On November 24, 1971, a man calling himself Dan Cooper hijacked Northwest Orient Airlines flight 305 from Portland to Seattle (a trip known as a “milk run” due to the short distance involved). A few minutes into the voyage, he got the attention of a flight attendant and made it known that he had a bomb that he intended to use unless his demands were met. What did he want? $200,000 in unmarked bills and four parachutes.
After the plane was on the ground in Seattle, the passengers were let go, the plane was refueled, and Cooper was granted his money and chutes. He instructed the pilot to head towards Mexico City, making it clear that the wing flaps were to remain at 15 degrees and landing gear to stay deployed, the cabin remain depressurized, and that the craft was not to exceed an altitude of 10,000 feet.
Some time after the trip to Mexico City began, he strapped the cash to himself, put on a parachute, and exited the aircraft in flight via the aft staircase. He was never seen again.
It was a bold and brazen move that instantly captivated the world’s imagination. In the confused rush to get the story out there, the skyjacker was misidentified as D.B. Cooper, and the false name stuck. Suddenly everyone was transfixed by the Cooper story. Who was he? Did he survive the jump? Why did he do it? These unanswered questions only served to build up Cooper’s mystique and his legend grew exponentially.
To this day, no one really knows who D.B. Cooper was or what became of him. Other than some of the money being discovered by a kid who was building a campfire along the Columbia River in 1980, there have been no verifiable leads in the case. In 2016, the FBI closed the case. D.B. Cooper had committed the perfect crime, and gotten away with it.
And still, people continue to obsess about the enigmatic, and, by some accounts, charming skyjacker.
Because his crime didn’t harm anyone, D.B. Cooper became an instant folk hero. He was a living representation of the “sticking it to the man” ethos of the era. And before you knew it, a pop culture phenomenon – one that continues to this day – was born. Cooper has been the focus of countless books, a few movies (including the Seth Green comedy Without a Paddle), songs, and has impacted the general consciousness in unexpected ways. (David Lynch and Mark Frost were rumored to be inspired by the skyjacker when naming Agent Dale Bartholomew Cooper on Twin Peaks).
These are the most memorable ways he impacted pop culture. Let’s take a look.
The Mystery of D.B. Cooper
Almost 50 years on and we still have no idea who D.B. Cooper was and what his motives were. Or do we? HBO Max’s The Mystery of D.B. Cooper, an in-depth documentary that aims to be the definitive word on this true-crime saga.
In Search Of…
One of the earliest, and still the greatest, examination of the Cooper case is a 1979 installment of Leonard Nimoy’s cheesy/sublime 1979 investigational series In Search Of…
Over the course of 22 odd minutes, a delightfully porn-stached Nimoy runs through the particulars of the case. Complete with ominous re-enactments and insights from FBI agent Ralph Himmelsbach (whose obsession with the solving the case would eventually reach Captain Ahab proportions), this episode is the perfect starting point for aspiring Cooperphiles.
The Pursuit of D.B. Cooper
Due to the strong intrigue surrounding the Cooper skyjacking, it was only a matter of time before Hollywood tried to profit off of the crime. Thus in 1981, The Pursuit of D.B. Cooper hit theaters. The film starred Treat Williams, a slumming Robert Duvall, and the late, great Paul Gleason.
Loosely inspired by J.D. Reed’s novel Free Fall, the popcorn flick aimed more at entertaining audiences than actually delving into the hardcore mystery surrounding the man and his confounding actions. As such, the finished project is an amiable adventure that owes more to The Dukes of Hazzard and Smokey and the Bandit-type diversions than actual history.
HA HA HA
In 1983, interest in all things D.B. Cooper had already waned. Yet despite this, Signum Books LTD. published this purported autobiography that suggests that Cooper is just as good at spinning a wild yarn as he is jumping out of airplanes and ripping off the government.
The most interesting aspect of this novel is how it was also a contest. Readers could unravel clues hidden in the book to win $200,000 of their own. We have no idea if anyone ever made good of this offer, but this form of interactive fiction could be seen as a precursor to similiar and more mainstream literary experiments like J.J. Abrams and Doug Dorst’s S.
Before it broke our hearts by downfalling into mediocrity, Prison Break was one of the most engaging Fox shows of its time. One thing that bugs us though? Somehow we never pictured Cooper — portrayed in the series by character actor great Muse Watson — as a cat owner.
In 2012, CBS Films optioned the rights to journalist Geoffrey Gray’s Skyjack. Sadly, that project is currently residing in development hell, which is especially upsetting because Gray’s thoughtful analysis of the case and its obsessive, often damaged main players could be the next Argo. It’s a strange and joyous read.
