On November 24, 1971, a man calling himself Dan Cooper boarded a Northwest Orient flight from Portland International Airport to Seattle. Not long after take-off, he passed a note to a flight attendant claiming he had a bomb in his briefcase. He demanded $200,000, four parachutes, and a fuel truck standing by in Seattle.

He got them.

After releasing the passengers and refueling the plane, Cooper ordered the flight crew to take off again on a southeast course toward Mexico City. He had them fly low with the landing gear extended and the cabin unpressurized. The low speed and high drag burned through fuel more quickly than expected and so they altered course to refuel in Reno.

Long before they got there, though, an indicator light in the cockpit showed the aft stairs had been extended. A few minutes later, the tail of the plane jumped as though someone had taken his leave.

By most accounts, Cooper was a badass: he knew the terrain, he knew the equipment and tolerances for the 727 aircraft, he knew to have the interior lights darkened on landing to thwart police snipers. The trick with the air stairs had been used by military and CIA operatives during Vietnam. He was calm. He was friendly, paying for the bourbon and waters he ordered including a tip.

All they ever found were a torn placard from the 727’s rear exit in 1978 and three packets of the ransom cash buried under silt in the Columbia River in 1980. There was DNA on the tie but it hasn’t been matched to anyone. No one is sure if the money was deliberately buried or washed there.

Law enforcement likes to say that none of the ransom money has ever been spent, but when was the last time a clerk checked your twenty-dollar bill against the D.B. Cooper ransom cash serial number list? All Cooper would have to do was wait a year or two, go to some small town elsewhere in the country, deposit a few grand here and there in local banks and then write checks between them to accumulate it again.

Assuming that he made it, of course.

Of the parachutes Cooper did take, one was a training dummy — undeployable. It was accidentally included among the four. So it is possible that poor ol’ Cooper chose the wrong parachute, yanked on the cord, and came away with a plastic handle and ten inches of rope in his hands as he plummeted to the ground.

I like to imagine that Dan Cooper’s final word was, “Fuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuccccccckkkkkkkkkkkkk!”

Unless, that is, the torn safety placard was the last thing Cooper managed to grab before being sucked out of the plane instead of executing a jump at all. In that case, his final word was, “Shhhhiiiiiiiiitttttttt!” followed quickly by the thump of his body against the tail of the plane.

Is he dead or alive? What’s my theory?

There are really just two possibilities.

  • Cooper died during the jump or soon after. The weather was bad, the temperatures were brutal, and the terrain was unforgiving — towering trees and sharp rocks.
  • Cooper somehow survived insane winds and cold, landed in the scary wilderness with only manageable injury, and avoided law enforcement for the next fifty years by spending his money wisely. If this is true, it makes him THE GREATEST AMERICAN WHO EVER LIVED. The SEALS who bagged Bin Laden look like Boy Scouts compared to this mother fucker.

I know which one I prefer. I prefer to think of an elderly man, a grandfather or great-grandfather now, who quietly reads the paper as grandchildren frolic around him on Thanksgiving and occasionally slips one a twenty-dollar bill.

“Get yourself something nice, kiddo,” he says.

And when some blowhard at a party brags about his golf score or shows off his Porsche or declares himself a captain of industry, this old man nods politely and absolutely does NOT say, “I jumped out of a fucking 727 with two hundred grand strapped to my waist. Now I build birdhouses.”

Then he watches his episode of In Search Of again with a bourbon and water.