Nov. 24, 2022

The Mystery of D.B. Cooper

The Mystery of D.B. Cooper

November 24, 1971. An unidentified man, known only as DB Cooper, hijacks a Boeing 727, extorts $200,000 in ransom money, and parachutes to an uncertain fate.


Cold Open

INTRO: This vintage episode of History Daily originally aired on November 24th, 2021.

It’s November 24th, 1971.

A passenger plane flies south over Washington state.

Outside, a storm rages. Hailstones pelt the cockpit window. Thunder claps make the aircraft shudder and lurch. Lightning flashes provide fleeting glimpses of the wilderness below: a churning river, jagged mountaintops, and unending stretches of pine forest.

Conditions like these can bring planes like this down. So the pilots clench their jaws and grapple with the throttle. This storm is biblical, they think, as their eyes anxiously flit between the controls and the altitude indicator.

They’re flying dangerously low – 10,000 feet – just below the clouds. But those are their instructions, and they don’t dare defy them.

Earlier that day, during a routine flight from Portland to Seattle, these pilots received word from one of the stewardesses that their plane was being hijacked. The hijacker had a bomb they said and was demanding $200,000 in cash, and strangely… four parachutes.

The hijacker forced the pilots to land in Seattle. After securing the ransom, he released the passengers but forced the pilots to remain on board, along with an engineer and one stewardess. Then the hijacker ordered the pilots to take off again and fly the plane to Mexico City, no higher than 10,000 feet.

The man had a bomb,they were told. The pilots had no choice but to oblige. But now, struggling through this tempest, they fear they may not even make it out of Washington. 

Suddenly, the door of the cockpit flies open. It’s Tina Mucklow, the stewardess. She’s been in the cabin with the hijacker. The pilots ask her “What’s going on?”, and she indicates “He’s going to jump.”

Meanwhile, at the very back of the cabin, the hijacker stands at an open door, peering into the dark abyss below. A look of fear briefly passes over his face as he contemplates the freezing vortex of wind and rain. He takes a final drag of his cigarette to steady his nerves. Then he picks up the briefcase full of cash, tightens the straps of the parachute around his shoulders – and jumps.

Before he hits the ground, news of the hijacking will already be a national story, and the hijacker - known only as D.B. Cooper - will become an urban legend. To find him, the FBI will launch the longest and most exhaustive investigation in its history, but to no avail. D.B. Cooper, whoever he is, will vanish. 


From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.

History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world. 

Today is November 24th, 1971:The Mystery of D.B. Cooper.

Act One: This Charming Hijacker

It’s November 24th, 1971, several hours before D.B. Cooper jumps out of the hijacked plane.

On board, a Northwest Orient Airlines flight from Portland to Seattle, 22-year-old stewardess, Tina Mucklow, prays for a break in the weather. Outside, dark storm clouds rumble and flash with lightning. Violent squalls hammer against the windows. The flight’s already been delayed by thirty minutes – the entire flight time of this short puddle jump to Seattle. The passengers are restless.

It’s these tedious domestic flights that make Mucklow question her decision to become a stewardess in the first place. Maybe she should’ve followed her mother into nursing, she thinks, as she chews her fingernails. If she were a nurse, she wouldn’t have to hide her wedding ring. She wouldn’t be fired for the crime of being pregnant or for turning thirty – as the terms of her employment contract stipulate.

Commercial aviation’s boom years – the Jet Age of the 1950s and 1960s – have reached a giddy fever pitch by 1971. Air travel used to be the privilege of the wealthy few. But by the 70s, falling fares means anyone can take to the skies. Flying has never been so accessible or so straightforward. All you have to do is show up. You don’t even need a valid ID.

To Tina Mucklow, a girl from rural Pennsylvania, the life of an air stewardess seemed glamorous and exciting. She’d signed up in the late 60s when acceptance rates for stewardess jobs were around 3% – more competitive than Yale University. But the reality of the lifestyle is distinctly unglamorous. There’s some exotic foreign travel, but the hours are long and the wages are low. And making matters worse, the job is becoming increasingly dangerous.

