While aircraft hijackings are a very rare occurrence in the 21st century, unfortunately, during the 20th century, they were nothing out of the norm. However, what was out of the norm is a case, where an aircraft hijacking remains unsolved to this day. This is what happened after one man took a Boeing 727 hostage. The plane belonged to Northwest Airlines, flying from Portland International Airport (PDX) to Seattle Tacoma International Airport (SEA) on November 24, 1971.

That man? D.B. Cooper, as reported by news agencies, or Dan Cooper – the name, allegedly an alias that was printed on his one-way ticket between the two cities in the Pacific Northwest.

While he was never found again, Cooper left a mark on aircraft design and became a true cult hero. A mechanism called the Cooper Vane, an aerodynamic device that prevents airstairs from deploying while mid-air, was installed on all Boeing 727 aircraft after the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) issued a notice of proposed rulemaking on  June 20, 1972.

“Specifically, it is proposed to amend Sec 25.809 to provide that, when required by the operating rules, for any large passenger carrying turbojet powered air-plane an approved means must be provided so that: (1) takeoff cannot be started if either the ventral exit or tail cone exit is not locked; and (2) neither the ventral exit nor the tail cone exit can be opened in flight.”

But what happened on November 24, 1971?

“A very cool” hijacker

That is how The Free Lance-Star, a newspaper in Fredericksburg, Virginia described the hijacker, who was reportedly dressed in a business suit and a raincoat.

The same “cool” hijacker purchased a one-way ticket for $20 from Portland to Seattle, a 30-minute flight on a Boeing 727. Mid-air, Cooper passed a note to the flight attendant, informing her that his suitcase contained a bomb. Later, he stated his demands: four parachutes, $200,000 in $20 bills and a flight to Mexico. As the tri-engine jet landed in Seattle, authorities handed him his parachutes and money in exchange for the freedom of 36 passengers. Following a fuel top-up, the 727 took off for Mexico City, flying just under 10,000 feet (3048 meters) at a speed of around 200 knots (230 miles per hour/370 kilometers per hour). Four crew members: two pilots, one flight engineer and one flight attendant remained onboard.

Shortly after taking off, Cooper, who the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) described as a mid-40s male, measured between 5’10” and 6’ (177 and 182 centimeters) and apparently a heavy smoker of Raleigh filter cigarettes, jumped out of the aircraft using one of the parachutes, somewhere between Portland and Reno, Nevada, United States. Prior to the jump, the hijacker asked the single remaining flight attendant to show him how to open the aft door.

“It would be a very safe drop,” a Boeing official explained to a news reporter in 1971, due to the fact that the altitude did not require the aircraft to be pressurized – Cooper would not have lost consciousness upon the opening of the stairs. In its vault archives, the FBI notes that the captain received a signal in the cockpit, which indicated that the airstairs were lowered. A few minutes after, the pilots experienced oscillation, marking the moment when the elusive man jumped out of the Boeing 727. Seemingly, Cooper chose the perfect day to commence his crime, as the weather was overcast with extremely low visibility.

“Air Force fighter planes were escorting the craft but because the 727 was flying at 170 knots, the fighter jets were too fast,” notes the official FBI report, nicknamed NORJAK, consisting of 42 parts and thousands of pages.

 

“If he is in the area… we will dig him out of the woodwork somehow,” an FBI spokesperson promised shortly after the incident occurred, The Free Lance-Star reported in 1971.