On the night of November 24, 1971, somewhere in the sky over Washington state, a mysterious man known only as Dan Cooper threatened to blow up a flight from Portland to Seattle. Given US$200,000 in ransom money, he parachuted out of a plane, wearing a black suit, and vanished into the darkness and rain.
It sounds like a plausibility-stretching pre-title sequence from a new Mission: Impossible film. But it remains the only unsolved plane hijacking in US history.
Dan Cooper, later mistakenly reported and mythologised as "DB Cooper", is the subject of a new Storyville documentary, The Hijacker Who Vanished: The Mystery of DB Cooper, which airs in the UK tonight. "I was kind of annoyed that I'd never heard about it before," says director John Dower about discovering the tale.
"I've made a lot of films in America. I thought I knew all the great iconic stories. I was like, 'Why don't I know this? Did this really happen? This is bizarre!'"
The DB Cooper story is one of the great American mysteries. In the USA, Cooper has a folk-hero status. "As one of the FBI guys points out in the film," Dower says, "Americans romanticise these outlaws. You've got Bonnie and Clyde, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid… even Donald Trump posits himself as that kind of character.
"America's a frontier country. People love characters who live outside the rules."
The Hijacker Who Vanished lines up the suspects: Duane Weber, an insurance salesman who made a deathbed confession; Barbara Dayton, a transgender pilot and accomplished parachutist; LD Cooper, a logger whose niece recalls him returning home battered and bloodied at Thanksgiving; and Richard Floyd McCoy, a Vietnam veteran who carried out a near-identical skyjacking just five months later.
But this isn't another investigative true-crime saga. Dower wasn't setting out to crack the case. "No way," he says. "The FBI couldn't do it in 50 years!" Instead, through the case details, conflicting claims and captivating inconsistencies, Dower finds the stories of people whose lives have been consumed by the DB Cooper mystery.
As Jo Weber – widow of suspect Duane Weber – says about Cooper: "He's used up a lot of good years that I could have put somewhere else – that I should have put somewhere else. I lost a lot of my life. I wish he had never told me anything."
The mystery itself begins in Oregon. On the afternoon of Thanksgiving Eve, Cooper arrives at Portland International Airport, where he boards the Seattle-bound Northwest Orient Airlines Flight 305. He has paid cash for a one-way ticket. He wears a business suit with a black tie and shades, and carries a black attaché case.
Before take-off, he passes a note to one of the stewardesses. At first she pockets the note, believing that he's trying to hit on her; he soon tells her to read it. She learns that the man has a bomb; he is demanding $200,000 in "negotiable American currency" from the airline, four parachutes, and "no fuzz".
He tells her to sit next to him, which she does. He opens his attaché case, revealing dynamite-like sticks, electrical tape, wires, and a battery. The stewardness informs the pilots of the situation. The other passengers know nothing; they're told that there's a non-serious mechanical fault, so the landing will be delayed. This the authorities on the ground some time to make arrangements.
Cooper, meanwhile, seems relaxed, drinking bourbon and smoking cigarettes. The stewardess lights the latter, so he doesn't have to remove his thumb from the bomb's trigger. He tells her he won't be taken alive. He doesn't have a grudge against the airline. "But I do have a grudge," he says.
When they land in Seattle, Cooper allows the passengers (still ignorant) to leave the plane – at no point in the drama does he harm anyone – then he orders the pilots to take off again, and head for Mexico. "Oh goodie, maybe he wants to go to Acapulco," says co-pilot William Rataczak. "That beats Seattle on a rainy night." But, somewhere between Seattle and Reno, Cooper lowers the air-stairs at the rear of the Boeing 727 and parachutes out. And that's the last anyone sees of DB Cooper.
In the aftermath of the crime, Cooper was quickly accepted as a Robin Hood-like hero. "I respect a man who takes his time to do a job well done," says one local in archive footage. The Pacific North-West was going through hard times. Tens of thousands of people had been laid off in the "Boeing Bust", which led to huge unemployment numbers in Seattle, where the company was headquartered, and an exodus from the city.
"Economically it was terrible," says Dower. "I think he became a folk hero for that reason. He didn't ask for a crazy amount of money. He was sticking it to 'the man', and giving a finger to the system. He didn't harm anyone."
On the other hand, he cautions, "I don't know if you could quite call him Robin Hood – I don't think he distributed his money!"
Dower also points to a crisis of masculinity happening at the time, in the post-feminism world. There was a theory at one time that Mad Men – the great dissection of masculinity – would end with a twist: that Don Draper is DB Cooper. (Actor Jon Hamm does cut a decent likeness.)
Within five years, the FBI had interviewed 800 people in connection with the case, and eliminated all but a handful of suspects. Many reports doubted that Cooper would have survived the jump. The FBI website itself still states: "The parachute he used couldn't be steered, his clothing and footwear were unsuitable for a rough landing, and he had jumped into a wooded area at night – a dangerous proposition for a seasoned pro, which evidence suggests Cooper was not."
In another report, Special Agent Larry Carr says: "We originally thought Cooper was an experienced jumper, perhaps even a paratrooper. We concluded after a few years this was simply not true. No experienced parachutist would have jumped in the pitch-black night, in the rain, with a 200-mile-an-hour wind in his face, wearing loafers and a trench coat. It was simply too risky. He also missed that his reserve chute was only for training and had been sewn shut – something a skilled skydiver would have checked."
