On the day before Thanksgiving, November 24, 1971, an appropriately well-dressed man who was around six feet tall and thought to be in his mid-40s bought a $20 airplane ticket for Northwest Orient Airlines Flight 305. The name he provided when he purchased the ticket was Dan Cooper, which would later prove to be an alias, and shortly before the aircraft took off, the nondescript man passed a flight attendant a note.

The note said in no uncertain terms that Cooper was carrying a bomb in his briefcase — a fact he was happy to substantiate by showing her its contents, which included red sticks, a battery, and a mess of wires. His demands were as simple as they were unusual: he wanted $200,000 in twenty-dollar bills (the equivalent of nearly $1.3 million in today’s money) and four parachutes. In order to meet his demands, the aircraft landed in Seattle, were Cooper allowed the 36 passengers on board the flight to disembark as other crew members brought his money and parachutes on board. He forced two pilots, a flight engineer, and one flight attendant to remain on the aircraft after it was refueled. He then gave the order to take off and head for Mexico City, adding the unusual demands that the pilot keep the aircraft under 10,000 feet and fly no faster than 200 knots.

Those unusual requests, the pilots surmised, were to make it safer for the hijacker to jump out of the plane, and at around 8:00 p.m., somewhere in the skies between Seattle and Reno, Nevada (likely in the vicinity of Ariel, Washington), Cooper lowered the rear stairwell and the pilots reported their ears popping as the cabin pressure shifted rapidly. Cooper, they realized, had opened the door and jumped out. No one would ever see the hijacker again.

The FBI dubbed the robbery “NORJAK,” or Northwest Hijacking, and for years they scoured more than 800 potential suspects. Early theories suggested that the hijacker had an intimate knowledge of aircraft and was likely a military veteran based on his comfort with a dangerous, low altitude jump into wooded terrain. Over time, that theory shifted, as the FBI became increasingly certain that the Hijacker, erroneously dubbed “D.B. Cooper” by the press, must have died in the fall. They eventually decided the man may not have been as experienced as they once thought, and instead jumped foolishly to his death.

None of the money paid to Cooper in the hijacking has resurfaced in circulation, though $5,800 of it was recovered in 1980 when a boy found it in a decaying package buried along the Columbia River around 20 miles north of Portland. That money was traced directly back to the hijacking, but no other evidence was uncovered to point toward the final disposition of the rest (or the hijacker).

Bills from the D.B. Cooper hijacking recovered in 1980. (WikieMedia Commons)

Less than six months later, Richard Floyd Mccoy, Jr. took his seat aboard United Airlines Flight 855, which was scheduled to fly from Newark, New Jersey to Los Angeles, California. Mccoy was a veteran of the U.S. Army twice over, serving his initial two-year stint in the early 1960s as a demolitions expert, earning a Purple Heart in 1964. He later would return to the Army, where he served this time as a pilot before getting out and joining the Utah National Guard as a Warrant Officer. During his down time, Mccoy was an avid skydiver with an interest in studying about law enforcement. Mccoy’s name was not on his ticket. He’d boarded under the alias, “James Johnson.”

About twenty minutes into the flight, Mccoy produced a hand grenade, a pistol, and a sealed envelope with “Hijack Instructions” written on the outside. The envelope was delivered to the pilot, who opened it to find two pages of typed instructions, a hand grenade pin, and a single bullet. The instructions directed the pilot to land at San Francisco International Airport and park at “Runway 19 left.” From there, Mccoy demanded $500,000 in cash and four parachutes be loaded on board.