Washington State History Museum shines spotlight on D.B. Cooper mystery

Staff writerAugust 23, 2013 

You are waiting for a flight at the Portland airport, paging through a magazine. You rise and walk through almost nonexistent security to board a Boeing 727 to Sea-Tac Airport. The only other passenger is already seated: a man wearing a suit and black tie, and holding a briefcase. The date is Nov. 24, 1971, and your fellow passenger’s name is D.B. Cooper.

So begins the exhibit on the nation’s only unsolved skyjacking, opening Saturday at the Washington State History Museum. The show, which runs through the end of the year at the Tacoma museum, uses artifacts, first-person accounts, FBI documents and a mock-up of a 727 interior to tell the story of the infamous hijacker.

“It’s an interesting mystery that happened in our state,” museum director Jennifer Kilmer said. “It can and does impact our present.”

Shortly after the man calling himself Dan Cooper boarded Northwest Airlines Flight 305 that day, he handed a flight attendant a note stating that he had a bomb and “You are being hijacked.”

When the plane landed at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, Cooper’s demands for $200,000 in cash and four parachutes were met. After Cooper released everyone but the crew, the plane took off again, heading south. About 45 minutes into the flight, Cooper apparently jumped from the rear stairs, which he had lowered.

The plane eventually landed in Reno, but Cooper wasn’t there. All he left behind were the extra parachutes, cigarette butts and his black clip-on tie. In the days, weeks and years after the hijacking, no trace of Cooper was found.

Then, in 1980, a boy digging along the banks of the Columbia River at Tena Bar north of Portland uncovered three bundles of cash. The $5,800 in bills was identified as Cooper’s ransom money through serial numbers. The money only fueled and deepened the mystery.

Cooper’s audacious plan and the enduring mystery over whether he got away with it or died trying have forever placed him in the legends of the Pacific Northwest.

But Cooper’s skyjacking was more than just a blip on the cultural radar. It had a lasting effect on aviation and passenger travel. Planes were redesigned, and stricter security measures were permanently put in place.

Before visitors to the museum enter the 727 mock-up, side rooms contain a number of artifacts taking them back to air travel in the early 1970s. A model of Sea-Tac Airport is on loan from the Highline Historical Society. A flight insurance vending machine, ubiquitous in airports at that time, is on loan from San Francisco’s airport. An authentic timetable from Portland’s airport shows Flight 305 departing at 2:30 p.m. Cooper paid $20 for his one-way ticket. A photograph of his ticket is on display.

Inside the darkened mock-up of the 727, a Cooper mannequin sits amidst the three rows of original seats, complete with ashtrays. Recreated recordings of transcripted conversation between the pilots and air traffic control play over a sound system.

Two other mannequins are dressed in the authentic uniforms of a Northwest pilot and flight attendant. Co-curator Gwen Whiting said the museum had trouble finding a mannequin small enough to wear the petite female uniform from 1971.

In the next room rests a bag representing the 35 pounds of negotiable currency for which Cooper asked. Visitors can lift the bag and imagine securing it to themselves.

Kilmer said she contacted the FBI in hopes of obtaining artifacts for the exhibit that are still held by the law enforcement agency. Kilmer was politely turned down.

“They told me they’d be happy to work with us when it’s no longer an active case,” she said.

But not all the artifacts are still in the hands of the FBI.

Near the sack of fake money is one very real piece of money: The $20 bill, its corners missing, is one of the notes from the three stacks of money found by young Brian Ingram. Its serial number is clearly visible but yields no more clues today than it did in 1980.

Another genuine artifact on display is one of the four parachutes Cooper asked for in his extortion plot — and it’s the only Cooper artifact in the permanent collection of the museum, Kilmer said. In the museum’s lobby and exhibit area hang two deployed parachutes similar to the ones given to Cooper.

A portion of the show is dedicated to hijackings and airline security. Skyjackings weren’t new in 1971. The first was in 1930, Whiting said. They reached their peak in the 1960s when a rash of “take me to Cuba” hijackings plagued the airline industry.

“Cooper was the first to do it for extortion,” Whiting said.

In the year after Cooper’s disappearance, at least a dozen skyjackings for money were attempted. But within weeks of Cooper’s skyjacking, tighter screenings were introduced at airports and, later, magnetometers. Hijackings became a relic — until Sept. 11, 2001.

Cooper’s hijacking also affected airplane manufacturers. The show displays a device that was added to planes after the incident: The Cooper Vane prevented rear staircases from being deployed mid-flight. Soon, Boeing quit making rear staircases on its aircraft altogether.

But a rear staircase is in the show. Gleaned from a dismantled 727, it sits center stage in the exhibit space. You can’t step on it, but you can imagine what it would be like to walk down it in darkness and rain, and jump into thin air.

Cooper’s effect on pop culture is also examined. Books, board games and movies have covered the Cooper mystery. One piece of pop culture, however, might have inspired Cooper. A French comic strip – “L’Integrale Dan Cooper,” by Albert Weinberg, about a French-Canadian flying ace — could have given the man the idea for his alias — if it was an alias.

What the show steers clear of is suspects. The number of people who claimed to be or were named by others as suspects could fill a small book. But none have ever been proven to be the infamous hijacker.

If the real D.B. Cooper is found alive, he will still face prosecution. A grand jury in Portland indicted “John Doe, aka Dan Cooper” in 1976 for air piracy, preventing the statute of limitations from expiring.

Whiting and Kilmer make it clear the museum is not trying to make a folk hero out of Cooper, but acknowledge he already plays that role.

“There’s this feeling that he beat the man. He got away with it,” Kilmer said.

But the lasting, negative effects can’t be ignored, either, Whiting said.

“There’s a lot of misconceptions about Dan Cooper and the ramifications of his criminal act,” Whiting said.

The information in the Cooper show is comprehensive, but it still only scratches the surface. QR codes on exhibit cards offer more information, as does the museum’s website.

The exhibit draws no conclusions, and even Kilmer won’t divulge what she thinks happened to Cooper.

It’s Whiting’s hope that the show might solve the enduring mystery.

“When you have an exhibit, you never know what might spark someone’s memory,” Whiting said. “However, we’d prefer people go to the FBI.”

Cooper

Where: Washington State History Museum, 1911 Pacific Ave., Tacoma

When: Saturday through Jan. 5.

Hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m., with days varying by season; extended hours and free admission every third Thursday of the month, 2-8 p.m.

Admission: $9.50 for adults; $7 for seniors/ students; free for children age 5 and younger

Information: DBCooper. washingtonhistory.org.

Associated events

These events and other programs on Saturday are free with museum admission.

‘Meet Cooper’

Actor Jeff Hirschberg portrays Cooper and discusses the day of the hijacking.

When: 10 a.m.-noon, 1-3 p.m. in the exhibit gallery

‘Parachuting from a 727’

Skydiver Gary Young of Skydive Kapowsin explains the intricacies of jumping from a 727 at night in the rain.

When: 11:30 a.m.-12:30 p.m. in the amphitheater

‘Cooper Fashion Experience’

JD Elquist, owner of Tacoma menswear store Feather and Oar, presents travel fashion from the early 1970s in an airliner-styled setting.

When: 1-2:30 p.m. in the mezzanine

‘Tom Kaye talk’

“Citizen Sleuths” investigator Tom Kaye talks about discoveries his team made when they examined Cooper evidence and tested theories.

When: 3-5 p.m. in the auditorium

For more information about Kaye’s work, go to www.thenewstribune.com for Q&A with Kaye.

Craig Sailor: 253-597-8541 craig.sailor@ thenewstribune.com

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