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.

The aircraft landed and the money and parachutes were brought on via stuffed flight bags. With the aircraft refueled and his demands met, the hijacker allowed the passengers and one flight attendant to disembark. He then issued a new set of instructions: The pilot was to take off and fly east, climb to an altitude of 16,000 feet and keep his speed under 200 miles per hour. He ordered that the cabin be depressurized, and he threatened that he’d detonate a hidden bomb if he spotted any pursuit planes. He demanded that the aircraft pass over some specific Utah communities, and as they passed over the last one, the crew received no more instructions. Eventually, a flight attendant went into the passenger compartment and confirmed: the hijacker had opened the rear stairs of the aircraft and jumped.

Left: Composite sketch of “Dan Cooper” created from witness testimony. Right: Richard Floyd Mccoy, Jr.

It wasn’t long after news of the hijacking hit the presses that the Salt Lake City FBI field office received a tip about a a member of the Utah Air National Guard and a Police Science Major at Brigham Young University that was an Army pilot and experienced skydiver. The man, identified as Richard Floyd Mccoy, Jr., had bragged about knowing the “fool proof” way to conduct sky jackings to local acquaintances. He also was said to be going through financial problems.

After interviewing Mccoy, matching his fingerprints to a single print found on the plane, and comparing his handwriting to that of the skyjacker’s, police executed a search warrant on his house, where they found $499,970 in U.S. currency, a typewriter that wrote in the same style as the hijacking instructions, and skydiving equipment.

The similarities between the NORJAK case and Mccoy’s hijacking are striking to say the least. Both hijackings were carried out by a single white male that used the threat of explosives to force the plane to land. Both hijackers demanded hundreds of thousands of dollars and four parachutes before allowing the passengers to get off the plane. Both hijackers gave very specific instructions to the pilots of the aircraft, and most notably, both hijackers used the respective plane’s rear stairs to jump out over rural areas. However, Mccoy’s story wasn’t over quite yet. Two years after being convicted of the skyjacking, Mccoy and three others managed to escape from prison.

(Courtesy of the FBI)

The New York Times reported on August 11, 1974:

LEWISBURG, Pa., Aug, 10 (UPI)—Four inmates, including a former Mormon Sunday school teacher involved in a bizarre hijacking in 1972, commandeered a garbage truck today and broke out of the Federal penitentiary here, the state police said.

Mr. McCoy was serving 45 years for the April 7, 1972, hijacking of a United Airlines flight from Chicago to Los Angeles. He obtained $500,000 in ransom and later bailed out near Provo, Utah.

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It’s worth noting that Mccoy was identified in the piece as a Green Beret but is otherwise referred to as an explosives expert prior to becoming a pilot. It remains unclear if Mccoy ever actually served in Army Special Forces. Other reports indicate that he claimed to have been a Green Beret, while still others call him a “retired master sergeant,” which seems unlikely based on his time in service to that point.

Mccoy was ultimately found three months later, hiding out in Virginia Beach, Florida. A shootout broke out during the FBI’s attempt to bring Mccoy into custody, and Mccoy was killed in the firefight.

FBI agents Russell Calame and federal probation officer Bernie Rhodes were so convinced that Mccoy and “D.B. Cooper” were the same man that they wrote a book entitled “D.B. Cooper: The Real McCoy,” which was published in 1991, outlining the similarities between the two hijackings and notably implicating Mccoy’s wife, Karen Mccoy, in the confirmed 1972 hijacking. Karen Mccoy attempted to stop the sale of the book through a lawsuit and failed, and eventually even admitted to her hand in the 1972 case.

As for whether or not Mccoy really was D.B. Cooper — it seems the world may never know for sure. The FBI has since closed their case regarding the hijacking, and Richard Floyd Mccoy, Jr. certainly won’t be making any confessions from the grave.


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