The Sky Leaves No Trail

Henry Luo ‘24 and Lucas Rucchin ‘24 explore an incredible unsolved mystery

By: Henry Luo and Lucas Rucchin

On the afternoon of November 24, 1971, an unidentified man with the alias D.B. Cooper swindled $200,000 after hijacking a Boeing 727. Veiled in the dark of night, Cooper leapt from the aircraft; his manhunt still persists to this day as  the events of that day remain shrouded in mystery.

Photo credits: LEMMiNO on YouTube 

“Miss, you’d better look at that note. I have a bomb.” 

Gripping the piece of paper with trepidation, flight attendant Florence Schaffer scrambled for a steady train of thought as her eyes wandered over the man before her: middle-aged, dressed in formal attire, sentiments hiding behind a set of dusky sunglasses. He remained placid in his seat, clutching the briefcase before him with conviction, awaiting her careful compliance. 

The Boeing 727 had barely been in the air. Schaffer and the rest of the flight crew likely hadn’t expected anything notorious on Thanksgiving Eve, but exploiting 1971’s lenient airport security, the criminal’s hijacking had likely been an easy task. Evading any further identification, he’d cloaked his real name under the alias “Dan Cooper,” purchasing a one-way ticket on a thirty-minute flight to Seattle. Cooper looked to be a conventional businessman; his motives said otherwise.

Once again, Schaffer traced the fierce jot of ink dashed across the paper, making sure it all wasn’t just the altitude toying with her mind: 

Miss, I have a bomb here and would like you to sit by me. 

Schaffer knew the man’s composed, diplomatic air was nothing more than one of the many identities conmen slipped on like masks, so she settled in the seat next to him with apprehension. From this angle she could glimpse the contents of the man’s briefcase: eight red cylinders housed in the depths of the case connected to a battery, attached with red wires. As if bartering with a shopkeeper, Cooper conveyed his demands with ease: Two-hundred thousand dollars in “negotiable American currency,” four parachutes, and a fuel truck to ready the aircraft when it touched down in Seattle. Surprisingly, as Schaffner’s emotions of perplexion and dismay began to cascade, Cooper amiably attempted to comfort her. 

Above: Sketches of D.B. Cooper from witness testimony 

With feelings of unease propagating through the plane’s stuffy, artificial air, the flight attendant moved to the cockpit of the aircraft and passed Cooper’s demands on to the pilot. In a state of uncertainty, the pilots resorted to circling Puget Sound—an inlet in the Salish Sea near Seattle—as local and federal authorities mapped out their next actions. Knowing that the hijacking would surely mandate unrest amongst the passengers, the citizens were informed by the plane’s personnel that the delay in their arrival was simply caused by a “minor mechanical difficulty.” 

A bewildered Florence Schnaffer retired from her role as negotiator; in her place rose Tina Mucklow, another flight attendant. “He wasn’t nervous,” stated Mucklow on Cooper’s disposition. Unperturbed and even affable, the hijacker fell under no stereotypes of the common felon. “He seemed rather nice. . . he was thoughtful and calm all the time. . .”

By this time, the authorities had mobilized a plan to tackle the complicated situation. As the aircraft touched down in Seattle, Cooper’s demands would be tended to. The parachutes were gathered from a local skydiving school and the plane would arrive in Seattle, as planned. However, the money that would be surrendered would be marked, rendering them useless in payment. 

Just after sunset, Flight-305 arrived at the Seattle-Tacoma airport following the flight crew’s grueling experience with Cooper’s mind games. The passengers and flight attendants were released, the money delivered to Cooper, and the plane refuelled. The hijacker retained his place on seat 18C during the entirety of this, charting out where the pilots would take him next: the aircraft would take to the skies once more, heading southeast towards Mexico City. Cooper then slipped something aberrant into his sea of requests: the aircraft’s aft staircase—a retracting set of stairs on the rear end of a Boeing 727—would be put to Cooper’s disposal whilst airborne. 

Above: the aft stairway extended on a Boeing 727

To authorities, this seemed to be Cooper’s final erratic tactic. With the passengers disembarked, the hijacker had lost his leverage. International organizations had now been alerted of the crime as well as news agencies, who plastered his name across television screens and newspaper headings. When Flight-305 would touch tarmac for the second time, the devious D.B. Cooper’s fate would be sealed. 

Or so it seemed. 

