"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.
Rundle: the legend of D.B. Cooper
As he bids farewell to the States again, our correspondent-at-large offers the tale of one of a Thanksgiving mystery which changed the experience of being a plane passenger forever.