Ariel, Oregon — There’s the same face all over the walls of the Ariel store/bar in Washington state, just near the Oregon border, on the wild Columbia River. Drawings, photofits, but no photos. Man, mid-40s maybe, clean-shaven, receding hair. It is strangely unremarkable, something many people remark upon. It simply slides off the mind. Many, many people knew this face at one time, but today it’s largely forgotten. Save for here, where the man remains a hero, and dozens gather every year in the stranger’s garb — trenchcoat, dark suit, white shirt, black tie, mother-of-pearl tie clip — to celebrate his life. For the Ariel bar is hallowed ground, just about the closest place to the last place on earth that D.B. Cooper was seen, 43 years ago, in another time.
D.B. Cooper? The name was once famous, though nobody knows whose it was. On the day before Thanksgiving 1971, the nondescript man arrived at Portland international airport, a heavy black briefcase in hand, bought a ticket with cash to Seattle, a 30-minute hop, and pretty much walked straight onto the plane. He gave his name as Dan Cooper. Later, when it had all gone down, the cops would communicate it as D.B., and so it became.
Following take-off, as the plane levelled, “Dan Cooper” lit a cigarette and ordered a bourbon and soda. When it came, he passed a note to the stewardess informing her that he had a bomb in the briefcase and that he wanted $200,000 (about $2 million in today’s money) and four parachutes. The plane was to land in Seattle, load the ransom on, and then take off again for Mexico City. Nothing about his demeanour gave any indication of how real the threat was, but since the briefcase hadn’t gone through security — there was no search of carry-on baggage in 1971 — who could tell? The demands were communicated to Seattle, the authorities made immediate moves to comply, and the plane circled Seattle-Tacoma airport for two hours while the money was assembled. Pilot and crew later reported that Cooper was calm and polite throughout and appeared to know exactly what he was doing. When they landed in Seattle, passengers and stewardesses were allowed to leave, the money and parachutes were loaded on, and the plane — a Boeing 727, with a self-contained stairway under the tail — took off again. An hour in, Cooper — who had still produced no gun or weapon of any kind — ordered all the crew into the cockpit. Ten minutes later, instruments indicated a change in pressure in the airplane. When the plane landed in Reno, the aft-stairs were open, and, as a thorough search indicated, D.B. Cooper, the money and one parachute, was gone.
Gone beyond gone. Moments after the plane landed, the largest manhunt in American history began, across the entire Pacific Northwest and beyond. D.B. Cooper’s skyjacking wasn’t just well-executed; it was flawless. It was elegant, it was even debonair — especially so compared to the political skyjackings that had inspired it and had started a couple of years earlier. Violent, hot-headed and gun-crazy, such skyjackings had made it easier for Cooper to pull his mission off. No one was expecting a skyjacking for purely criminal purposes, and from the moment he handed over the note, Cooper had the authorities on the back foot. The audacious theft occurred when the air of glorious misrule of the ’60s was still at its height, and this fresh humiliation of the authorities only added to that. They were desperate to catch Cooper.
But they never did. D.B.Cooper was never heard of again. The $200,000, with marked serial numbers, didn’t turn up at banks or anywhere else looking for them. No suspects emerged. No missing persons answering his description were turned up. D.B.Cooper, aka Dan Cooper — the name was taken from a Canadian comic book hero who dressed in similar fashion — had never existed before, and now, after a few hours of brief, spectacular events, he faded back into nonbeing once more. In 1976, as the statute of limitations approached, the FBI had no alternative but to get a “John Doe” indictment for a person unknown, an admission of defeat. D.B. Cooper lingered in the mythology of the ’70s, part of that decade’s gradual decomposition, on the spectrum with primal screaming, pet rocks, float tanks and everything else. Action figures of him were produced. His resemblance to Hunter S. Thompson was noted. The dogs barked, and the caravan moved on.
“The world of D.B. Cooper was not only one where you could stroll onto a plane, light up a cigarette and order a stiff drink; it was a world of cash, of no IDs, of no CCTVs, a world where police forces didn’t have armoured vehicles and SWAT teams, where a phone tap was a clunky mechanical procedure.”
And then, a decade later, just as it had started to fade from public memory, it came out of the past. An eight-year-old boy on a family holiday on the Columbia River found a sheaf of water-damaged money, about $3000, washed up on the river bank, and the serial numbers matched the Cooper ransom. Also found along the river, separately, an instruction sheet for opening the aft-stairs on a 727. Both were along the flight path of the 727 when it took off from Seattle, but the find raised more questions than it answered, since attached sediment, wear and tear on the notes and other evidence all gave different readings for the date that the money would have gone into the water. Initial thoughts were that D.B. Cooper had met with truly rotten luck and had parachuted straight into Lake Vancouver, which the Columbia River drains out of, become tangled and drowned. Others suggested the money had been buried and dug up by an animal. Still others suggested that it was a decoy, a few notes left there by Cooper to suggest that he had drowned. No determination was ever made, even though by now, a number of enthusiastic amateurs had given their lives to researching the case. As with the Kennedy assassination, they each came up with their preferred candidate for being the real D.B. Cooper — another skyjacker, a cold-case murderer, a former Marine, an M-to-F sex-change recipient named Barbara Dayton (who had allegedly disguised herself as a man again, for the heist), and a man named L.D. Cooper, from Oregon. None are considered by the FBI to be feasible suspects in the case, which remains open, 43 years later.
