Friday, November 15, 2013

Why I Hate DB Cooper

Retrospectives are common on anniversaries ending in zeroes. So, naturally enough, the upcoming 50th anniversary of the JFK assassination is receiving a lot of attention. I don’t think there is anything much I can add to this endlessly dissected event. The official line and the various conspiracy theories are all well known. (My favorite – not the one I believe, but just my favorite – is still the one presented in Barbara Garson’s 1967 satirical play Macbird, with a JFK-type character as Ken O’Dunc, LBJ as MacBird, and Ladybird as Lady MacBird.) “Where were you when…?” no longer is a question asked very often, for the simple reason that for more than 70% of the US population the answer is “I wasn’t born yet.” I’m among the minority that does remember 1963, however, so my answer is “elementary school.” They closed the school early and sent us home.

So, having nothing beyond this minor personal datum to add to this upcoming anniversary, I’ll pick another upcoming anniversary on which to reminisce: one without zeroes. On November 24, 1971, the only unsolved skyjacking in U.S. history took place. The perpetrator called himself Dan Cooper. The middle initial “B” was bestowed on him by the press. He never used it, but the error has stuck anyway. The well-mannered and politely spoken Cooper informed a flight attendant on Flight 305 from Portland to Seattle that he had a bomb in his brief case. He flashed open his case long enough to reveal something that looked like a bomb. He demanded $200,000 and four parachutes. When the Boeing 727 landed in Seattle, the money (all of which was first photographed by the FBI) was delivered, the plane was refueled, and Cooper allowed the passengers off the plane. Cooper told the pilot to fly south at 10,000 feet and specifically ordered him to deploy flaps at 15 degrees. Cabin pressurization isn’t required at 10,000 feet and the flap setting prevented the 727 from exceeding 200 mph (322kph) – that he would know this indicates at least some familiarity with the aircraft. Cooper donned a parachute, strapped the money to his waist, lowered the aircraft’s rear staircase, and jumped out somewhere over Oregon. He was never captured and no body ever was found. Though many possible suspects have been proposed by amateur investigators in the years since, the true identity of the skyjacker remains unknown to this day.

The FBI claimed from the start that the odds were heavily against Cooper’s survival given the airspeed, the altitude, the -70F exterior air temperature, and the remote wilderness below the aircraft. The problem with this assertion is that it is demonstrably untrue. How? Because there are still 727s flown by private owners for the purpose of commercial skydiving. Jumpers not only successfully and repeatedly duplicate the Cooper jump, they pay extra to do it. Perhaps an inexperienced jumper would have a rougher time of it, but we don’t know anything about Cooper’s level of experience. Furthermore, while that part of Oregon certainly has deep woods, it is not really a wilderness. In 1980, a few miles from a roadway, a 9-year-old boy found $5800 in the woods that matched serial numbers from the ransom money. The cash was decayed but still together in three neat packets, with $200 removed from one, so it didn’t just scatter out of the sky. This is certainly curious, but there is no way to know what it means. Is this evidence Cooper died? Did Cooper drop some money while walking out of the woods, or even deliberately plant it as misdirection? We just don’t know. 

Cooper didn’t injure anyone and he was polite, so his exploit earned him a certain cachet with the public. The “gentleman bandit” always has had a popular appeal, whether real (Black Bart, John Dillinger) or fictional (Cary Grant in It Takes a Thief, David Niven in The Pink Panther). There have been books, songs, movies, and TV shows about Cooper. There is a Cooper Day event in Ariel Washington.

So, what is my beef with DB Cooper? Those who don’t remember the world of 1971 scarcely can imagine what a lax and trusting place the US was when it came to security. There were no metal detectors, pat downs, or baggage searches at airports. No one asked for your ID before you boarded a plane. Your ticket was all you needed, and on some flights not even that; on the shuttle between NYC and DC, for example, you could buy your ticket from the flight attendant after boarding, totally anonymously. Hardly any businesses other than banks and casinos bothered with security cameras. Despite the fact that the US was at war and had several small but violent insurrectionary groups, public buildings were barely guarded. I could and did enter the Capitol Building in DC and wander around on my own without once being challenged. Hardly ever did we feel watched. Whatever the other ills of the era may have been, in this regard it was a very comfortable time.

Nowadays we always feel watched. Getting on a plane is an obstacle course. Never mind the Capitol, even my local county courthouse, a building that once left a half dozen entrances unlocked, can be entered only by filing through a guarded checkpoint with metal detectors and a sign-in sheet. Anonymity has all but vanished in public or private life. Try renting a hotel room without a credit card; oh, they’ll accept cash, but they still want a record of your card. Cooper is not solely responsible for these changes, which began long before 9/11, but he certainly is one reason for them – he is directly responsible for stiffer screening of airline passengers and for the expansion of the sky marshal program. Intrusive security may be a fact of modern life, but that doesn’t mean we have to like it. To the extent that Cooper and people like him have caused the rest of us to be saddled with these measures, it is perfectly fair to hate them all.


  1. Have just returned from London, I feel your pain about getting through airport security. It was a real pain, on both ends of the pond.

    I didn't know that the "B" was added to his name. I've always heard him referred to as DB. It was one of those mysteries of the 70s that will never be solved, kind of like bigfoot. :)

    1. Maybe Cooper is Bigfoot. A two'fer solution