part of the ransom, has been employed to fuel wild speculations of all kinds, when the most evident and logical conclusion regarding it is that these bills were lost mid-jump by Cooper. They were in a suitably decayed condition, and the fact that Cooper did not retrieve them himself points to the probability that his landing occurred some distance from them, and/or that he was not aware of the loss until he had reached safety.

Marla Cooper’s recent and ongoing claims assert that her uncle had planned the hijacking with another man, as she recalls from her childhood memories of comments from her parents.  Ms Cooper’s testimony, however, must be viewed with extreme skepticism.  It is suspect, for example, that her memories, clearly not of an especially traumatic nature, should have been suppressed until 2011.  Living in the region, she certainly had been long exposed to the legend and the case, and that her name is Cooper, one would suppose, would have triggered parallels long before.  Even the end of contact with this uncle after the hijacking is illogical; if, as she relates, her parents knew of it, then Cooper had revealed it to them, was relying on their discretion and loyalty, and would have had no reason to vanish from their lives.  It may be argued, in fact, that Marla Cooper’s sudden revelations – linked to a book on the subject she is writing – echo the incentives likely behind those who have claimed to be Cooper over the years.  The logic here is not difficult; as Cooper committed no violent crime and seemingly orchestrated a perfect robbery and getaway, his allure as a “folk hero” of a kind is attractive, and it seems highly probable that many would seek to exploit this status.  More pragmatically, the legal repercussions after so many years would pale against the publicity and opportunity for gain through media exposure.

Conclusion

When an event becomes embedded in the national consciousness as the Cooper hijacking has, the ongoing inability to “solve” the crimes only further enhances the mystique.  Years pass, and a wanted criminal becomes something of a folk hero, and certainly a legend, simply because he has never been found.  The same years then enable vast speculation, and ideas once improbable, as in Cooper’s being insane or suicidal, gain some level of legitimacy.  As a mystery lives on, in a word, anything goes.  A logical examination of the facts and real circumstances, however, presents a more practical reality.  In basic terms, a middle-aged man carefully carried out a plan that was just as carefully orchestrated.  Equipped with vital knowledge regarding what he would encounter, he entered into his plan minimizing risk to himself, and the fact that no Cooper has yet been identified, living or dead, serves to reinforce the strong likelihood that Cooper fully succeeded in his scheme.  Fractional amounts of ransom money found point to nothing more than a minor mishap, just as the limitations of the original search further go to likelihood of success.  Based on the actual, available knowledge, it appears that the legendary D. B. Cooper does indeed deserve some of his mythic stature, in that he executed a nearly perfect crime.

Works Cited

Beck, K.  “Dan Cooper parachutes from skyjacked jetliner on November 24, 1971” HistoryLink.org, 1997.  Web.  <http://www.historylink.org/index.cfm? DisplayPage=output.cfm&file_id=1997

Durante, T.  “DB Cooper Case ‘Solved’”  News, The Daily Mail, 2011.  Web.  <http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2070038/DB-Cooper-case-solved-FBI-tells-     niece-skyjacking-suspect-matching-fingerprint.html#axzz2KQkRIVfj>

Olson, K. M.  The D.B. Cooper Hijacking: Vanishing Act.  Mankato: Compass Point Books, 2010.  Print.

Thomas, P.  “D.B. Cooper Exclusive: Did Niece Provide Key Evidence?”  ABC News, 2011.  Web.  <http://abcnews.go.com/US/db-cooper-exclusive-niece-provide-key- evidence/story?id=14219052>