May it remain open forever. Right from the start, the mass of public sympathy was with D.B. Cooper, and no one made much of a pretence at moral condemnation of his crime. The skyjacking occurred at the tail end of the ‘60s chain of assassinations, and just as the ’70s terrorist wave was beginning. The US was bogged down in Vietnam, with 60 soldiers a week being killed. Brown and yellow people the world over were kicking Uncle Sam’s butt, for all sorts of incomprehensible reasons. Cooper’s skyjack, by contrast, was simple, wholesome, and was the successful enactment of a universal fantasy: the one-off, well-executed crime, enough to buy you out of a life of work.
Well-executed is an understatement, of course. Cooper executed his crime with a near supernatural command of events. Most of the non-criminal things we do in life don’t go as smoothly as this eight-hour operation involving a vast piece of machinery, two airports, 50 crew and passengers, the FBI, an airline’s insurance company, the government of Washington state, and a mid-air jump from a Boeing 727. He never lost his cool, he was polite to the crew and, and this is the kicker, he paid his drinks tab, for the two bourbon and sodas he had had. The passengers were not even aware of what had happened until afterwards. And then, having completed his mission, he simply disappeared into the crowd, into the great maw of America, the thick nets of lights we all see from a plane at night, the cities we will never visit, the people we will never know. Perhaps he died in the jump, but maybe he didn’t. Having got everything else right, why would he have got this wrong? The serial numbers of the bills never turned up, but that does not of itself mean they were never used. In 1971, a good house could be had for $20,000. Cooper’s haul was enough to set himself up for life. He disappeared into the world, but he disappeared into all of us too, the spirit of audacity we all, at times, wish we could find to change our lives. Thus are Christ-like myths born.
The FBI’s mammoth manhunt and reward offer had an air of panic about it, and for good reason. Cooper’s smooth operation prompted more than two dozen copycat skyjackings in the next year. Not one of them succeeded, and they became steadily more violent. Soon, air travel would be associated with grisly danger, such as the Lod Airport massacre, and a series of 747 crashes would take the final glamour off air travel. A bizarre capper occurred in the early ’80s, when a deranged man named Glenn Tripp hijacked a Northwest flight at Seattle airport, a clear homage to Cooper, in 1980. Foiled, and on probation, in 1983 he skyjacked the exact same flight and was shot dead by the FBI. That closed the era, and 30 years close to the day, on September 11, 2001, Cooper’s skyjacking became sealed into the distant past.
But here is what is most astounding about D.B. Cooper. With a briefcase and a note, he skyjacked a plane in 1971, and the Federal Aviation Authority did not introduce searches of carry-on luggage until 1973. Those botched skyjackings occurred in that year and more. But it took 25 of them before it was decided that all bags should be searched, and that everyone should be treated as a potential criminal. What can explain that lag, which now appears incomprehensible? It is simply a different underlying idea about risk, freedom and autonomy, than what we now have. So too is the heroic status Cooper acquired, a measure of a time when a little more disorder could be tolerated because there remained a greater belief in a base rationality of humans, and that life should not be steered by the worst-case scenario. That persisted even as it became patently clear that the system was becoming unmanageable, which is a testament to how deep that belief ran. The world of D.B. Cooper was not only one where you could stroll onto a plane, light up a cigarette and order a stiff drink; it was a world of cash, of no IDs, of no CCTVs, a world where police forces didn’t have armoured vehicles and SWAT teams, where a phone tap was a clunky mechanical procedure. Consequently there is almost no visual record of the event. There is a photograph of the plane on the tarmac at Seattle, waiting for the ransom to be loaded, but that’s it. No shot of Cooper, no security cam footage, nothing of the passengers deplaning, nothing of the sort.
Unleavened by over-representation, the D.B. Cooper event exists in a pure and austere space. It might perhaps be seen as the last event in the West, an individual occurrence twinned with a collective occurrence in the East, the cultural revolution in China, the last revolution of its type, and rather less smooth than D.B. Cooper’s one-man leap to radical emancipation. Whether he lived or died in that last jump, balanced on the aft-stairs in the Pacific Northwest night, he was a free man when he did it. The plane sailed over what would be Cobain country a quarter-century later. Poor old Kurt, heavy with the weight of the world. And D.B. Cooper, whoever he was, or is, passing from nothingness back to it again, a fortune strapped to his chest, under a plane of silk, featherlight, and in the wind.
This is an edited extract from Inland Empire: America at the end of the Obama era by Guy Rundle, available later this month.