America's only unsolved airline hijacking happened the day before Thanksgiving in 1971. A man boarded a flight to Seattle wearing a dark sports jacket, a clip-on tie and horn-rimmed sunglasses. He took a seat in row 18E, at the very back of the Boeing 727. Almost immediately, he ordered a drink and lit a cigarette.
As the plane began to take off, he passed a note to the flight attendant that read, "Miss, I have a bomb here. I want you to sit by me."
Geoffrey Gray recounts the events of the hijacking in his new book, Skyjack: The Hunt for D.B. Cooper. He tells Guy Raz, host of weekends on All Things Considered, that at first the flight attendant didn't believe the man. But then the man opened his briefcase, which contained red cylinders and wires.
"His demands were very specific. He wanted $200,000 in American currency," Gray says, "and four parachutes – two front parachutes and two back parachutes."
The plane landed in Seattle, and the hijacker's demands were met on the tarmac.
The passengers were let off, but the stewardess, a pilot, a copilot and a flight engineer remained on the plane with him. He ordered them to fly to Mexico City, which required them to refuel in Reno, Nev.
"Around midnight, the plane landed in Reno, the aft stairs dangling in the back, sparks flew, and FBI agents raided this plane," Gray says.
The hijacker, a parachute and all the money had vanished. Somewhere between Seattle and Reno, the man who became known as D.B. Cooper escaped.
Cooper had boarded the plane as Dan Cooper, but a discrepancy in a news account later referred to him as D.B. Cooper; the name stuck.
The manhunt for Cooper was one of the biggest in the nation's history, Gray says. He says one of the first goals was determining just where Cooper landed. The search area was remote land.
"There are no roads. There are no lights. It is just woods," Gray says.
Investigators were able to determine that the hijacker jumped from the plane at 10,000 feet between 8:12 p.m. and 8:17 p.m. The search zone was harder to pinpoint, however, given the speed of the plane and the width of the flight path.
People began to search for traces of Cooper — and not just the FBI, Gray says.
"It was treasure hunters, amateur sleuths, reporters — just people curious to see what they might be able to find," he says.
Gray's own hunt began with an unexpected phone call from a private investigator. As a crime writer, Gray regularly relies on private investigators as sources.
"I had no idea who D.B. Cooper was. I had never heard of this case," he says.
The investigator said an elderly man in Minnesota had contacted him about Cooper.
"This elderly man was just a kooky guy — he was an inventor, he was a retired post office worker," Gray says, "and he was convinced that his older brother was D.B. Cooper."
Gray later found that the brother "looked exactly like the hijacker," and his background fit a likely profile of Cooper.
"So his brother was an almost identical match – or as close to a match as you could find," Gray says, "and I took off and followed the trail from there."
He believed the case was all his to close, particularly after gaining access to confidential FBI files.
After following his leads, however, Gray discovered the older brother was not Cooper. Four years have passed since he started on the case.
"The fact that we don't know — the not knowing — continues to gnaw at me," Gray says.
The myth of Cooper lives on, he says, but the real story of the man is very different.
"I believe that the actual hijacker was somebody who was not a hero, who was a loser, who was a loner, who was depressed, who was after — in his last gasp trying to make something of his life — the ability to achieve one fine thing," he says.
Gray has tried to sort through the two narratives, putting the facts forward in his book.
He believes Cooper survived the jump. In the FBI files, he found that agents interviewed experts who said surviving the jump was possible.
"One of the things we now know about the case is that the hijacker likely landed a little bit farther south than what the Feds originally thought," he says, "and that area is not as harsh as the legend of D.B. Cooper portrays it to be."
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