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Why The D.B. Cooper Skyjacking Case Still Fascinates Nearly Half A Century Later
D.B. Cooper expert Eric Ulis explains that, well, the hijacker was pretty "cool."
While it’s been nearly a half-century since a mystery man hijacked a plane in the Pacific Northwest, successfully ransomed its passengers for $200,000, and then parachuted his way into legend, the case still manages to fascinate the public.
On Nov. 24, 1971, a man in his forties who called himself Dan Cooper purchased a one-way ticket from Portland, Oregon to Seattle, Washington. Wearing a business suit and tie, he ordered a drink before telling one of the flight attendants by note that he had a bomb in his briefcase, according to the FBI. As HBO’s new documentary “The Mystery of D.B. Cooper” — which dropped on Tuesday to mark the infamous incident’s 49th anniversary — details, he opened his briefcase for the attendant to reveal wires and sticks. He then demanded $200,000 in twenty dollar bills and four parachutes. The whole time, the passengers on board were unaware that they were part of a skyjacking.
When the plane landed in Seattle, the oblivious passengers were released in exchange for the money and the parachutes. The man demanded to be taken to Mexico City and, somewhere between Seattle and Reno, the hijacker strapped on one of the parachutes and jumped out of the back of the plane along with his money.
The FBI has theorized that Cooper didn’t actually survive his night jump into a wooded area. They called the venture a “dangerous proposition for a seasoned pro, which evidence suggests Cooper was not.” In 1980, a young boy found a package of rotting twenty-dollar bills, equaling up to more than $5,000, in the area. The bills matched the serial numbers on the ransom cash, further fueling interest in the case, which was sparked immediately after news of the skyjacking went public.
“There was a cult following for this guy immediately,” Cooper expert Eric Ulis, who investigates the case for History’s docuseries “The Final Hunt for D.B. Cooper,” told Oxygen.com. “That’s not something that matured over time. It was an immediate reaction.”
Everyone wanted to know the true identity of Cooper, who became known as "D.B. Cooper” due to a media error. The FBI noted that they did interview a man with the initials “D.B.” in connection with the case, but clarified that he wasn’t the assailant. The hijacker’s identity remains a mystery and the event is the only unsolved skyjacking in commercial aviation history. While the FBI has stopped actively investigating the case, “The Mystery of D.B. Cooper” shows that many theories still run rampant, with quite a few people over the years claiming to be the infamous assailant.
The enduring mystery has created a cottage industry of events for Cooper aficionados to gather and share theories and news on the case, and just have fun.
From 2011 to 2018, Ariel General Store & Tavern — located in Ariel, Washington where Cooper is believed to have landed — held an annual D. B. Cooper Day event, according to Atlas Obscura. The event involved a costume contest where people competed to dress like their best renditions of both Cooper and the aircrew.
Ulis started another Cooper-themed event called CooperCon in 2018. The annual conference is full of social events as well as speakers and forums on the case. Ulis told Oxygen.com that about 100 people showed up for each CooperCon. This year’s CooperCon, which was scheduled for this week, was canceled due to COVID-19 concerns. Ulis said he plans to hold a big one for the 50th anniversary and expects a turnout of about 500 people.
So, why are so many people obsessed with this hijacker?
Ulis explains that it’s a convergence of several factors:
The cool factor
“It took place in 1971, which is just kind of a cool era, it’s the ‘Mad Men’ era,” he said. “The era is right.”
He added that Cooper conducted himself in “a gentlemanly, almost James Bond-esque way, which I think has a certain appeal.”
Furthermore, he exhibited grace under pressure, according to Ulis.
“He was cool,” he said.
Nobody got hurt
Cooper’s grace under pressure resulted in no deaths (except possibly his own) and no injuries. Furthermore, the plane’s passengers were unaware of the skyjacking, so nobody panicked. The ability to keep from doing harm is another plus, according to Ulis.
He was an anti-hero
The hijacking came on the tail end of the 1960s, an era full of assassinations, civil unrest, Kent State, and Vietnam.
“It was one of those periods of time where there was a sort of a yearning for this anti-hero type of person who stuck it to the man, to the authorities,” Ulis told Oxygen.com. “It’s pretty clear that a lot of people were just like, ‘Good for that guy! Nobody got hurt. He got away with 200 grand. We really don't feel sorry for the insurance companies.’”
Ulis said he only expects people’s fascination with the incident to grow as time goes on.