Do Gray’s new leads result in finally identifying Cooper? That would be telling. Plus, as with many things in life, it’s not so much the destination as the strange odyssey that is undertaken along the way that is key.
The fifth and final season of Newsradio obviously suffered from the creative energy that was lost following the senseless murder of Phil Hartman. However it began to gain some serious steam with a three-part story arc in which it was revealed that Jimmy James (the peerless Stephen Root) might actually be D.B. Cooper. As fun as this all was, nothing could prepare viewers for the joyous shock that came from the revelation that Cooper was, in fact, Adam West.
Journeyman, we still miss you so. NBC’s 2007 time-travel drama starred Kevin McKidd as a successful reporter, recovering gambling addict, and family man who began mysteriously travelling back in time. Because his adventures often resulted in him putting right what once went wrong, the Quantum Leap comparisons never stopped. But Journeyman was so much more than just an adventure of the week story. You see, when McKidd’s character went back in time, the present kept on going, meaning that he could return hours, days or weeks after he mysteriously vanished. This ramped up the domestic and career drama greatly in a way that Sam Beckett’s “oh boy”-worthy exploits could only dream of.
Five episodes in, the installment “The Legend of Dylan McCleen” was a quick exploration of the Cooper mythos, with the name changed to protect the guilty, apparently. As if we didn’t love it enough already, they had to go and bring Cooper into the mix. Why was this show cancelled again?
1971 CBS News Report
When word of Cooper’s skyjacking first hit the media, the news was so audacious that it became a national obsession (and still is, to be honest). Above you see CBS News’ original report about the Cooper case. Join Walter Cronkite and Bill Kurtis for their coverage of this history-making event.
Bigfoot vs. D.B. Cooper
Full disclosure: We’ve never seen this low-budget flick that looks like the next big SyFy sweeps event. But D.B. Cooper and Bigfoot? Together? That’s gotta be a recipe for entertainment, right?
While based more on the rash of skyjackings that plagued American skies in the early 1970s than Cooper’s specifically, the 1972 proto-disaster film Skyjacked was clearly impacted by the folk hero’s actions. With stars like Charlton Heston, James Brolin, Rosie Grier, and TV’s Spider-Man, Nicholas Hammond, the film is a tense thriller about a skyjacker who seeks to divert a passenger plane to Alaska. As the terrorist is revealed to be a traumatized Vietnam War veteran, his actions lead to an international incident — resulting in a conclusion that remains gripping to this day.
Everything Is Fine, “Vapor Trails and Light”
In 2005, murky shoegazers Everything Is Fine released their album Ghosts Are Knocking on Walls, a guitar-drenched affair that featured two tracks inspired by Cooper’s antics.
While “D.B. Cooper” was a reverb-heavy instrumental imagining of what the skyjacker’s leap into history might have emotionally felt like, “Vapor Trails and Light” explored the mindset of the plane’s occupants. “You hijack the flight and disappear into the night,” sings vocalist Marc Manning in a delicate growl before adding “vapor trails and light, all we see tonight but it’s all right.”–-indicating that ultimately D.B.’s antics were the sort of victimless crime that resulted in his folk icon status. It’s a fantastic song that brings to mind the works of Slowdive and This Mortal Coil. In other words, essential listening for the 120 Minutes crowd.
Dan Cooper Comics
In the 1950s, France’s Dan Cooper comics chronicled the exploits of the titular Royal Canadian Air Force pilot. Since the skyjacker identified himself to the flight crew as Dan Cooper, it has been speculated that he borrowed his false identity from these comics…something that seems more than plausible given the similarities between both Coopers. The only problem is that the Dan Cooper stories were unknown to Americans in 1971, adding another speculative wrinkle to an already fascinating case.
The Far Side
Gary Larson’s seminal comic strip The Far Side once speculated on Cooper’s final fate. It may not be pretty for him, but it sure is funny.
Todd Snider, “D.B. Cooper”
Folk-twinged alt-country singer/songwriter Todd Snider paid a musical tribute to Cooper on his 2000 album Happy to Be Here, which speculates that D.B. did in fact survive his leap, and celebrated with a champagne toast. “I hope they never see D.B. Cooper again,” Snider croons, echoing the sentiments of those who yearn for this case never to be solved. After all, history needs its mysteries…
What’s your favorite D.B. Cooper pop culture moment? Let us know in the comments! And be sure to check out our D.B. Cooper Spotify playlist!