Between 1968 and 1972, there were more than 130 reported incidents of a brand new type of crime in America: airplane hijacking, or as it came to be known, skyjacking. The cause of the epidemic was the trade and travel ban between the US and communist Cuba. The skyjackers were primarily Cuban nationals wishing to return home. Such incidents became a common occurrence and were light-heartedly dubbed “Take me to Cuba” hijackings.

But eventually, these hijackings inspired other more hardened criminals to get in on the act. Most hijackings followed the same pattern. The skyjackers would threaten to detonate a bomb unless the airline agreed to pay their ransom. And the airlines obliged, preferring to pay up quietly, rather than risk the airplane, passengers, and the press. Additionally, they were often reluctant to put safety measures in place, believing that too much security at the airport would deter passengers from flying. Thankfully, Tina Mucklow has not been the victim of a hijacker. But, as her mother keeps reminding her, it’s only a matter of time.

Finally, the sky is lit up a bit, and the captain gives an all-clear for take-off. Mucklow performs her final safety checks of the cabin, then heads to her seat at the rear of the plane.

Just as she’s buckling in, she notices something strange. Her fellow stewardess, Florence, sits next to a passenger – a man, wearing a dark suit and sunglasses. Mucklow is puzzled that Florence is sitting down. That's against the rules. But as she approaches to check if everything’s alright, she sees Florence discreetly motion for her to pick up a note that’s lying on the floor. Mucklow does and reads it:

“Miss, I have a bomb in my briefcase. I want you to sit by me. You’re being hijacked.”

Somewhere deep in the bowels of the aircraft, a high-pitched whine turns into a guttural roar. And seconds later, the plane is airborne, soaring up into the stormy night sky.

Her heart pounding, Mucklow glances over at the briefcase on the man’s lap. She can almost picture the bomb inside, like something from the movies – a tangle of wires, a battery, and six red cylinders, like sticks of dynamite.

But the bomb is a fake, just like the mysterious man’s identity. He boarded the plane under a false name - Dan Cooper - but due to a subsequent newspaper misprint, he will come to be known by a different name: D.B. Cooper. And he has no intention of blowing up this plane. He wants money.

But Tina Mucklow doesn’t know that. Her eyes brim with tears. Then, just as she starts to shake uncontrollably, she hears the hijacker’s voice calling her.

He’s looking directly at her, a lit cigarette smoldering in one hand. He seems quite unlike a hardened criminal. He seems… pleasant;soft-spoken and polite.

“There’s nothing to worry about,”he tells Mucklow. But Mucklow doesn’t believe him. As the plane hurls through the sky, she hears her mother's words in her head, and she begins to wonder if this might be the last trip she will ever make.

Act Two: Into Thin Air

It’s November 24th, 1971.

On board the flight to Seattle, Cooper tries to put Mucklow, and the other flight attendant, at ease. He urges them not to alert the passengers to the danger. As long as everyone remains calm, he assures them, no one will be hurt.

Cooper is courteous and sympathetic. He pays for his drinks with a $20 bill and lets Mucklow keep the change. At one point, Mucklow asks him if he has a grudge against the airline. “No,” Cooper replies.“I just have a grudge.” 

Cooper instructs the flight attendants to tell the pilots of his demands: he wants $200,000 in cash, as well as four parachutes, to be handed over once they land in Seattle. The pilots relay these demands to air traffic control, who alert the FBI.

Before landing, the plane will circle above Puget Sound for two hours, giving the FBI agents time to collect the ransom. In their minds, Cooper is a dangerous criminal equipped with explosives, and they're hoping for a peaceful resolution, but if the worst comes, they will be ready.

As the plane descends toward the Seattle airport, an army of FBI agents close in on the landing strip; snipers train their weapons on the incoming plane... but Cooper is prepared for this.

As soon as the plane touches down, he instructs flight attendant, Tina Mucklow, to close the window shades, taking away their chance of a clean shot.

Cooper holds the passengers hostage until an airline official approaches the plane and hands over the four parachutes and the money. Then, as promised, Cooper releases the passengers.

