America's only unsolved airline hijacking happened the day before Thanksgiving in 1971. A man boarded a flight to Seattle wearing a dark sports jacket, a clip-on tie and horn-rimmed sunglasses. He took a seat in row 18E, at the very back of the Boeing 727. Almost immediately, he ordered a drink and lit a cigarette.
As the plane began to take off, he passed a note to the flight attendant that read, "Miss, I have a bomb here. I want you to sit by me."
Geoffrey Gray recounts the events of the hijacking in his new book, Skyjack: The Hunt for D.B. Cooper. He tells Guy Raz, host of weekends on All Things Considered, that at first the flight attendant didn't believe the man. But then the man opened his briefcase, which contained red cylinders and wires.
"His demands were very specific. He wanted $200,000 in American currency," Gray says, "and four parachutes – two front parachutes and two back parachutes."
The plane landed in Seattle, and the hijacker's demands were met on the tarmac.
The passengers were let off, but the stewardess, a pilot, a copilot and a flight engineer remained on the plane with him. He ordered them to fly to Mexico City, which required them to refuel in Reno, Nev.
"Around midnight, the plane landed in Reno, the aft stairs dangling in the back, sparks flew, and FBI agents raided this plane," Gray says.
The hijacker, a parachute and all the money had vanished. Somewhere between Seattle and Reno, the man who became known as D.B. Cooper escaped.
Cooper had boarded the plane as Dan Cooper, but a discrepancy in a news account later referred to him as D.B. Cooper; the name stuck.
The manhunt for Cooper was one of the biggest in the nation's history, Gray says. He says one of the first goals was determining just where Cooper landed. The search area was remote land.
"There are no roads. There are no lights. It is just woods," Gray says.
Investigators were able to determine that the hijacker jumped from the plane at 10,000 feet between 8:12 p.m. and 8:17 p.m. The search zone was harder to pinpoint, however, given the speed of the plane and the width of the flight path.
People began to search for traces of Cooper — and not just the FBI, Gray says.
"It was treasure hunters, amateur sleuths, reporters — just people curious to see what they might be able to find," he says.
Gray's own hunt began with an unexpected phone call from a private investigator. As a crime writer, Gray regularly relies on private investigators as sources.
"I had no idea who D.B. Cooper was. I had never heard of this case," he says.
The investigator said an elderly man in Minnesota had contacted him about Cooper.
"This elderly man was just a kooky guy — he was an inventor, he was a retired post office worker," Gray says, "and he was convinced that his older brother was D.B. Cooper."
Gray later found that the brother "looked exactly like the hijacker," and his background fit a likely profile of Cooper.
"So his brother was an almost identical match – or as close to a match as you could find," Gray says, "and I took off and followed the trail from there."
He believed the case was all his to close, particularly after gaining access to confidential FBI files.
After following his leads, however, Gray discovered the older brother was not Cooper. Four years have passed since he started on the case.
"The fact that we don't know — the not knowing — continues to gnaw at me," Gray says.
The myth of Cooper lives on, he says, but the real story of the man is very different.
"I believe that the actual hijacker was somebody who was not a hero, who was a loser, who was a loner, who was depressed, who was after — in his last gasp trying to make something of his life — the ability to achieve one fine thing," he says.
Gray has tried to sort through the two narratives, putting the facts forward in his book.
He believes Cooper survived the jump. In the FBI files, he found that agents interviewed experts who said surviving the jump was possible.
"One of the things we now know about the case is that the hijacker likely landed a little bit farther south than what the Feds originally thought," he says, "and that area is not as harsh as the legend of D.B. Cooper portrays it to be."
GUY RAZ, host: It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz. And our book today is a story of America's only unsolved airline hijacking. Writer Geoffrey Gray recounts what happened in his new book "Skyjack: The Hunt for D.B. Cooper." The day before Thanksgiving in 1971, a man boarded Northwest Orient flight 305 from Portland to Seattle. He was wearing a dark sports jacket, a clip-on tie and horn-rimmed sunglasses, and he took a seat in row 18E at the very back of the Boeing 727.
And also immediately, he ordered a bourbon and water and lit a cigarette. Ah, the '70s. Anyway, as the plane was beginning to take off, he passed a note to the stewardess, and it read, "Miss, I have a bomb here. I want you to sit by me."
GEOFFREY GRAY: She thinks he's kidding. So he looks at her, no. He's very insistent. He's stern. His mood changes, and she can tell, and he opens up his briefcase. It's a leather attache case. And inside, she looks and she finds red cylinders, lots of wires, and he tells her it's a bomb, and it's real.
RAZ: Wow. So what did he want? What were his demands?
GRAY: He wanted $200,000 in American currency and four parachutes.
RAZ: OK. So he makes these demands. The plane actually does land in Seattle where it was supposed to land. What happens there?
GRAY: Well, in Seattle on the rainy tarmac, the demands are met. The passengers are all let off and the money and the parachutes are brought onboard directly to him.
RAZ: And who's left on the plane?
GRAY: It's just him and her, her being Tina Mucklow, the youngest stewardess on the crew. And inside the cockpit, there are a pilot, a co-pilot and a flight engineer who had never left the cabin all throughout the flight.
RAZ: Mm. He orders the plane to take off again, and where does it go?