But, as the documentary explores, there are other strange twists. Crucial evidence was fumbled, further complicating the case. Cooper's cigarette butts, which could have provided key DNA evidence, disappeared. Some might call it a conspiracy, though it likely comes down to good old-fashioned incompetence.
"The FBI, like us, can be quite ramshackle," says Dower. "Investigations can be as flawed as we are ourselves. I think [the butts] probably got thrown out with a pizza box." Some DNA was later lifted from a clip-on tie Cooper left behind.
More bizarre was the discovery of $5,800 in bundles of badly-damaged notes on a Columbia River beach, 45 miles south of where Cooper supposedly landed. They were found in February 1980, eight years after the incident. The serial numbers matched those on notes from the ransom money. But, as Dower explains, it only deepened the mystery.
"The money couldn't have been there for more than a year," he says, "because the elastic bands were still intact. The company who manufactured them said there was no way they could have survived eight years in the sand and water. And the FBI dredging showed that, given where the money was in the layers of sand, it couldn't have been there longer than a year.
"That says, I think, that Cooper survived and put the money there. Maybe as a bizarre sign or gesture."
One theory is that the money was dumped by Duane Weber, who took his wife Jo on a trip to Washington in 1979. She recalled him disappearing one morning, returning to the motel covered in mud, and later throwing a bag into a river. Could he have dug up a stash of money, discovered it was damaged, and tossed it away?
In 1995, when Weber was dying from a kidney disease, he told Jo: "I'm Dan Cooper." Jo appears in Dower's film, and says: "Those were his last words, except 'I love you.'" When asked what she did next, she replies: "I called the FBI."
After Weber's death, Jo discovered more clues: fake IDs with a secret identity, a criminal past, and keys to two deposit boxes. Only one box could be located; inside was a military magazine with a feature called 'The Man Who Held the Secrets' and a picture of a man parachuting. Jo recalled offhand details – such as their trip to Washington – that began to make sense.
Whereas some documentaries look to turn up a piece of evidence that flips a case on its head, Dower's key discovery was Tim Collins, who acts as Jo's 'memory man'. He helps Jo piece together her fractured memories and picks out salient details. "Tim still emails me now," says Dower. "He believes he's found the other safety deposit box and that he's going to crack it."
There are several other stories. For instance, the niece of a man named LD Cooper claims she heard him plotting the hijack, and that he disappeared because he was in hiding from the FBI. Meanwhile, two homely aviation enthusiasts, Ron and Pat Forman, explain how their pilot friend Barbara – who had once been a soldier named Robert – confessed she was DB Cooper. Ron, also a pilot, continues to take Barb's ashes on flights.
In the case of yet another suspect, Richard Floyd McCoy, it's more about who isn't talking. McCoy was a Vietnam hero who carried out a similar hijacking on a flight from Denver to Los Angeles in April 1972. He produced a note, a handgun and grenade, demanded $500,000, and parachuted out. Was it a copycat crime? Or his second time?
"The key to the McCoy story is his wife," says Dower. "She was protected from testifying in [that] jump because of rules about spouses in America. I think she still holds some information. She won't talk to anyone. I've been pretty good getting people on camera, but we failed. That keeps me awake at night."
In custody, McCoy refused to deny that he was DB Cooper, and gave a false alibi for the night of the Cooper hijacking. According to a retired probation officer, he "reacted emotionally" to the photo-fit picture of Cooper. He was sentenced to 45 years in prison, but escaped the very next day. He was soon recaptured, but escaped again, and was killed in a shootout with the FBI.
"He broke out of prison not once, but twice – the guy's a badass," says Dower. "That story has got a lot of inconsistencies. Why didn't he just deny it? And if you drill down into his own story, he was a decorated Purple Heart in Vietnam and he missed it. He felt his life was meaningless after he came back. He was looking for the same kind of adventure and thrill. Talk about a crisis in masculinity."
There are other characters in The Hijacker Who Vanished: a man who's spent 31 years searching the Washougal wilderness for Cooper's parachute; Bruce Smith, author of DB Cooper and the FBI, who lives in a shack in the woodland at Mount Rainer.
"Bruce is brilliant," Dower says of the latter. "I love characters like that, who take you by surprise. It's sort of an industry, the DB Cooper mystery. People self-publish their books. Bruce's book is really well-written, and he's really articulate. It doesn't go amiss that he happens to be living off the grid in this wooden shack in the middle of the woods. It fit this story so perfectly."
In the end, Dower's film is less about solving the DB Cooper mystery, than about the people who have given their life to it. It seems they're searching not only for the truth but a sense of personal closure.
"I got lost in these people who genuinely believe," Dower explains. "They live their life constructing the story that they know who Cooper is. It would be very easy to mock or satirise them, but I never wanted to do that. We all tell ourselves stories and construct narratives to make sense of who we are."
He points to the grieving loved ones as an example. "Ron still takes Barb's ashes up in the plane. They miss their friend, and the impact she had on their lives. I think Jo Weber is still grieving for her husband, trying to work out who he was – and work out who she is and was."
But when I ask him who his favourite pick for DB Cooper's true identity is, Dower is just as conflicted. "My head says Floyd McCoy, but my heart wants to say Duane Weber," he tells me.
For those of us not searching for personal closure, would the tale be as exciting if we discovered who the suited man was? Certainly, the FBI has given up; it closed the case in 2016.
"We'd lose the mystery, and the mystery is the allure," Dower says. "In the age we live in, you can find out anything quickly. There's something wonderful about there still being things we don't know about. It's tantalising."