Tina Mucklow breathes a sigh of relief. But as she joins the others leaving the plane, Cooper stops her.

“Sorry miss, I need you here with me”. Mucklow is terrified, but she has no choice but to do what the man says.

Two hours after landing in Seattle, Cooper orders the two pilots to fly them all to Mexico City, at a maximum height of 10,000 feet. The pilots’ eyes instinctively flicker down to the briefcase Cooper holds by his side – a constant, unspoken threat. Like Mucklow, they do as they’re told.

Once the plane is airborne, Cooper asks Mucklow how to open the aft-stairs, a retractable staircase in the belly of the plane. Mucklow glances at the three extra parachutes. She wonders, with a jolt of fear, if she’s going to be forced to jump. But then Cooper tells her to join the pilots in the cockpit. He seems resolute, focused – his mind fixed on the task at hand. So Mucklow hurries into the cockpit and locks the door behind her. 

Ten minutes later, at around 8:00 PM, Mucklow and the pilots feel the rush of freezing wind as Cooper opens the aft-stairs. Then, when they stop to refuel in Reno, Nevada, they emerge from the cockpit to find that Cooper is gone.

Immediately, FBI agents swarm the aircraft. But they find no trace of Cooper on board. He apparently parachuted from the plane with the money, leaping headfirst into a thunderstorm somewhere above the vast wilderness around Mount St. Helens in Washington. That was where he opened the aft-stairs, and it will be where the FBI begins their search.

Thousands of military troops and law enforcement officers comb the woods and trees. But they don’t find Cooper… or whatever is left of him.

Many agents believe that Cooper is dead. One of the lead agents on the case suggests that’s it’s likely Cooper didn’t even get his parachute open before he plunged to his death. But as the months turn into years without any discoveries, the authorities will be forced to consider the alternative: that Cooper survived.

Act Three: My Name is D.B. Cooper

It’s February 10th, 1980, nine years after D.B. Cooper hijacked the plane.

An eight-year-old boy named Brian Ingram sits on a grassy bank alongside the Columbia River. Brian is on vacation with his family in Washington – and he’s terribly bored. Behind him, his parents are packing up their picnic, arguing as usual. Despondently, Brian trails a stick in the muddy sand. But suddenly, the stick catches on something – a flash of green. Brian clears away the muck… and his eyes go wide.

It’s money. Three tightly-wrapped bundles of $20 bills – almost $6,000 in total. The bills though are nearly disintegrated. Brian’s family will report this to the authorities who will cross-reference the serial numbers to prove that indeed, Brian has just discovered some of D.B. Cooper’s ransom money.

The discovery will give new life to an investigation, long gone stale. Over the past nine years, the search has been extensive and exhaustive. Cooper’s drop zone could only be estimated, based on the trajectory of his fall according to the plane’s height and speed.

Factoring in weather conditions, investigators focused on the large area of wilderness north of Portland and south of Lake Merwin, Washington. Submarines scoured rivers; lakes were dredged; the FBI went door to door with composite sketches of Cooper. But they didn’t find a body anywhere.

But looking for a body does not admit the other possibility: that Cooper survived the jump; and that he went on to live a normal life, with nearly $200,000 in tow.

Over the decades, many will come forward claiming that their husband, or their uncle, their friend, or co-worker, they are the real D.B. Cooper. The FBI will take some of the claims seriously. Most, however, they will dismiss as fantasy. And then in 2016, the FBI officially closes its investigation into what is the only unsolved hijacking in American History.

Cooper is the subject of countless stories, films, songs, TV shows, and urban legends. But the biggest legacy D.B. Cooper left behind is far more impactful. Cooper’s skyjacking resulted in major changes in modern air travel, including the addition of metal detectors and the implementation of more stringent laws designed to prevent and punish any future hijackers.


Next on History Daily. November 25th, 1863. During the American Civil War, General Ulysses S. Grant is victorious over Confederate forces at the Battle of Missionary Ridge.

From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.

Audio editing by Mollie Baack.

Sound design by Derek Behrens.

Music by Lindsay Graham.

This episode is written and researched by Joe Viner.

Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.