GRAY: He wants the plane to go to Mexico City. And people thought, well, that's crazy. You know, under the way that he wanted the plane to fly, it was a tremendous drag, so it would have to refuel in Reno, Nevada. So around midnight, the plane landed in Reno, the aft stairs dangling in the back, sparks flew, and FBI agents raided this plane. And one of the things they found when they went into the mall of the cabin was that some things were missing. One of them was a parachute, all the money and him.
RAZ: And him. He was not on the plane when it landed in Reno to refuel. So somewhere between Seattle and Reno, Nevada that night, the man who became known as D. B. Cooper, this hijacker, escaped. And the presumption is he jumps out of the plane with the parachute and escapes, makes an escape. At that point, what does the FBI do?
GRAY: The manhunt began that morning, and it was an epic manhunt that followed, I mean, one of the biggest in the nation's history. And one of the first things they tried to do, in addition to figuring out who he was, was where he landed. Now, this area of terrain to search is some of the most remote, if not the most remote in this country. It is where Big Foot lives.
So they went about trying to pinpoint when the hijacker actually jumped, and they composed all different kinds of maps. And what they were able to determine after everything had been transcribed is that the hijacker jumped between the minutes of 8:12 and 8:17 p.m. For 1971, that's pretty good. To pinpoint five minutes, I think is, you know, pretty impressive.
The only problem is, is that if you're pinpointing a jump from a plane moving 200 miles an hour on a flight path that's 15 miles wide, where you're searching is hundreds of square miles long.
RAZ: And they literally sent hundreds of people to trample through the forest looking for this guy or any trace of him.
GRAY: It almost became a Thanksgiving ritual for people over the years. You know, let's go in the woods and see if we can find D. B. Cooper's money. And it wasn't only lawmen in the woods. It was treasure hunters, amateur sleuths, reporters, just people curious to see if buried treasure was out there or Cooper's body was hanging from a branch.
RAZ: I'm speaking with author Geoffrey Gray about his new book called "Skyjack." It's a story of the infamous hijacker D. B. Cooper. You - when you started working on this book, actually, the inspiration for you to go ahead and write this book was that you got a call from somebody who said, "Geoffrey, I know who D.B. Cooper was. I'm going to give you this information and you are going to solve this case." Who was that? What happened?
GRAY: Well, I had no idea who D.B. Cooper was. I had never heard of this case. You know, I'm a crime writer. I cover cops. I cover unsolved cases. And a lot of my sources are private investigators. In the summer of 2007, one of them, a guy by the name of Skipp Porteous, called me and said, "Hey, we've got to talk." And he told me the story about an elderly man in Minnesota who had contacted him.
And this elderly man was just a kooky guy. He was an inventor. He was a retired Post Office worker. And he was convinced that his older brother was D.B. Cooper. And he had good reason to be convinced because his older brother, what I later found, looked exactly like the hijacker. And I took off and followed the trail from there.
RAZ: And you thought, "I'm going to nail this thing."
GRAY: Big booty in this case. This is a huge case. To close the deal on D.B. Cooper is tantamount to finding the lost Dutchman mine in reporter land.
RAZ: This is the Holy Grail. This is the Holy Grail for crime reporters.
GRAY: It's better than that.
RAZ: Right. Except sadly, as a good reporter does, you did your work, and you followed your leads, and you discovered that in fact it wasn't him.
GRAY: Well, what I ran into was something called the Cooper Curse. And the Cooper Curse is something that affects all Cooper hunters the closer they get to unmasking the hijacker's identity. And it's hard not to get obsessed with it because we just don't know. There was somebody who boarded the plane that night. So the fact that we don't know, the not knowing, continues to gnaw at me.
RAZ: And it's amazing, you think about in this era of sort of terrorism investigations and the national security apparatus, that this is still the only unsolved case of a hijacking in U.S. history.
GRAY: In the world.
RAZ: In the world. Right. Nobody has any idea how it happened. And in a sense, it's like the perfect crime. Nobody was hurt. Everyone survived, maybe this guy did, and he almost heroically jumps out of a plane, gets away with the cash, and it's like a Robin Hood or a John Dillinger crime. It's this perfect crime.
GRAY: Right. You know, there is, though, a difference between the D.B. Cooper myth that we want to believe in, but there's also the real story of Dan Cooper. And what I was able to find is that it's a totally different story in my opinion. And I believe that the actual hijacker was somebody who was not a hero, who was loser, who was a loner, who was depressed, who was after, in his last gasp trying to make something of his life, the ability to achieve one fine thing.
RAZ: Geoffrey, over the years, bits and pieces of clues have been found, pieces of parachute, some of which may have been the one he used, some may not, bones, none of which were traced to this hijacker. But there was decomposed cash that was found just a couple years ago in that area. And that was the cash that was given to the hijacker because all the serial numbers were recorded. So parts of him or maybe Cooper himself landed. Do you think he survived? Do you think he actually made it?
GRAY: I do. One of the things I found in the FBI files was that FBI agents interviewed parachute experts directly after the hijacking who told them surviving that kind of jump, even in the trees, was possible. And one of the things we now know about the case is that the hijacker likely landed a little bit farther south than what the feds originally thought. And that area is not as harsh as the legend of D.B. Cooper portrays it to be. It's a little bit marshy. It's closer to the Columbia River. Not a bad place for a parachute jump.
RAZ: That's Geoffrey Gray. He's a contributing editor at New York magazine and the author of the new book "Skyjack: The Story of the Infamous Hijacker D.B. Cooper." Geoffrey Gray, thank you so much.
GRAY: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.