A Leap Under the Stars 

Draped under nightfall, the weary pair of pilots, a flight engineer and Tina Mucklow had settled anxiously into the secured cockpit. Only Cooper held his unwavering tranquility. Mucklow kept her eye on Cooper through the open cockpit door (the particular model of airplane did not possess a small window on the door to view those inside or outside). 

With involvement from the national authorities, Cooper’s unexpected behaviour had drawn greater attention. Two F-106 fighter aircrafts flew alongside the apprehended Boeing 727, above and below the aircraft, concealed from Cooper’s view. Soon after, another airplane from the Air National Guard joined the shadowing fighters. If the situation descended into disarray, they would be there to handle it. 

Approximately twenty minutes into the flight, the entirety of the crew was to be kept shut in the cockpit, as requested by the hijacker. Just before closing the door, Mucklow witnessed Cooper exit his seat and begin tying a cord around his waist, likely the money bag or one of the parachutes he’d demanded. Subsequently in the cockpit a warning light flashed—the aft stairway had been opened. 

Immediately noticeable was a change of air pressure within the cabin, but more so apparent was an abrupt upward displacement of the plane’s level flight about thirteen minutes following. A stiff silence hovered over the members in the cockpit as the pieces of the puzzle began to fall into place: why Cooper had desired parachutes, why the aft stairway was to be put in his control, why it was necessary for the aircraft to linger around three-thousand meters. The only question that remained: did Cooper survive? 

10:15 p.m.: the Boeing 727 arrived in Nevada’s Reno Airport, an arrival made difficult by the still-extended airstairs. Like pigeons to grains, police authority flocked the aircraft, surrounding the plane and ushering the remaining flight crew outside. An armed search swiftly proceeded, but upon seeing the leftover parachutes strung around the cabin and the aft stairway outright, his method of escape became clear. D.B. Cooper had leapt from the airplane. . . above untrackable terrain. . . in the dead of night. . . with just over one-million dollars in today’s money anchored to his side. 

The Ensuing Investigation

News of the hijacker’s extraordinary feat spread like wildfire, and the FBI and the authorities immediately initiated a search in the possible areas that D.B. Cooper could have landed after his bold escape. The investigation reached such prominence that a submarine was even deployed to search nearby waters to look for traces of this sophisticated criminal. In spite of the search’s thoroughness, extensive study of the plane’s flight pattern and international attention, nothing was found through these means of investigation. 

The investigation then turned to Cooper’s behaviour during the hijacking, where some of his mannerisms could draw a few conclusions: Cooper had previous experience with parachuting, and seemed to harbour some expertise surrounding aviation. Suspects were then gathered based on this information. 

It was concluded by some that the man just simply died, while others believed that he had taken the money and went off to live a luxurious life outside of the US’s authorities grasp. A  surprising lead in 1980 was found in D.B. Cooper’s case. An eight-year old boy had found a duffle bag containing $5800 all in $20 Federal Reserve notes alongside the Columbia river banks, which was later identified as a part of Cooper’s ransom. Many theories were quickly developed: some say that the money was buried there—others argued that the duffle bag floated into the location, carried by the river’s current. 

Picture of Kenneth Christiansen

The investigation at this point had led the authorities to formulate an array of possible suspects using the evidence they’d gathered. One lead pointed to Ted Mayfield, a skydiving teacher with a history of criminality, or Kenneth Christiansen, a person who looked highly similar to D.B. Cooper and was a former paratrooper. Many others who were military veterans, plane experts, those who had a history of criminality, and those who looked sort of like D.B. Cooper were all placed under suspicion. 

Picture of Robert Rackstraw

In recent years, an investigation was made into Robert Rackstraw, a former Vietnam veteran and special forces paratrooper. A team of former FBI investigators uncovered secret letters and files in the agencies that pointed to the identity of D.B. Cooper to Rackstraw. Moreover, Rackstraw himself did provide very detailed points of the crime and confirmed that he did have over $200,000 in his bank account shortly after the crime. Nonetheless, there was no concrete evidence to pin Rackstraw as D.B. Cooper; yet another lead fell short.  

The case has presently been closed. D.B. Cooper’s fate remains unknown, but his everlasting impact on the world of security remains apparent; airport safety has been widely altered and strengthened since the event, with stricter protocols in terms of identification and luggage. Whether his feats ended as he leapt into the clouds or at the end of an evasive life, Cooper’s daring undertaking will continue to bewilder the world of crime for years to come.  

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